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.
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.