Before the puck was dropped, the rookie right wing from Jihlava, Czechoslovakia, turned to the veteran defenseman from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and made a bold prediction. "You will not stop me," Bobby Holik told Mike Ramsey.
"I felt like Rocky before his fight with Ivan Drago," says Ramsey.
"I said that to make him, you know, mentally weak," says Holik.
Ramsey's Buffalo Sabres won that Dec. 18 meeting with Holik's Hartford Whalers, but not before Holik had made good on his prediction. With the Sabres leading 3-2 in the third period, he took a pass on the off wing, brushed past a Sabre at center ice, crossed the Buffalo blue line and cut diagonally toward the net. Without slowing, he ripped a shot over goalie Daren Puppa's right shoulder to tie the score. "Nine times out of 10 a shooter hooks the puck wide when he shoots coming across like that," said Puppa afterward. "But he made it."
That morning in practice, Holik had taken 25 extra shots, most of them similar to the shot that he would use to beat Puppa. Holik's dedication to hard work is, like his sleek, hard, 6'3", 210-pound body, the product of a controlled experiment. For the first 18 years of Bobby's life, his father, Jaroslav, one of the best players Czechoslovakia has ever produced, dedicated himself to making Bobby good enough to play in the NHL. The result—an Ivan Draso on skates—has been unleashed on the league with the aid of another Ivan, a fellow Czechoslovakian named Lendl.
Shortly after the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia 15 months ago, Lendl, a resident of Greenwich, Conn., who sits on the Whalers' advisory board thanks to his friendship with team owner and tennis buff Richard Gordon, helped Holik get an early release from his military commitment so that he could join Hartford in time for this season. The Dukla Jihlava club obviously was not happy to lose one of its stars, but it did get badly needed hard currency in return. Czechoslovakian club teams are no longer subsidized by the government, and to survive they are selling players at bargain-basement prices. No reasonable offer refused. For example, the Whalers paid $100,000 to Dukla Jihlava to get Holik.
Thus, nine rookies from Czechoslovakia are playing in the NHL. Four of them have immense potential: center Petr Nedved of the Vancouver Canucks, who was the second pick in the 1990 draft; right wing Jaromir Jagr of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the fifth player chosen in that draft; Holik, who was the 10th selection in the '89 draft; and Calgary Flame right wing Robert Reichel, who lasted until the fifth round in '89 because he's only 5'10" and 170 pounds. Holik, Jagr and Reichel used to make up one of the top lines for the Czechoslovakian national team. "Holik and those guys are so young and talented, they might develop into the finest players the country has ever developed," says New Jersey Devils center Peter Stastny, who has been an NHL star since defecting from Czechoslovakia in 1980.
For a nation of only 16 million people, Czechoslovakia has turned out a disproportionate share of the world's premier hockey players. "It's not that [Czechoslovakian youngsters] get more ice time," says Stastny. "It is the deep roots, the tradition." It is also the high level of instruction that is provided by the sporting clubs that sponsor teams at all age levels. And even before the mid-1970s, when the highly skilled, puck-possession style of play favored by the Soviets and Scandinavians began to take hold in the gritty, dump-and-chase NHL, the Czechoslovakians played a hybrid of those forms of hockey, which made their adjustment to the league a little easier.
Holik, who at 19 is one year older and more physically mature than Nedved and Jagr, has been making steady progress this season. A hard-driving forward, he had 16 goals and 16 assists through Sunday's games.
Jagr, a powerful skater with jaw-dropping one-on-one moves, has improved his play since the Penguins struck a deal with Calgary on Dec. 13 to acquire 33-year-old center Jiri Hrdina, a Czechoslovakian who has become Jagr's translator and counselor. "We were trying to explain to him the NHL regulation on stick curvature, and he thought we were yelling at him," says Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick. "Until we got Hrdina, Jaromir was slipping farther and farther away." Jagr scored his first NHL hat trick against Boston on Feb. 2 and now has 19 goals and 40 points.
Nedved, a shifty playmaker who starred in Canadian junior hockey last season after defecting at age 17, has struggled to free himself from NHL checking. At 6'3" but only 178 pounds, he has gotten just a trickle of points—five goals and six assists through Sunday. Reichel, 19, who had 13 goals and 14 assists at week's end, has been inconsistent, and the Flames have benched him periodically.
