Czechmate: Jaroslav Pouzar

jaroslav pouzar - stanley cup
Jaroslav Pouzar, a 3-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers during the 1980s.

Czech ice hockey has long been an interest of mine. I marvel at the success of the Czech players both in the NHL and on the worldwide stage. The Czech Republic has produced some the finest hockey players to ever grace the game. Dominik Hasek. Jaromir Jagr. Patrik Elias. Milan Hejduk. Petr Sykora. All of whom have won the Stanley Cup. It got me thinking about the very first Czech-born and trained player to win the Stanley Cup, former Edmonton Oiler Jaroslav Pouzar.

The Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s were dynamic, to say the least. In what would become one of the greatest dynasties in hockey history, those early Oiler teams were loaded with a whole slew of fun-loving, free-spirited youngsters that made the game so damn exciting. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Andy Moog, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr – when they won their first Stanley Cup in 1984 they were all between the ages of 20-25 and were just entering into the prime of their careers. These high-flying youngsters would bring glory and sheer fun to the city of Edmonton for a decade.

But like any talented, enthusiastic youngster, there is usually a steadying, experienced hand in the backdrop. Someone who has “been around the block” a few times, who can help keep a team grounded when it needs to be grounded, and more so, to allow them the comfort to spread their wings because a steadying veteran has their back and will not allow them to fall on their face. During those dynasty years for the Oilers (between the 1983-84 season to 1989-90, Edmonton would win 5 Stanley Cup championships), the Oilers had more than one steadying veteran on their squad; captain Lee Fogolin, Dave Lumley, Willy Lindstrom, and Pat Hughes. But perhaps no veteran was more experienced or more accomplished overall than Czech-born winger, Jaroslav Pouzar.

He arrived in Edmonton for the 1982-83 season at 30-years of age. At 5’11”, 200lbs., Pouzar was rather stocky for the time period, especially for a European born player. Wayne Gretzky once described Pouzar as “the physically strongest player I ever played with”. The Edmonton Oilers had selected Pouzar in the 4th-round of the 1982 NHL draft.

High expectations came for Pouzar as well. The intent was to have Pouzar slated on the top line with Gretzky and Jari Kurri, figuring that Jaroslav would easily be able to register 50-goals a season alongside those two superstars. In his first NHL season, Pouzar chipped in a modest 15-goals. Gretzky and Kurri on the other hand notched 71 and 45 respectively. The offensive production that was imagined for Pouzar never came to fruition from there. Kurri would continue to explode in the next few seasons off of Gretzky’s passing for 52, 71 and 68 goals, while Pouzar’s went to 13 and 4 before he would leave the NHL for Europe.

Pouzar’s style just did not mesh with the rocketed Oilers’ offense. Gretzky even joked years later that “Jaroslav Pouzar brought the left-wing lock to the NHL”, as Pouzar forechecked into the attacking-zone with a defensive minded Czechoslovakian-style of play, instead of the Oilers all out attack method. Time would more fully explain Pouzar’s style on the ice, and it became no wonder that his offensive output was not even close to being on par with his linemates.

Regardless of his offensive numbers and his lack of longevity in the NHL, Jaroslav Pouzar is a 3-time Stanley Cup champion. And while some argue that Pouzar happened to be in the right place at the right time, and was simply along for the Oilers’ ride, I beg to differ. I think Jaroslav Pouzar brought more to the table than just an uncommon (back then) style of forechecking.

Before Pouzar stepped onto the ice of an NHL rink, he had accomplished quite a bit on the international scene. Pouzar represented the former Czechoslovakia in two Winter Olympics in 1976 and 1980, including a silver medal team in 1976 in Innsbruck, Austria. Pouzar’s numbers for the now famous 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Winter Olympics in Lake Placid were among the very best of the competition. Pouzar led all players in goal scoring at Lake Placid with 8-goals in 6-games, and finished third overall in points with 13; the only players to record more points at the ’80 Olympics were teammates Milan Novy and Peter Stastny, both future NHLers as well.

