Czech mate

Juneau resident Lenka Craigová shoots for 2014 Olympics as Czech team's game-changer in goal

Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 2010

As a 16-year-old living in Juneau, Lenka Craigová could already look back on her hockey career and call it a success. But that's not her personality, nor has she accomplished her ultimate goal.

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Photo Courtesy Of The Czech National Team
Photo Courtesy Of The Czech National Team

Few athletes can even think about setting their sites toward the ultimate stage of the Winter Olympics, but that's exactly what Craigová has done. And she would be the first to tell you there is much more ahead between now and the 2014 Winter Games, and she's already taken the first steps toward that goal.

From March 27-April 3, Craigová tended goal for the Czech U18 Women's Ice Hockey team in the International Ice Hockey Federation U18 Women's World Championship in Chicago, where she competed against the likes of the United States and Canada, the powerhouses of women's hockey.

For the young goalie from Juneau, the chance to play in the championships was a reality almost too good to be true.

"I had a lot of daydreams about what it would be like," Craigová said. "Just hearing the national anthem before games - I never imagined I'd be doing it.

"Finally, I was there. It was pretty dramatic."

As Craigová said, the championship tournament was like the period at the end of the sentence - only one that began four years ago. But you have to go back further than that to see the real starting point.

Embracing the ice

Born in Litomysl, Czech Republic, Craigová moved with her parents, Jim Craig and Alena Craigová, to Juneau as a young child and became a dual-citizen. Craig, her father, was a goalie trainer and coach for the Czech Women's National Team. But while one might be quick to attribute Lenka's interest in playing goalie to her father's familiarity with the position, Craigová said that wasn't the case at all.

"He never even pushed me into hockey," she said. "I didn't even really know his past history."

Playing in the Juneau-Douglas Ice Association, Craigová started her career as a goalie, a position she immediately embraced.

"To be honest, I started playing goalie because we didn't have one, and I thought it would be an opportunity to rise above because I wasn't one of the better players," she said. "Then I stuck with it and did really well, and that success drove me."

From there, Craigová excelled on the ice. In just her second year, she made Team Alaska for the Arctic Winter Games as an alternate and ended up being the backup goalie. After the first-string goalie struggled in net, Craigová took over and promptly shut the opposing team out. Her play practically forced the coach to start her in the bronze medal game, which she dominated.

"That's when things really started going well," she said.

Craigová's hockey career then began to take off. And when she had the opportunity to play in her home country, she jumped at the chance.

Prior to the AWG, Craigová spent her summer of 2007 training in the Czech Republic with one of her father's former pupils, Hana Cisarova, the goalie for the women's national team.

"(Cisarova) was working a lot with me because I was the only female there, and we connected," Craigová said. "She said I had a lot of potential and that I was almost at the point where I could play for the Czech National Team. I decided I wanted to do this."

After the AWG, Craigová thought she would go back to the Czech Republic in the summer of 2008. But this time, she would stay there for the better part of two years, taking correspondence classes through Juneau-Douglas toward her high school diploma.

Gender barriers and the national team

She began playing overseas for famed Hockey Club Kladno as a goalie for the boys' team in the Czech Republic, something very uncommon.

"When I came over, I didn't realize there was no Title IX," she said. "It seemed like a normal thing until I found out I was the only female in the top division playing on a boys' team."

Craigová said it was uncomfortable at times, especially in a country that doesn't afford women the same opportunity to play sports as men.

"My (male) teammates were not open to it. I was the first female they'd ever played with," she said. "They didn't know how to treat me or how to play with me, but later in the year my coach came to me and said the players really looked up to me for being brave."

While her team eventually showed her respect and included her as one of their own, other teams - and even the parents of players on her own team - found the sight of a girl on a boys' hockey team amusing.

"It didn't seem like a big thing to me, but being the female playing with the boys, there were a lot of people making fun of me," Craigová said. "Parents of the players on my own team made fun of me. It was kind of harsh.

"I wasn't welcomed when I went to competing teams. They'd laugh because there was a girl on the team," she continued. "But I think it was kind of a breakthrough because later in the year, more girls were playing on the boys' team."

Craigová stayed with a host family while living in the Czech Republic, and it just so happened that Jana Fialová, a member of the Women's National Team, was a member of that family.

"I was playing a lot of games and a lot of practices, but my focus was to make the national team," she said. "(Fialová) was kind of a role model for me. When she went to camp, I'd go and watch. And throughout the year, I'd go watch the national team play. It was my dream, but I was never sure I'd make it."

In August of 2009, Craigová finally had her chance.

"I was working really hard and I went to the national team camp, the big one," she said. "I made the cut as one of the two goalies who would go to Germany (to play) the next month. So, the first step was good."

She had gotten her foot in the door, but Craigová knew how much work still needed to be done. She began to eat, sleep and breathe hockey.

"It was a lifestyle. Everything I did was in preparation for playing - what I ate, when I slept - it was really intense and there was a lot of pressure," she said. "But that also made it fun because it was so competitive."

Then came the moment she had been waiting for.

"They named the team, but I actually wasn't named to it. I was really upset," she said. "I didn't know what to do, so I called the manager and director of the team."

The phone call had a different result than she had planned as she found out she had actually made the team. And she wouldn't be there as an alternate, or even a backup.

Craigová was the starting goalie for the U18 Czech Women's National Team.

It got even better from there. In February, the senior women's national team named Craigová as first alternate in goal.

"I didn't expect it at all," she said. "With the Olympics going on, it was just a preparation tournament."

After one of the team's goalies suffered an injury, Craigová was called up by the national team and got the chance to travel and even play against the French Senior National Team. While this was a great accomplishment, Craigová still had her sights set on the upcoming U18 World Championships in Chicago.

New-found fame

Upon arriving in the United States, the team received overwhelming support from the massive Czech contingent living in Chicago. The team was the center of attention, and the players turned into local superstars.

"For our games, there were a lot of Czechs. We had autograph signings with all these Czech fans after an exhibition game against Robert Morris," Craigová said. "We had pictures taken and everything, and it was my first autograph.

"It was awkward at first, but then later on I was doing it a lot more and experimenting with different ways to write my name," she continued. "I guess famous people must practice theirs."

The young Czech Republic team played well during the championships, but Craigová said the United States and Canada are the favorites year after year, and there's really not much anyone - or any team - can do about it.

"It's pessimistic to say, but going into the U18s, every European country goes into it fighting for the bronze," she said. "With the U.S. and Canada, they're going to be first and second (place).

"I went a little overboard sometimes, like, 'What if we beat the United States?'" she continued. "It would be so much fun."

As for whether or not she ever wanted to play for the United States, Craigová said she wasn't interested.

"I think it's more fun to be the underdog," she said with a widening grin.

Now her sights are set ahead on the 2014 Olympics as she is a member of the Olympic development team in the Czech Republic. She will take a year off from school in 2013 to train for the winter games but in the near future, she will be attending Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey, to prepare her for the Division I college level. While hockey is her current pursuit, she knows there is more to life.

"Hockey is not everything. It's a lifestyle and all, but I'm really into school and that's why I'm going to a good one," she said. "I like to be well balanced."

As a 16-year-old with an already crystal-clear perspective on life, the future is as bright as Craigová wants it to be.

As for her perspective from in front of the goal, just ask the opposition about the clarity of her vision.

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