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Czechia sheds underdog mindset entering women’s worlds

Czechia Carla MacLeod - The Canadian Press

When Carla MacLeod watched Czechia play at the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship, one word came to mind: poetic.

She had a front-row seat to the Czechs as a TSN broadcaster for the Group B games in Calgary. A former coach for Japan’s national women’s team, MacLeod made an offhand comment to a friend that if she had the chance to return to the international game, she’d want to coach Czechia.

Almost three years later, MacLeod has led the Czech national team to unprecedented back-to-back bronze medals at the world championship.

“It's been a hectic two years,” MacLeod told TSN. “But it's been a treat to work with them from the start… You could see that there was this group that was ready to take that next step. I think I was really fortunate to have the timing be what it was for me and our staff to step in.”

MacLeod, a former blueliner for Canada’s national team, took over as head coach for Czechia after the 2022 Beijing Games, where the team finished seventh in its first Olympic appearance. She’s preparing for her third world championship as Czechia’s bench boss when the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship gets underway Wednesday in Utica, N.Y.

Czechia is currently the fifth-ranked country in the world and will play in Group A with Canada, the U.S., Finland and Switzerland.

After Czechia claimed bronze in 2022 and 2023 – the country’s first medals at the women’s worlds – MacLeod said the group is entering this tournament with a new mindset.

“Gone are the days that we can be this underdog story,” she said. “When we play in games now against anyone, they want to beat us… Now, it's how do we rise in this new moment of being bronze-medal winners? And then obviously, closing that gap to Canada and the U.S. to make sure that they feel us coming their way as well.”

Changing the players’ mentality has been one of MacLeod’s main undertakings. Czechia had all the pieces to succeed on the international stage. In the quarter-finals of the 2022 Olympics, they were tied 1-1 with the U.S. after two periods before the Americans were able to pull away.

MacLeod was familiar with her predecessor, Tomas Pacina, who coached Czechia for two years prior to MacLeod taking over. Pacina had previously coached MacLeod when she played for the Calgary Oval X-Treme in the Western Women’s Hockey League.

“I knew his philosophy on the game and his desire to own the puck and be a puck-possession team. And that's what they were exhibiting,” she said. “You could see – they were right there.”

MacLeod and her staff didn’t attempt to implement sweeping changes when they took over. Instead, they tried to infuse themselves into what was already working for Czechia.

“Just help tweak some of those pieces of the game that we thought could help get us over that peak of – we never finished better than sixth. So, trying to help to understand – how do you get to that top echelon? How do you get onto the podium?” MacLeod said.

The turning point for MacLeod and her new team came just before the 2022 world championship in Denmark. In a tune-up game, Czechia lost 2-1 to Germany. MacLeod sensed there was still a lack of belief within the group that they could compete for a medal.

“The biggest thing when you're trying to do something that you haven't done before is you have to try to do something new. You can't always just keep doing what you've been doing and expect a different result. We know what the definition of that is, right?” she said.

MacLeod challenged the group to look inward for answers.

“I think that was maybe our most pivotal moment, because we said, ‘If we're going to keep doing what we've always done, we will happily finish sixth or seventh. We're very good at that,’” MacLeod said. “But if we want to do something unique, we have to decide if we're going to do this together and if we're all in on it.”

Czech players felt that MacLeod gave them the freedom to play instead of being restricted by a rigid system, and with that liberty came a newfound belief.

“She brought confidence to the team. She always says that we have to just play, just enjoy the game,” Czech captain Aneta Tejralová told TSN. “We don't have to play like robots…. just trust ourselves that we can beat everyone.”

MacLeod has amassed an extensive coaching resume since retiring from playing in 2010. Along with her previous experience on the international stage as part of Japan’s staff from 2012 to 2014, she has also stood behind the bench at the University of Calgary. This season, she’s pulling double duty with Czechia and as head coach of PWHL Ottawa.

With over a decade of experience under her belt, MacLeod has seen her own coaching philosophy change as she matured in the position. In her early coaching days, MacLeod felt she had to prove that she belonged in the role. But just as the Czech players experienced a mindset shift, MacLeod has come to a realization.

“As I've settled into this role, I've actually learned that it's not about me, and it's really about the group that I'm working with and just trying to help them be the best they can be,” she said. “When we're teaching the game, if we've made some mistakes, we're not yelling and screaming. At the end of the day, I've already made those mistakes as a player, and I've had good coaches help me through that.”

MacLeod recalls a conversation she had in 2019 with Mark Johnson, her coach at the University of Wisconsin, that has helped shape her as a mentor.

“He just reminded me that the group will always be a direct reflection of me. So, what do you want to see?” she said. “Learning to embrace those moments, I think, has allowed me to enjoy the job. And I think if I'm enjoying the job, typically at the end of the day, people around me are also enjoying their job.”

That zeal has trickled down to her players in both league play and the international game.

“She always brings a lot of energy, a lot of positive vibes to the team,’ said Tejralová, who also plays under MacLeod at PWHL Ottawa.

Tejralová is one of three Czech players currently with Ottawa, along with Kateřina Mrázová and newly acquired Tereza Vanišová. Dominika Lásková plays with Montreal’s PWHL team, while Denisa Křížová features for Minnesota.       

MacLeod has witnessed firsthand how the new professional North American league has elevated these players.

“From a Czech perspective, I can see the speed difference already in our players,” she said. “I can see the capacity to absorb that pressure and not worry.”

MacLeod said there was some hesitancy from the Czech players when the league launched in January, which is largely dominated by Canadian and American talent. But there has been a noticeable shift since around the midway point of the season.

“They’re now impacting on their teams… As the Czech national team coach, you sit there and you smile,” she said. “You're not just some of the best players in Czechia. You're not just some of the best players in Europe. You're actually some of the best players in the world.”

Expectations have never been higher for Czechia going into next month’s world championship. MacLeod recognizes that her team is still learning to play against powerhouses Canada and the United States and close that gap.

But as much as MacLeod’s positivity has affected her players, the reverse is also true. As seen in their choice of goal song in 2022, Bzum Bzum Brekekeke, there is a purity in the Czech players’ joy in winning.  

“In North America, you have to win, or it's bust. And for us, the energy of winning was new and exciting. It just felt so authentic and elevated us as a staff to get behind their energy,” MacLeod said.

“They're an incredible group of women. The heavy lifting that they've done to grow the game in their country is not unlike what the women before my generation truly had to do in Canada to get the sport to a high level… To coach them has been nothing short of a privilege.”