On top of finding success at the Winter Games, Pouzar was a perennial medalist with Czechoslovakia at the World Championships for ice hockey from 1976 each year through 1982, winning 2 gold medals, 3 silver medals, and 1 bronze.

pouzar
A star player on the international scene, Pouzar found success at the Winter Olympics and the World Championships for Team Czechoslovakia.

While leaving Edmonton and the NHL after two Stanley Cup championships in 1985 to play in Europe, Pouzar would not be gone for long as he would return to the Oilers to take part in their third Cup run in 1987, scoring 2-goals and 3-assists in 12-regular season games, while seeing playing time for 5 more games during the playoffs en route to their third championship. All in all, in four NHL seasons Jaroslav Pouzar won three Stanley Cups with the Oilers, and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for all four seasons. His career numbers are 186-regular season games, with 34-goals, 48-assists and 82-points. Pouzar would go on to add 6-goals and 4-assists in 29-playoff games.

Jaroslav Pouzar was by no means a mere tag-along or a lucky “Johnny on the spot”; he was a talented veteran who played a different game than the North Americans, that still translated into success when all was said and done. Though his NHL numbers were not prolific, the three Stanley Cup rings he earned are “icing on the cake” for a very solid career in international hockey. And no matter what, if Wayne Gretzky says that a player is the physically strongest who he ever played with, that speaks volumes! If “The Great One” pays a compliment, then it should be taken quite seriously and the accolades are certainly well-deserved. And if nothing else, Pouzar’s array of experience, his being defensively sound whenever he was on the ice, and the Gretzky-heralded strength he possessed certainly allowed him to be a contributor to the Oilers Stanley Cup winning teams.

 

Advertisements

Czechmate: Andrej Sustr

sustr
The up and coming defenseman for Tampa Bay that no one talks about, Andrej Sustr

In my estimations he has all of the potential to become the next Zdeno Chara. Especially the size! At 6’8″ and 225lbs., he is the largest hockey player that you have probably never heard of. Halfway through his second full season in the National Hockey League, Andrej Sustr is the player I am most excited to watch for in the years ahead.

Sustr reminds me a lot of his fellow countryman, Richard Smehlik. Quiet but always there to depend upon. Not flashy, but very steady. Sound at his position, and only getting better. If he develops a mean streak like Chara displays from time to time – look out! This guy will be devastating.

I like the description that has been used more than once on Chara; “You don’t want to wake the giant”. Because when Chara gets upset or takes matters into his own hands on the ice, he is more powerful than anyone else in the game. He manhandles opposing players and he is literally an unstoppable force. This helps Chara’s game to be as effective as it is, and what has allowed him to be successful for so long. By being able to impose a little fear into opposing players, knowing that they do not want to be on his bad side, Chara is able to create more space for himself on the ice to dish a clean pass or drive home one of his rocketed shots on net. Chara creates opportunities that most players have to fight for because of his immense size and the intimidation factor that he possesses. At 25-years of age, it remains to be seen whether Andrej Sustr will garner that same intimidation factor. But like Chara, as time goes along Sustr can continue to improve his all-around game and demonstrate that he is a very sound defenseman regardless. Something that Chara did when he first broke into the league too; took the time to hone his skills until they became elite.

It is very hard for me to imagine that Andrej Sustr was never drafted into the NHL. Sustr left the Czech Republic at the age of 17 to move to the United States where he would play junior hockey as well as collegiate hockey for three years with the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. Sustr would participate in a handful of development camps for NHL teams before he was eventually recruited and signed professionally by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013. Everyone knows that Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman was a genius of a hockey player on the ice. As GM for Tampa, Yzerman is demonstrating that he may very well be a genius on the Management side as well, as under his guise numerous talented players have been brought to the Lightning, including “The Triplets”, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson. By signing the giant-sized Sustr as an undrafted free agent, Yzerman might not only be a genius but a seer – who wouldn’t want to have the next Zdeno Chara on their hockey club?

