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Surprising Slovaks playing for Demitra

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HELSINKI, Finland -- Belief is a powerful thing.

How else to explain Slovakia's unlikely march to the gold-medal game at the IIHF World Hockey Championship? This is a country that had missed out on the quarter-finals for four straight years at the tournament and hadn't won a medal here in almost a decade.

There's only one difference this time around: They're playing for Pavol Demitra, the long-time national team captain who was killed in the Lokomotiv air crash in September.

"We all know that we're not playing just for us," Zdeno Chara said after Saturday's emotional 3-1 win over the Czech Republic in the semifinals. "We're playing for our country and obviously with the tragedy that happened ... it's also for Pav."

This is the kind of story usually reserved for the movies. The Slovaks have been overmatched all along the way and barely got through a 5-4 victory over France that was needed to advance to the playoff round.

And now they'll face Russia for a gold medal today.

"This is something really special," said forward Tomas Tatar. "I don't even have words for this."

Demitra was always a heart-and-soul player that wore his country's colours with pride. He left the ice in tears a year ago at the world championship, when he retired from the national team during the tournament on home ice in Bratislava.

The ovation he received was deafening.

Demitra is one of the most accomplished Slovak hockey players in history, having appeared in more than 800 NHL games, which included a two-year stint with the Vancouver Canucks. He also had a standout performance at the Vancouver Olympics, where Slovakia surprised everyone with a fourth-place finish.

"He was really close friends for all of us," said forward Tomas Kopecky. "I'm pretty sure he's looking (down) from the sky on us. It's very emotional right now."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2012 B4

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