Sunday

Peter Stastny

Perhaps most Canadians weren't paying attention, but our first look at one of hockey's all time greats came in the 1976 Canada Cup. An extremely young Peter Stastny was the youngest skater in the tournament. Only Finnish goalie Markus Mattsson was younger.

Stastny was two weeks short of his 20th birthday when he squared off against the Soviets on September 3, 1976 in the hockey shrine known as the Montreal Forum. But he was not an awe-struck rookie. He was already a veteran of two world junior championships and one world championship.

Playing with brother Marian and left winger Jaroslav Pouzar, Stastny, a fiercely proud Slovak, scored a team high 4 assists in 7 games in that Canada Cup tournament. The awesome playmaking became a trademark over the years for this Hockey Hall of Famer.

Russia's legendary goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak remembered Stastny from 1976:

"Peter Stastny was an extremely dangerous player, with or without the puck. But I learned a very small weakness that he had. His eyes would betray his intentions. I would always look straight into his eyes. If he would return the stare, it meant he was going to shoot. If he looked away it was usually a pass. Peter Stastny was only 19 years old when he played in the Canada Cup and he was one of the best," Tretiak said.

Stastny himself was in awe of the Canadian pros. He watched them closely during one of the exhibition games prior to the tournament. Stastny first focused on Bobby Orr and was impressed by the great defenseman. However it wasn't Orr that made the biggest impression on the young Stastny.

"The player who stunned me the most and who I previously had never heard about was Buffalo Sabres Gilbert Perreault. Never before in my life had I seen such a dynamic skater. When he took off I got the feeling that a locomotive was making its way down the ice. Perreault was so smooth that he had no trouble going coast to coast, around the defensemen like a knife through butter. He wasn't a typical Canadian player, although a big fellow, he was a fantastically technical player, far superior to any of his teammates."

Stastny tried his best to keep on top of Canadian hockey and the National Hockey League. Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, Stastny dreamed of western life and playing hockey in the NHL. He would voraciously read smuggled old copies of The Hockey News. He would quickly learn of Stan Mikita, a Slovak born superstar in the NHL. Mikita would join older brother Marian and Vaclav Nedomansky as Peter's hockey idols.

The fact that the Stastny's grew up reading smuggled Western magazines shouldn't surprise us. The Stastny brothers grew up as very independent thinkers, and were opposed to their communist oppressors. Peter Stastny, who admired Slovak reformer Alexander Dubcek, literally hated the communists.

Stastny starred for his hometown Bratislava team in the Czech Elite League for 6 years. Stastny got his chance to play thanks to the defection of Slovak legend Vaclav Nedomansky. By 1979-80 Peter had become the best player in the country, as he was named the Czechoslovakian Player of the Year after recording 26 goals and 26 assists for 52 points in just 41 games. With his hockey career in Czechoslovakia budding, he began to experience the perks of stardom that most Czechs and Slovaks could only dream of. Playing on the national team and quickly establishing himself as one of the best players allowed for higher salaries, vacations on the Baltic Sea, and travel around the world.

But for Peter it was not enough. Just days before NHL training camps opened in the late summer of 1980, Peter and brother Anton defected from their country.

"I stood up against what I felt was corruption and gross injustice," Peter recalls. "When they told me to shut up or lose my privilege of playing for the national team, I went ballistic."

The defection is a story all in itself. Peter, Anton and Peter's pregnant wife fled in the dark of the night, risking everything if they got caught, and not knowing what exactly was to be their reward. They left behind their parents and brother Marian. Marian would be punished on his brother's behalf, with many of his hockey privileges immediately revoked and authorities watching his every move.

The defection rocked the hockey world. It was huge news, knocking stories of the Major League Baseball's pennant drives and the Summer Olympics from the front page. It would have great ramifications. The Nordiques, who struggled mightily after one season removed from the WHA merger, became instantly respectable and then a eastern power, perhaps saving the franchise from its inevitable demise. And internationally the defection led to the Czechoslovakian authorities allowing veteran athletes to pursue sports for profit late in their careers without having to defect.

Stastny's first NHL season was 1980-81 when he just turned 24 and was just hitting his prime. He easily won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, setting NHL records for assist (70) and points (109) by a freshman (since surpassed). Stastny became first NHL rookie to score 100 points in a season, completely eliminating any doubts about the Slovak hockey great.

Proving his first season was no fluke, Peter would go on to score 7 more 100 point seasons, including six consecutive seasons to start his career. His best season was his sophomore year when he racked up 46 goals and 93 assists for 139 points. That was also the season his brother Marian defected to the west, along with his wife and three children. The three great Stastny brothers were all together again, and at times played on the same line, becoming the first all brothers trio since Max, Doug and Reg Bentley in the 1940s.

Though Marian had a storied international career before his defection and though he and Anton both proved to be very solid NHL players, it is Peter Stastny that goes down in history as the best. He was a very shifty skater, not necessarily blessed with great speed but more with a tremendous sense of balance. Combine that with his equally incredible vision and puck handling skills and Peter Stastny ranks as one of the great playmakers ever. He was the lead conductor of his on-ice orchestra. He shared an uncanny connection with his brothers, particularly with Anton on give and go plays. An old school hockeyist, Peter relied almost strictly on his accurate wrist shot. He was especially dangerous on the power play.