In Sustr’s first full season in the NHL, 2014-15, he served as a stalwart defenseman on the blueline for Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals where they would lose in 6-games to the Chicago Blackhawks. Sustr played in all 26-playoff games for the Lightning that season. Not bad for an undrafted rookie. Sustr registered a goal and an assist during those games, along with 18-penalty minutes. On a roster that already housed veteran, well-accomplished defensemen Victor Hedman, Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman and the like, it was enjoyable to watch Sustr do his part and find his niche for Tampa as they made their way into the Finals:

Sustr’s first-round playoff goal against the Detroit Red Wings in 2015:

Made up of entirely the same blueline that led them into last year’s Finals, now in the 2015-16 season, Tampa’s defense is still causing opposing teams to be envious to no end. It is a blueline that will make the Lightning poised to take another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup. If I were coach Jon Cooper, I would continuously pair the larger than life Sustr with the Lightning’s top defender Victor Hedman (who stands 6’7″ and 225lbs. himself), and dare offenses to get by these twin towers.

While only time will tell as to how great of a player Andrej Sustr will become, I am banking on him not disappointing. I trust Steve Yzerman’s judgment. I trust the Lightning scouts’ judgment. And I trust in what Sustr has displayed thus far. While Zdeno Chara is in his twilight, Andrej Sustr is giving all appearances that he is prepared carry the torch as the NHL’s next big man. The new giant that you do not want to wake.

 

Highlighting an unsung hero: Jiri Hrdina

*Note: This is an article I wrote in November 2011 for my old blog, “Hockey Thoughts”. After watching 43-year old Czech hero and hockey legend, Jaromir Jagr, score his seven-hundred and thirty-sixth career regular season goal last night (1/5/16 against Buffalo), I felt inspired to re-post this entry on my new blog to share thoughts on a forgotten Czech and former teammate of Jagr’s, Jiri Hrdina.

Jiri Hrdina

Season after season goes by in the National Hockey League. As a decade or two passes, players that were once household names, at least casually, are often long forgotten when their playing days end and new favorites quickly take their place in the daily conversations of the hometown fans. Though most of these players are not within the Hall of Fame, may never have been on an All-Star team, nor do they hold any league or team records, their accomplishments during their careers may in fact hail them as unsung heroes. Players who made a difference with the way that they played hockey, but have been overshadowed by the game’s truly great players. Still, as unsung as they may be, they did make a difference.

Case in point is former Calgary Flame and Pittsburgh Penguin, Jiri Hrdina. During a time when only a handful of Czech-born players skated the NHL arenas of North-America, and certainly no Soviet-born players as of yet, Jiri Hrdina made his NHL debut at the age of 29 as one of the very few players in Western-hemisphere hockey to hail from the Eastern-bloc. This was still a short time before the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Petr Nedved and a larger influx of players from Czechoslovakia (later to be separate countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia) would make their country a breeding ground for highly talented hockey superstars who would run rampant in the NHL on an ongoing basis. Jiri Hrdina would join the NHL and the Calgary Flames during the 1987-88 season.

Born in one of the World’s most beautiful and most remarkable cities, Prague in the former Czechoslovakia, Hrdina’s successes in the NHL in a relatively short career are remarkable in and of themselves. After debuting with the Flames for a mere nine games in ’87-’88, in which he scored 2-goals and added 5-assists for 7-points (along with 1-playoff game that year as well), Hrdina would only play in four full NHL seasons from 1988 through 1992. In three of those four seasons though, Hrdina would win Stanley Cup Championships. There is likely no other player in NHL history with a better percentage of championships compared to the number of seasons played. Yet there is little to no mention of Hrdina’s noteworthy accomplishment amongst hockey circles these days.

Hrdina was a very solid two-way player throughout his career. As a versatile centerman, Hrdina excelled in his own end of the ice and also contributed offensively against the opposition. Coming to the NHL at 29, Hrdina’s best years were likely spent while still playing in his homeland and playing on the international stage. While with Team Czechoslovakia in 1984, Hrdina helped lead his team to a Silver Medal at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. Likewise, Hrdina medaled with Team Czechoslovakia on five separate occasions at the World Championships of hockey, winning gold in 1985, a silver in 1982 and 1983, and bronze medals in 1987 and 1990. By the time Hrdina made the jump to North-America he was already a very well accomplished and decorated hockey player.

Hrdina playing with Calgary Flames
Alumni during the Heritage Classic.

