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Czeching In
Jay Greenberg
February 25, 1991
The future looks very bright for four NHL rookies from Czechoslovakia
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February 25, 1991

Czeching In

The future looks very bright for four NHL rookies from Czechoslovakia

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Nedved, a shifty playmaker who starred in Canadian junior hockey last season after defecting at age 17, has struggled to free himself from NHL checking. At 6'3" but only 178 pounds, he has gotten just a trickle of points—five goals and six assists through Sunday. Reichel, 19, who had 13 goals and 14 assists at week's end, has been inconsistent, and the Flames have benched him periodically.

During the 1970s and '80s, when a European import suffered a period of poor play, he would frequently be accused of being slothful. That stereotype is going the way of the Eastern bloc. These four kids aren't lazy. However, exposed for the first time to a schedule that requires them to play three and four games a week, they do get tired. "They aren't going through anything different than college players [who make the jump to the NHL]," says Philadelphia Flyer general manager Russ Farwell, who held the same title with Nedved's junior team in Seattle last season. "These are different guys from what the NHL is used to seeing from Europe. They come here to play, not get rich."

Two European players who were never accused of indolence are Peter and Anton Stastny. Both brothers sneaked away from a preseason training camp in Austria when they were in their early 20's to join the Quebec Nordiques (Anton is now playing in Switzerland). Their defection had a big impact on the Czechoslovakian Ice Hockey Federation. To discourage other top players from heading west, the federation began rewarding aging players with the opportunity to finish their careers in the NHL. The results—as with last season's first wave of Soviet imports, most of whom were past their prime-were unspectacular. Some faded stars, like Miroslav Dvorak and Jiri Bubla, did adapt to supplemental roles on NHL teams and provided reasonably good value during their brief stints in the league. But as the years went by, NHL teams became less interested in plugging holes with old guys than in enticing young Czechoslovakians into rented Mercedeses for one-way trips across the border.

Now that the midnight rendezvous has been replaced by the faxed contract offer, training camps around the league are starting to look like melting pots. With youth hockey registration down in Canada (from 500,053 in 1980-81 to 404,364 in '89-90) and the NHL hoping to add as many as seven teams by the year 2000, more U.S.-and European-bred players will undoubtedly be competing in the league. This expanded talent pool should be good for the game in the long run and good for European players in the short run. For the Swedes and Finns, the adjustment to a demanding schedule and the more physical character of the North American game has always been difficult. But for Soviet and Czechoslovakian players, who are not used to the freedoms and standard of living found in the West, life in the NHL can be overwhelming.

Nedved, however, has seemed anything but overwhelmed since he left a house on Jan. 1, 1989, in Calgary, where he was staying during an international midget tournament, and walked into a local police station to announce his defection. "When I was 14, I moved from my hometown [Liberec] to live with another family in Litvinov [60 miles away] because the hockey was better," says Nedved. "Maybe that is the reason I wasn't frightened to stay in Canada. If I was one of the best players over there [in Czechoslovakia], why shouldn't I be here?"

Because he was only 17, Nedved knew he would first have to demonstrate his skills in junior hockey, which he did with 145 points in 71 games last season. But now that he's in the NHL, he is an overmatched rookie. Still, the Canucks, who had reasoned that Nedved would learn more practicing with them than he would dominating junior hockey, last month traded one of their centers, Brian Bradley, to give Nedved more ice time, and he has shown flashes of his promise. "The [Czechoslovakians] get caught by surprise because they were superstars or very good players in Europe," says Calgary defense-man Frantisek Musil, a Czechoslovakian who defected in 1986 and later married Holik's sister, Andrea Holikova, who's struggling to make it on the women's tennis circuit. "They don't realize how competitive this league is, and when they don't do well right away, they lose confidence. Soon they aren't producing, are on the fourth line without much ice time, and it's like a chain reaction."

It was easy for the older players who found themselves in that position to pack up and go back to Czechoslovakia. Their successors seem more determined to make it in North America. "In my third year [in Czechoslovakia's top league]," says Reichel, "I score many points [83, to win the scoring title at age 18]. I think I can no play there anymore. I go to the best league. So first reason to play in NHL is hockey. Second is money. I like the fruit, too. There is not too much fruit in Czechoslovakia. Salad here good, steak here good, but fruit is the best."

These players can now buy any kind of food they want at almost any hour if they have one of those magical plastic cards that make cash materialize out of the wall of a bank. "I couldn't believe it when I saw a bank machine work for the first time," says Musil. "You punched numbers and out came money."

When he toured the West in the 1970s with the Czechoslovakian national team, Jaroslav Holik was impressed with the way the North American professionals lived. He was more fascinated, however, with the way they played. Jaroslav, who is not only Dukla Jihlava's alltime leading scorer but also its penalty-minute leader, wanted Bobby to have an opportunity that he never had—to compete in the NHL. "My father was always my best coach," says Bobby. "He knows what I need. It has been his dream for me to play here, and it became mine."

When Bobby was a youngster, Jaroslav put him on the ice three times a day, twice with groups of players older than he. Bobby watched NHL games pulled in by a satellite dish on top of the family house. Jaroslav even hired a tutor to teach Bobby English. When Andrea defected to the U.S., in 1986, she bought her brother a subscription to The Hockey News. Not long after Andrea left, Jaroslav, who was the assistant coach of Dukla Jihlava, took a pay cut. Bobby says that Andrea went with their father's blessing. Bobby knew that sooner or later he would go too.

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