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Slovakia still haunted by heartbreaking loss in 2010 bronze-medal hockey game

Updated: February 15, 2014 7:16PM

SOCHI, Russia — Sitting around the locker room four years ago at the Vancouver Olympics, leading 3-1 against Finland and a mere 20 minutes from an improbable bronze medal, the members of Slovakia’s men’s hockey team kept telling each other the same thing before heading back out to the rink.

‘‘Don’t go to the box,’’ Michal Handzus recalled. ‘‘That’s what we kept saying.’’

Then came the whistles. Martin Cibak for holding. Andrej Meszaros for high-sticking 34 seconds later. Marian Hossa for tripping four minutes after that.

Finland sandwiched two power-play goals around one even-strength goal, the wheels fell off and Slovakia lost 5-3. It lost the bronze medal.

The players thought it was stolen.

‘‘After the second period, everything was great,’’ Hossa said. ‘‘Then going into the third, there were so many calls. You can judge now if they were right calls or wrong calls, but it’s already done. You have to move on.’’

Slovakia has moved on. Mostly. But Handzus still winces at the mention of it. Hossa stiffens a bit. The wound is healing, but it still festers when it’s picked at.

‘‘When somebody asks you about that last period, it’s a little bit bitter,’’ Hossa said.

To a North American hockey fan, it might not seem like such a big deal. A bronze medal would be something of a disappointment for Canada or the United States. Or for Russia or Sweden, for that matter. But Slovakia — sort of the little brother of the Czech Republic since former hockey superpower Czechoslovakia peacefully split up in 1993 — is a small country of about 5 million people. And it’s hockey-obsessed.

‘‘It would be huge,’’ Handzus said. ‘‘It would mean everything.’’

‘‘It would be amazing,’’ Hossa said. ‘‘And you were so close.’’

The task now is no longer to move on from the bad memory but to replace it with a good one. It won’t be easy. Slovakia opens against the United States on Thursday, and Russia also is in its preliminary-round pool.

That’s what makes 2010 so tough — how rare an opportunity it was for a country of Slovakia’s size and talent pool (only 12 of its players in Sochi are in the NHL) even to reach the medal round. It beat Sweden in the quarterfinals and got big performances from its biggest players. The late Pavol Demitra led the Olympics with 10 points in seven games. Hossa was second with nine. Handzus was tied for 10th with six.

And it’s a different team this year. Twelve players are back, but Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky are home with injuries. And it’s the loss of Demitra that is obviously felt the deepest. The popular star was killed on Sept. 7, 2011, when the plane carrying his Kontinental Hockey League team crashed in Russia. Slovakia dedicated its silver-medal performance in the 2012 world championships to Demitra, but his absence is still very much felt.

‘‘Always on national teams, we were playing together,’’ Hossa said. ‘‘So it’s definitely hard not having him here as a friend and also as a teammate. We’re going to miss him because he was not just a great person but a leader and a great centerman.’’

But Slovakia coach Vladimir Vujtek said the team has to move on from the grief stage.

‘‘That [2012 silver] was his medal, as well,’’ Vujtek said. ‘‘We recall him now, as well, but time does heal old wounds.’’

It softens old memories, too, helping them fade into the recesses of players’ minds. But while the mere mention of the 2010 bronze-medal game no longer paralyzes Slovakia’s players with fear and regret, the disappointment and frustration will be there. Always.

‘‘I thought we played really well after [Finland took the lead],’’ Handzus said. ‘‘We had no regrets after the game. But it still hurts. And it probably will for the rest of our lives.’’


Twitter: @marklazerus

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