With his track record of Stanley Cup championships, Hrdina’s success with winning obviously continued throughout his career in the NHL. Hrdina’s finest season came during the Calgary Flames’ championship season of 1988-89. This would be Hrdina’s first full season in the NHL and he registered 22-goals, 32-assists for 54-points in 70-regular season games; a fine performance for a first full season in the league. Though Hrdina was certainly instrumental in bringing the Stanley Cup to Calgary, his contributions are much in the backdrop when considering that Hockey Hall of Fame players Lanny McDonald, Doug Gilmour, Al MacInnis, Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk were members in the forefront of that championship team, along with all-star players Theoren Fleury, Brad McCrimmon, Gary Roberts, Gary Suter, Mike Vernon, Hakan Loob and Rob Ramage. With so many big names and so much talent on one hockey club, it is not really surprising that Hrdina’s contributions to that championship team were overlooked.

The 1989-90 NHL season would be the one season in which Hrdina did not win a Stanley Cup in his NHL career. Statistically, it would be his second-best season though, notching 12-goals and 30-points in 64-regular season games. While this Calgary Flames team was mostly comprised of the same players and staff from their championship team of the season prior, they would fail to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, losing in 6-games in the first-round of the playoffs to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.

The next and final two seasons of Hrdina’s career would bring him two more Stanley Cup championships, though this time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In December 1990, Hrdina would be traded from Calgary to Pittsburgh for tough-guy defenseman Jim Kyte. Considering Hrdina’s skill and winning experience the deal was rather lopsided in more ways than one. In Pittsburgh Hrdina would find himself on the third or fourth line used mostly in a limited role, for like the Flames, the Penguins were laden with a vast array of talent including one of hockey’s greatest players ever Mario Lemieux, along with an additional mix of Hall-of-Famers, future Hall-of-Famers, and other all-star players like Jaromir Jagr, Kevin Stevens, Tom Barrasso, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and former Calgary teammate Joe Mullen.

Jiri Hrdina with the Pittsburgh Penguins –
brought in to tutor fellow countryman and
18-year old Jaromir Jagr.
Again, it is not any real wonder that Hrdina would be forgotten amongst a group of this calibre. However, at least one person would not forget Hrdina’s impact on the team, as fellow Czech and upcoming superstar Jaromir Jagr would greatly benefit from his fellow countryman’s guidance and tutelage during his rookie season in the NHL. At the time, Jagr was only 18-years old, and Hrdina, having lived in and played in North-America for a few seasons longer and being over 10-years Jagr’s senior, would prove to be quite instrumental for adjusting the young Czech superstar to the NHL-brand of hockey, life in North-America and adopting the English language. Hrdina and Jagr would be nicknamed the “Czechmates”and suffice it to say that at least some of Jagr’s outstanding success in hockey both globally and in the NHL can be attributed to Hrdina and the mentoring he provided during their two seasons in Pittsburgh together. The Penguins would go on to defeat the Minnesota North Stars in six-games of the Stanley Cup Finals that first season in Pittsburgh. Hrdina saw limited action in the Finals, only appearing in Game-3, but he played in 14 of Pittsburgh’s 24-playoff games that season, record 2-goals and 2-assists in that stretch. Jagr would play in all 24-playoff games, registering 3-goals and 10-assists.

The 1991-92 season would be Jiri Hrdina’s last in the NHL and would also see the Penguins repeat as Stanley Cup champions, this time defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in four straight games. Hrdina would get his name enscribed on the Stanley Cup for the third and final time. He would also appear in all 21-games of the Penguins playoff run that season, picking up 2-assists along the way. Meanwhile, his “student” Jagr would become the youngest player in NHL history to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals at 20-years old, finishing the playoffs with 24-points in the 21-playoff games, and well on his way to super-stardom in the NHL. Hrdina would retire in 1992 after this last championship.

These days Hrdina busies himself as an amateur scout with the Dallas Stars. Though his playing days may be behind him, there are few players more celebrated as a champion than Jiri Hrdina. And while he was greatly “unsung” as a player perhaps mainly due to the fact that he was buried by a long list of some of the greatest players to ever play the game, who happened to be his teammates at the time, attention must be paid to the fact that he became a champion so frequently across such a short period of time. For his achievements and perennial championships, Jiri Hrdina should not be forgotten.