When the Czech Ice Hockey Association announced their national team roster for the 2012 IIHF (International Ice Hockey Association) Under 18 Women’s World Championships on Dec. 21, a familiar name was included.
Former Gastineau Elementary and Dzantik’I Heeni student Lenka Craigova, now 17, will be between the pipes for her third World Championships as a member of the Czech team. Twenty skaters and two goaltenders made the Czech cut.
“All I know is that I was picked and that I am really flattered,” Craigova said via phone from the Czech Republic. “This year was probably the hardest team to make. All of the four goalies that were nominated for the team, any two could have taken the two spots and it would have been effective, it was the closest competition.”
Craigova has duel citizenship. She was born in the Czech Republic to Jim Craig, a player for HC Slavia Prague, and Alena Craigova. They moved her to the United States at age two and to Alaska at age seven.
Lenka attended Gastineau and DZ before deciding to pursue a desire fueled by a prior meeting with Glen Chico Resch, a former NHL and Canadian national team hockey player and current NHL New Jersey Devils’ broadcaster and the best man at Jim Craig’s wedding.
Lenka was 13 and sitting with her father at a New Jersey game, her first pro ice experience. The Devils’ Martin Brodeur recorded his 116th career shutout just two rows in front of them on the ice.
Lenka proclaimed, “I want to play for the Czech National Team.”
Resch told her to slow down, that she was setting her self up for failure, and not to confuse desires with goals.
“I think if you want to improve, you set goals,” Lenka said thinking back to that time. “There is a difference between a goal and a desire. Playing on the Czech national team was a desire, because desires are things you want but you can’t control. A goal though is something you do to improve or that is in your control. I think it is important to set minor goals in order to know what to improve on to reach my desires.”
So far she has reached two world championships and the third is set to begin this Dec. 31 through Jan. 7, 2012 in Zlin, Czech Republic. She also played for the Czech’s at the Chicago 2010 Worlds and the Stockholm 2011 Worlds. This is her final year as an U18 player.
“She’s pretty philosophical,” Jim Craig said. “She tends to think through things too much. This year and next year are key years for her. Ideally she can move up to the senior team but every day is like a bar fight.”
International hockey is unpredictable, and nothing is sugar coated. The Czech National Team took three goalies to a tournament in Austria prior to the Chicago Worlds. On the bus ride back, the coaches announced that 18 players and two goalies would be traveling to Chicago, the rest were told to remove their equipment from their bags. Then they handed the players who were not going to Chicago, a pair of scissors to cut their names from their jerseys.
“Some of the sacrifices she has made amaze me,” Jim Craig said. “Like, she never had her first day of high school. We don’t get to see her that much. The last time was in Slovakia in July. Her adolescence has transpired in an untraditional way.”
Lenka Craigova began playing hockey with the Juneau Douglas Ice Association as a PeeWee. She earned a bronze medal at the 2008 Arctic Winter Games as a member of Team Alaska’s Bantam Boy’s team.
The season of 2007-08 was her last with the JDIA as she transferred her ice hockey registration card to be a Czech player.
Lenka went to play and live in Kladno, Czech Republic at age 14. The transfer meant she couldn’t play in international competition for anyone but the Czechs.
“It was really tough,” Lenka said. “I can’t say it was easy at all. The moving, the getting used to the language and the culture, it all hit me, it was like an avalanche. It was like boot camp. I am tougher and stronger for it but it sucked. Every once in a while it would be one of those days that things weren’t going right, and I was frustrated with my hockey or language communication.”
Her first tryout for the Czech U18 team was in August 2009 and she played her first game in September. In Feb. 2010 she played her first games with the Czech Senior National Team in Austria, a day after turning 16. In April 2010 she played in her first Worlds in Chicago. In Sept. of 2010 she played in Lawrencevile, New Jersey for a midget boy’s team while attending the Lawrenceville School.
In Dec. of 2010 the opportunity to play at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, New York came and Lenka transferred after the U18 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden. She started at the NSA when she returned from Sweden last January, a month before her 17th birthday.
Lenka trained and played for the HC Slavia Prague women’s team last summer (Jim Craig had played for the men’s team) but is not carded to them, she was just on loan.
In July of 2011 Lenka was selected to attend the International Hockey Federation’s Elite Development Camp last summer in Bratislava Slovakia. She was one of eight U18 Czech players named. Only the top eight players from the top 12 countries were selected. Many had played in Olympic games.
Currently, her hockey rights belong to HC Kladno and she plays for the NSA on a limited international transfer and is one of two imports at NSA. She is currently in her second year at the NSA and is a high school junior earning high academic honors.
“After that first season, when I returned home, I realized I can’t not go back,” Lenka said. “ This was a huge opportunity that I couldn’t pass it up. I went with it, I couldn’t not live with not trying. the rest of my life I would be wondering if I could have done. It.”
The Czech’s are currently ranked 4th in the world after a successful weekend at the Four-Nations Cup in Füssen, Germany in mid Dec. where Lenka recorded a shut-out in the team’s final 11-0 win over Slovakia.
Lenka is now at the Worlds with the team, preparing for play against Sweden on New Years Eve, Russia on Jan. 1 and Team USA on Jan. 3.
They will scrimmage against Finland before the championships. They lost to Finland 3-1 in the bronze medal game last year and took fourth.
“I backed up that game,” Lenka said. “This years team is stronger, so I am really interested to see how we compare. The players that are eligible this year are younger players. We all know each other pretty well, we are all friends and the team comes together really quickly. I think they are looking for me and my partner for leadership, we know how it all works, we won’ be distracted or overwhelmed first and even back up players prepare as they are going to play. Lenka’s goalie partner is Veronika Hladikova.
“Once you get to this level you drop the competing for your spot perspective and have to help the team,” Lenka said. “If she is starting I do whatever I can to help her prepare, as a backup you have just as much responsibility. Being a team supporter is still a key player, whether either of us is backing up we help each other.”
Lenka is on the Czech Olympic Development Team, one of a handful of players chosen for potential play in the 2014 Olympic games. This is her final year at U18’s and she will be playing in the Czech Senior Nationals next.
“It was hard to leave friends,” Lenka said of her hockey life choice. “I was young. I hadn’t even been in high school yet. I had never done something that required so much responsibility. But I have gotten to do something cool, live in a foreign country and have this opportunity. I just miss my home mostly. I especially miss my cat, I miss being in my house. It seems like I am always on the road staying in unfamiliar places. I miss the last time I played spring pond hockey at Treadwell. I miss bicycling with my dad. I used to snow board but it is too dangerous now, I might get injured.”
Lenka Craigova stated she has adjusted her life. She has discovered Czech ice cream. She has found that, even though high school at Lake Placid is filled with only athletes it still has the drama she needed. She has found that driving from country to country to play is as easy as driving from state to state in the US.
“What I found most interesting about international play is that even the top players around the world are just like normal people,” Lenka said. “They forget stuff, they get sick, and they get hurt. These things happen, people aren’t’ perfect. We all break a skate lace. The cool thing is it was so much more normal than I expected it to be.”
In between the goals and the desires Lenka has time to reflect on a favorite play.
“It was last week in the Four Nations Tourney in Germany,” Lenka said. “I had this one great save in the third period. We were leading 3-2 but the Germans caught up to us.”
Lenka said she was at the right side of the net. The German girl shot and Lenka kick saved it to the middle and the net was wide open. Another German girl had an easy slap shot and let loose a wicked curving puck. Lenka dove and caught the shot in mid air.
“My coach said it was a good save,” Lenka said. “But he said I never should have let myself get out of position.”