When a teenaged defenseman named Petr Svoboda made the choice to leave his Czech homeland, it wasn’t with the relatively small consequences endured by Europeans who choose to play hockey in North America today. Put yourself in his shoes: what would you do if, like Svoboda, you knew you might never see your parents again and that they, too, would suffer after you left?
Svoboda bravely decided to follow his dreams at age 17 and defected to freedom in the former West Germany in 1984. The famous Stastny Brothers paved the way as the first Czech defectors in the NHL, but Svoboda was the first do it as a young prospect. And for a full year after he left Communism behind for Western society, he didn’t have any contact with his parents. But he did enjoy incredible success – winning a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986 and an Olympic gold medal for the Czech Republic at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games in Japan – and today helps a new generation of players acclimate to a pro career in his role as a player agent (Jaromir Jagr and Jiri Hudler are among his clients).
And all that tumult and risk some three decades ago? Completely worth it. “As a pretty young guy, you have no idea what would happen to your family you leave behind,” says Svoboda, who maintains homes in Montreal, Los Angeles and the Czech Republic. “And state officials gave my parents a pretty hard time. We came from a very close family, so it wasn’t easy. But I’m glad I made the decision I did, because I’ve been extremely fortunate.”
Svoboda grew up in Most, a Czech city of 30,000 at the time. So when he was drafted fifth overall by Montreal at the 1984 draft, he not only had to adjust to the mania that surrounds all players drafted by the Canadiens, he had to learn the English language and culture from scratch. Luckily, he had some help along the way. “The language was the most difficult adjustment, because we had no opportunities to learn English in the Eastern European countries,” says Svoboda, now 46. “But I had great mentors like Serge Savard and my teammates, guys like Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey, were tremendous helps also. They made the transition so much easier.”
Generously listed at 6-foot-1, Svoboda was one of the less physically imposing players of his day. But he could give as good as he got – over two straight seasons, he had penalty minute totals of 149 and 147 – and prided himself on being able to play through pain and injury. Because of that, he was a key component of the Canadiens in 1986 and became beloved by Montreal’s passionate fan base during his eight seasons there. “I realized very fast what hockey means to Montreal fans and Montreal people,” Svoboda says. “It’s something you cherish, but at the same time, it can be overwhelming. Thank God I had such a strong support system to help me concentrate on what I needed to do and not get distracted by anything.”
Svoboda was traded to Buffalo in 1991-92 and spent parts of four seasons as a Sabre before moving on to the Philadelphia Flyers from 1994-99 and finishing out his career in a mentor’s role with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The chance to represent his country at the Nagano Games remains one of his career highlights, especially given he scored the only goal of the gold-medal game against Russia to give the Czechs the championship.
But what resonates loudest is his ability to be a survivor of the pro game for 17 years and his status as the first Czech player to reach 1,000 NHL games (he retired after 2000-01 with 1,028). “When I got into the league, I was about 165 pounds and at the time the game was played much tougher than it is now, so a lot of people figured I wouldn’t be around too long,” Svoboda says. “But I did and that’s something I really treasure.”
For more great analysis, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.