International Ice Hockey Federation

Birner’s passion grows stronger

Birner’s passion grows stronger

Late bloomer wants complete resume

Published 03.02.2018 05:46 GMT+10 | Author Andrew Podnieks
Birner’s passion grows stronger
Czech forward Michal Birner celebrates a goal during the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and looks forward to his Olympic debut. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Michal Birner of the Czech Republic has done it all. Almost.

U18 World Championship? Check (2004). World Juniors? Check (2006). World Championship? Check (2016, 2017). World Cup of Hockey? Yep (2016).

Olympics? No! (not yet)

“I’m happy with the career I’ve had,” Birner said, “but playing in the Olympics would be great! Then I could say I had played in every big tournament, so hopefully I will do that.”

He’s just a few days away. He has played in the last three major international tournaments for the Czechs—the 2016 and 2017 World Championship, and, in between, the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto in September 2016. And he earned a spot on the roster for PyeongChang 2018.

In some ways his participation in these events was surprising. He had a fine junior career, and was drafted by St. Louis in 2004 after having moved to the OHL in Canada to show his skills. But close as he came, he never skated in the NHL and ended up in the AHL and then moving around Europe, seemingly a mid-level talent, and nothing more.

But his story didn’t end there. “I had a bunch of injuries early in my career, and it was a huge disappointment I wasn’t able to make it to the NHL,” he conceded. “Maybe I wasn’t giving 100 per cent to hockey, but when I turned 25, I realized I had to change my attitude, to be more professional, and take better care of myself. All of a sudden, it started paying off. Hopefully I still have a lot of years ahead of me.”

Indeed, Birner’s play in 2016 at the Worlds in Moscow drew interest from North America. “There was a chance after 2016 when I had a good World Championship,” he said of a possible second chance at the NHL. “My agent had some talks with some NHL clubs, but it didn’t work out. I think now I’m at the stage of my career where it would be really tough. I’m comfortable with where I am and the role I have. Of course, the NHL was my childhood dream, but not every dream comes true.”

Birner’s Olympic dreams are very much alive, and just thinking about the possibility of playing takes him back to a childhood memory which he shares with every Czech citizen who was around 20 years ago.

“For the whole Czech nation the Nagano Olympics in 1998 was the biggest upset in hockey history,” he recounted. “No one was thinking the Czech team had a chance for a medal, and we won gold. The whole country stood up for that team. I remember that the games were early in the morning, so I watched with my family or if it was a school day they’d stop classes and the whole school would watch. It was amazing.”

Birner feels good about his play this season, another sign for optimism in his quest for completing participation in all top events. “I didn’t do anything different in the summer,” he explained, “but I’m feeling a lot better now than I was last year. It was difficult with the World Cup last year, a lot of flying back and forth. It took a while to get going, and it wasn’t until after Christmas that I felt good. This year, I felt good right from the start.”

The Czechs had their greatest days around that Olympic win, also taking gold at the Worlds three years in a row (1999-2001) and U20 gold in 2000 and 2001. Recently, the senior team has been in the worst slump in its long history. It hasn’t won a medal since 2012 (bronze), and the current fire-year drought is the longest ever for the great hockey nation.

The Karjala Tournament in November offered some hope, but Birner’s optimism is tempered by experience. “We had a good game against Sweden, but unfortunately we lost. I thought it was our best game. We were skating really well and we were the better team for at least half. Against Switzerland, it’s always a tough game because they play a North American style with a lot of battling, chipping a lot of pucks. We found a way to win. We were really bad against Russia. We lost every battle and they definitely deserved to win.”

As for his own play, Birner was not so forthcoming. “It’s tough for me to judge my game,” he admitted. “The coaches should do that. With the Olympics coming up, I think it’s the goal of ever player in Europe to make their team. We’ll see. I don’t look that far ahead, just go day by day and be good for my club team in Switzerland. If I play well there, I’ll have a good chance to make the Olympic team.”

He did it. After a weekend of games with Fribourg-Gotteron in the Swiss league he will join the Czech national team next week.

 

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