Czechmate: Jaroslav Pouzar

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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.

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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.

 

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Czechmate: Andrej Sustr

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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.

 

Disparity in Women’s Hockey

I have long been a fan of women’s ice hockey, going back to the 1998 USA Women’s Gold Medal winning team at the Nagano Olympics. The first female hockey player that I ever became a fan of was USA netminder Sarah Tueting, the young lady who backstopped the USA women to the first ever Olympic gold in women’s hockey. Since that time I have followed the women’s game with much enthusiasm, and have had the opportunity to attend some of the women’s tournaments on the international scene.

Much of last week I spent my time in St. Catharines, Ontario for the 2016 Women’s U-18 World Hockey Championships. And I loved every moment of it! I even brought my mom along with me to the Czech Republic vs. Canada game in front of a raucous, pumped-out Canadian crowd.

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Flags of the eight nations participating in the 2016 Women’s U-18 Championship in St Catharines.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing that I noticed throughout the tournament is the disparity that still exists between the top two nations, USA and Canada, and the other countries who compete in the sport. To be blunt, after USA and Canada, no other team even comes close. At the start of every international tournament and every Winter Olympics, it is known that either Canada or USA will be taking home the gold medal while the remaining teams fight it out amongst themselves for bronze.

I am troubled by this for two main reasons. Firstly, though I am an American, I was rooting for Team Czech Republic for the entire tournament, as I know one of the young players on the Czech team personally. I attended each of the Czech Republic’s games, including their heart-wrenching losses of 6-0 to USA and 11-0 to Canada; my heart broke for my friend and her teammates at the hands of that 11-0 loss. So I will admit that I am biased, and wanted the Czechs to perform well and at least medal.

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Team Czech Republic receiving instructions at a timeout during their January 12, 2016 Quarterfinal loss to Sweden.

Secondly though and perhaps most importantly, for the sake of women’s hockey, we need to see another nation rise to the forefront and give Canada and USA a run for their money. And on an ongoing basis. It worries me that interest may lost in the women’s game if it is always the same two nations winning and nobody else even comes close. Kind of what happened with Laili Ali in women’s boxing. Nobody cares about women’s boxing anymore because no one could be Laili Ali, and the interest in the sport fizzled out.

Now obviously there is more to it than that. These young women are playing for their countries, and no matter what the outcome, competing for their own nation is the greatest accomplishment in sport, and it is not something that can ever be taken away from an athlete. These young ladies also love the game of hockey, and if you love a sport as much as these athletes do, you play and compete for it regardless of whether you win or lose. This is why the game will go on and why even if USA and Canada win every time there is something to say for the hearts of all of the young athletes who participate in this game. For me, being a true enthusiast of the women’s hockey, my interest will never falter either as I simply love the sport.

But for the casual fan, will he or she tire of always seeing the same two nations win? This is what concerns me for women’s hockey in general.

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Team Finland lined up after their 11-1 win over France on January 8, 2016.

So why the disparity after all this time? One would think that between Nagano in 1998 and today’s game in 2016 that the playing field would have evened out to some extent. It has not, and I cannot figure it out.

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France’s goaltender Anais Aurard receiving Player of the Game for Team France after facing 54-shots in an 11-1 loss to Finland.

I surmise that it might have something to do with the size of the athletes. Looking at the majority of the young ladies who suited up for USA and for Canada in the tournament, they look more like grown women, while the athletes of the other nations appear more their age, if not younger. More muscle, more strength for the Canadians and Americans can transfer over to controlling the game and maintaining better puck possession for the entire three periods; something that the other nations were not able to do. I definitely noticed a drop-off in the third periods of each game when Canada and USA were not missing a step, while the other teams looked tired and were merely holding on. More muscle also allowed them stronger, faster skating which enabled USA and Canada to reach loose pucks more quickly and with greater ease. Not to much that they could skate from point-A to point-B faster as well.

But this was the only real difference that I could discern. All of the teams, especially Czech Republic, practiced hard, fought hard in the corners and in front of their own nets, worked hard from the first second of play until the last, and played their hearts out for their teammates and their countries. I love cheering for underdogs, so it is my sincere hope that all of these efforts by teams who are NOT Canada and USA will eventually payoff and the tide will turn. If you follow MMA at all, perhaps I am hoping for something similar to Holly Holm (finally) serving a defeat to Ronda Rousey and changing the sport forever. Like Rousey, right now USA and Canada seem unstoppable. But it cannot last forever.

Will there come a time that another nation dethrones USA and Canada? For the sake of women’s hockey, I hope so. For my sake, I hope it is Czech Republic!