Czechs are the feel-good story the world juniors desperately needs

·3 min read

For the better part of the opening weekend, the world juniors resembled 2020 in a broader sense: bleak and uninspiring. Canada’s opening wins alternated between uncomfortable and complacent, while captain Kirby Dach was injured before the tournament even began. Germany — whose roster was still depleted and worn out during its first two games, including the 16-2 drubbing from Canada — and Sweden both faced multiple COVID-19 cases, calling into question whether this year’s event should have even taken place.

In spite of the unusual volume of high-end players available, this tournament was largely devoid of joy, and its very existence during a global pandemic is an often uncomfortable reminder that these are teenagers playing for free, when for all intents and purposes — safety primarily — they shouldn’t be playing at all.

Enter Lukas Parik and the sweet, sweet boys from Czech Republic.

Lukas Parik and the Czech Republic are the feel-good story of the world juniors. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
Lukas Parik and the Czech Republic are the feel-good story of the world juniors. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Parik was brilliant for the Czech Republic on Sunday, recording 30 saves in a 2-0 upset of Russia. He even commemorated his shutout with an all-time celebration. How can you not be thrilled for these kids?

Selected 87th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2019, Parik isn’t completely anonymous, but in a recent organizational rankings conducted by The Athletic, he didn’t even fare as one of the franchise’s top 15 prospects. Fellow world junior netminders Spencer Knight (USA) and Yaroslav Askarov (Russia) are significantly better prospects with real chances of graduating and making a far larger impact at the professional level, but if you wanted a blog about Parik’s pro prospects, I would happily defer to those who scout junior and European hockey round-the-clock.

To fixate entirely on Parik and his teammates’ NHL potential is a futile exercise. Scouts, journalists, and junior hockey aficionados alike have reached the near-consensus opinion that it’s impossible to provide a professional-grade evaluation in the absence of in-person scouting, while basing your evaluation of a player solely off a short sample the tournament provides is a fool’s errand.

Parik and the 2021 Czech Republic entry may be forgotten all too soon, and at the risk of glorifying amateurism while overlooking its more insidious concepts (namely, playing for free in a pandemic), their unbridled enthusiasm and joy is a needed respite during this hell year.

Canada and its star-studded lineup could very well continue to waltz through this tournament while winning gold for the second consecutive year, and several players will undoubtedly become household names within the next two to three years. Russia’s loss on Sunday will likely serve as a footnote for first-round picks Askarov, Rodion Amirov and Vasili Podkolzin, as they eventually set their sights on the NHL. It’s entirely possible that moment on Sunday is the most visibility that Parik and his teammates ever get, but if so, so what?

Say what you will about the value of playing the national anthem before a random Senators-Rangers game on a Tuesday night, listening to these kids belt the anthem out, unimpeded by spectators, broke the cynicism of this particular sports editor — and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Try telling the Czech Republic teens that this tournament doesn’t matter, that it’s an exercise in futility, that their opponents will likely go onto lengthy pro careers. Sing your hearts out, boys! We all need some joy in our lives, and if only for 15 minutes, Parik and the Czech Republic under-20 team are the feel good story this tournament desperately needed.

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