After rounding out his NHL career with stints in New Jersey and St. Louis, Stastny finished his Hall of Fame career in 1995 with a total of 1237 total points, which made him the highest scoring European trained player at the time of his retirement (since surpassed). He was so dominant that in the 1980s only Wayne Gretzky scored more points in the decade. In fact, in 1983 Montreal head coach Bob Berry, who saw the Stastnys up close and personal in the heated Battle of Quebec rivalry, suggested Stastny was a better player than Gretzky.

Stastny helped make the Nordiques a powerhouse in the NHL's Wales Conference. Many great regular season and playoff battles occurred with the provincial rival Montreal Canadiens in one of the greatest and unfortunately shortest rivalries the league has ever seen. Despite some great runs, Stastny and the Nords never did make an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Lack of depth and great goaltending was always the weakness of the Nords in their tough playoff battles in the old Adams Division and Wales Conference.

In addition to being a great hockey player, Peter Stastny was a very worldly person.

In the spring of 1984 Peter Stastny became a Canadian citizen, thus making him available for Team Canada in the 1984 tournament. Under normal circumstances Stastny would have been ruled ineligible to represent Canada since he already had played for another country internationally. All this according to the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) rules. But the tournament was organized by the NHL and NHLPA who had their own rules.

Stastny became the first ever European born and trained player to represent a Canadian national hockey team. He was extremely proud of his Canadian citizenship but admitted that he had a Slovakian heart in the Canadian jersey.

In 1984 Stastny didn't see much ice time as he mostly centered the third line. Wayne Gretzky, Brent Sutter and on occasions Mark Messier all saw more ice as centers. The only game where Stastny was double shifted was in the game against his old teammates from Czechoslovakia. In that game Stastny scored his only goal of the tournament. The game was televised live to Czechoslovakian homes but the announcers were forbidden from saying Stastny's name, only referring to him as number 26.

Prior to the game Stastny held a pre-game speech to boost his Canadian team mates who faced elimination in case of a loss. " I just told the guys to play very physical from the start, to break down the Czechoslovaks as soon as possible. Knowing the Czechoslovakian mentality myself, I knew this was the best way to play against them."

In July 1991, Peter Stastny. soon to be 35 years old, was approached by Jaroslav Walter, Ivan Hlinka's assistant coach on the Czechoslovakian team. The country had now been liberated from communist rule, and they were looking to make amends with past dissidents such as Stastny. Walter asked Stastny if he would like to play for Czechoslovakia in the 1991 Canada Cup tournament.

" When he approached me I said that if you want me then it would be a great honour for me to once again represent my country," Stastny said. Stastny however never played in the 1991 Canada Cup as he felt that there were not enough Slovak players on the team. Stastny who always took great pride in being a Slovak never passed on the opportunity to letting everyone know about it. His pride however deprived him of the opportunity to play in 1991.

Stastny eventually got to represent Slovakia when they became independent. He was the flag bearer for the entire Slovak athletic roster at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. As a 37-year old Stastny finished second in the Lillehammer scoring race, which he also did 14 years earlier in Lake Placid. In 1995 he helped Slovakia gain A-Pool status as he led all the scorers in the B-Pool World Championships.

Before the 1996 World Cup tournament Stastny was asked if he would like to become the head coach of the Slovak national team.

"I said ok, I'll accept the job for the World Cup. But the Slovakian hockey president didn't want such deal. He told me that I had to sign a two year contract until the Olympic games in Nagano 1998. I told him that I would have to think about it," Stastny said.

He never became the coach because of a feud between the hockey powers in Slovakia. One group wanted Stastny as a coach, and another faction didn't want him. Fed up with all this 'hooplah' Stastny finally withdrew his name from consideration.

Through the turn of the century Peter Stastny has stayed strong to his Slovakian roots. He serves as the country's elected representative in the European Parliament.

2 comments:

aaaron January 30, 2011 at 1:44 PM  

peter is a legend. i learn alot from him growing playing hockey were he lived in jersey and i playied with hes son paul in the parking lot of were we lived in west orange and he is a great guy to learn and he knows alot about hockey you will soon see hes son paul up there just like his dad a big legend . i watch peter threw hes career escipally with the devils i am a huge fan of the devils and he was great with them and i think you will see heres son as a legend really fast my best to peter and hes son paul great players sooner then later i will be playing with paul again good luck to you bloth. your freind aaron dubnnoff

Seb Renaud April 21, 2012 at 12:54 PM  

Peter and his brothers are three heroes in Quebec city.

They came from a country where there was no freedom of speech.

They had the guts to defect with their wives, taking a huge risk if they were caught, to not be allowed to play again, or even worse, living a miserable life.

They came to Qu├ębec city and immediately adapted to the french culture here, learning the language and the ways of the locals.

They were immediately intense players right from the go. They were so talented and just incredible to watch when they played together.

But mostly, they were just good people, always there for the fans, never said anything bad about anybody and basically contributed to the community in many ways.

Marian still lives here as of today and has a golf club business. You often hear him on the radio, and gives interviews at times and always is very respectful and grateful of the opportunity that was given to him to come to north america.

Three Gentlemen that spoke many languages including english, german and french and who basically were a role model for kids, as well as never looked down on anybody, no matter who they were.

To me, its what heroes are all about: People who had it tough in life but never complained about it and worked hard to overcome the obstacles that were thrown at them and succeeded.

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