BRATISLAVA — That’s what Slovakia’s leading sports daily blared this morning: “Attack for a medal!” It’s the rally cry for their Cinderella of a hockey team: snag a medal, any medal.
To conquer its semi-final foe tonight, the behemoth Canada, on its own ice, in front of 19,000 rabid fans, may be too much to ask of Slovakia. Sure, hockey is the national sport for this Central European nation of five million; we see Slovak tykes as young as three in full hockey gear, carving up the rinks.
Sure, the national hockey team won the world championship in 2002, and consistently ranks among the top ten in the world. However, in the four previous Olympics since Slovakia gained independence from the ex-Czechoslovakia in 1993, its hockey team finished no higher than fifth.
That’s why Wednesday’s stunning victory over defending-champion Sweden was so significant: the 4-3 nail-biter guaranteed Slovakia its best-ever finish.
Indeed, my wife wondered why there was no traffic early yesterday morning: a Slovak colleague later explained that most everyone was home, watching Slovakia withstand the final, frenetic minutes of the Swedish team.
Thanks to the nine-hour time difference with Vancouver, the epic semi-final today begins here at 3:45 in the morning. Could there be a worse time for a television event? Slovaks country-wide will be thrust into a quandary: stay up late, or get up early?
The pubs downtown, I hear, will stay open to broadcast the game. I’m tempted to join them, in hopes of reliving one of my best street experiences ever: the 2000 World Series, when New York battled New York, bars showed the games close enough to the street that thousands, like us, filled the sidewalks. On this occasion, though, I prefer to wake up my sons to watch the big match at home.
Slovakia actually has two cracks at a medal: there’s also the bronze-medal game Sunday. Even if the Slovaks fall to Canada, I can’t lose. If Canada plays the United States in the final, we get the rarity of a North American grudge-match. (With most of the world, unusually, rooting for a favorite: Canada.)
But if Canada takes on Finland for gold, that means I get Slovakia versus America, battling for bronze. I’m so heavily invested at this point, I’d cheer for Slovakia. (See Feb. 19 post, “The Thrill of Victory”) Slovakia just may be The Little Engine That Could. Call me a traitor, but I love a good story.
[March 1 Postscript: Turns out, I did lose. Not only did Slovakia muff both chances for a medal – albeit by a whisker – but the U.S. team was denied the gold. At least I’ll get to cheer on both in the World Cup this June.]