During the 1970s and '80s, when a European import suffered a period of poor play, he would frequently be accused of being slothful. That stereotype is going the way of the Eastern bloc. These four kids aren't lazy. However, exposed for the first time to a schedule that requires them to play three and four games a week, they do get tired. "They aren't going through anything different than college players [who make the jump to the NHL]," says Philadelphia Flyer general manager Russ Farwell, who held the same title with Nedved's junior team in Seattle last season. "These are different guys from what the NHL is used to seeing from Europe. They come here to play, not get rich."
Two European players who were never accused of indolence are Peter and Anton Stastny. Both brothers sneaked away from a preseason training camp in Austria when they were in their early 20's to join the Quebec Nordiques (Anton is now playing in Switzerland). Their defection had a big impact on the Czechoslovakian Ice Hockey Federation. To discourage other top players from heading west, the federation began rewarding aging players with the opportunity to finish their careers in the NHL. The results—as with last season's first wave of Soviet imports, most of whom were past their prime-were unspectacular. Some faded stars, like Miroslav Dvorak and Jiri Bubla, did adapt to supplemental roles on NHL teams and provided reasonably good value during their brief stints in the league. But as the years went by, NHL teams became less interested in plugging holes with old guys than in enticing young Czechoslovakians into rented Mercedeses for one-way trips across the border.
Now that the midnight rendezvous has been replaced by the faxed contract offer, training camps around the league are starting to look like melting pots. With youth hockey registration down in Canada (from 500,053 in 1980-81 to 404,364 in '89-90) and the NHL hoping to add as many as seven teams by the year 2000, more U.S.-and European-bred players will undoubtedly be competing in the league. This expanded talent pool should be good for the game in the long run and good for European players in the short run. For the Swedes and Finns, the adjustment to a demanding schedule and the more physical character of the North American game has always been difficult. But for Soviet and Czechoslovakian players, who are not used to the freedoms and standard of living found in the West, life in the NHL can be overwhelming.
Nedved, however, has seemed anything but overwhelmed since he left a house on Jan. 1, 1989, in Calgary, where he was staying during an international midget tournament, and walked into a local police station to announce his defection. "When I was 14, I moved from my hometown [Liberec] to live with another family in Litvinov [60 miles away] because the hockey was better," says Nedved. "Maybe that is the reason I wasn't frightened to stay in Canada. If I was one of the best players over there [in Czechoslovakia], why shouldn't I be here?"
Because he was only 17, Nedved knew he would first have to demonstrate his skills in junior hockey, which he did with 145 points in 71 games last season. But now that he's in the NHL, he is an overmatched rookie. Still, the Canucks, who had reasoned that Nedved would learn more practicing with them than he would dominating junior hockey, last month traded one of their centers, Brian Bradley, to give Nedved more ice time, and he has shown flashes of his promise. "The [Czechoslovakians] get caught by surprise because they were superstars or very good players in Europe," says Calgary defense-man Frantisek Musil, a Czechoslovakian who defected in 1986 and later married Holik's sister, Andrea Holikova, who's struggling to make it on the women's tennis circuit. "They don't realize how competitive this league is, and when they don't do well right away, they lose confidence. Soon they aren't producing, are on the fourth line without much ice time, and it's like a chain reaction."
It was easy for the older players who found themselves in that position to pack up and go back to Czechoslovakia. Their successors seem more determined to make it in North America. "In my third year [in Czechoslovakia's top league]," says Reichel, "I score many points [83, to win the scoring title at age 18]. I think I can no play there anymore. I go to the best league. So first reason to play in NHL is hockey. Second is money. I like the fruit, too. There is not too much fruit in Czechoslovakia. Salad here good, steak here good, but fruit is the best."
These players can now buy any kind of food they want at almost any hour if they have one of those magical plastic cards that make cash materialize out of the wall of a bank. "I couldn't believe it when I saw a bank machine work for the first time," says Musil. "You punched numbers and out came money."
When he toured the West in the 1970s with the Czechoslovakian national team, Jaroslav Holik was impressed with the way the North American professionals lived. He was more fascinated, however, with the way they played. Jaroslav, who is not only Dukla Jihlava's alltime leading scorer but also its penalty-minute leader, wanted Bobby to have an opportunity that he never had—to compete in the NHL. "My father was always my best coach," says Bobby. "He knows what I need. It has been his dream for me to play here, and it became mine."
When Bobby was a youngster, Jaroslav put him on the ice three times a day, twice with groups of players older than he. Bobby watched NHL games pulled in by a satellite dish on top of the family house. Jaroslav even hired a tutor to teach Bobby English. When Andrea defected to the U.S., in 1986, she bought her brother a subscription to The Hockey News. Not long after Andrea left, Jaroslav, who was the assistant coach of Dukla Jihlava, took a pay cut. Bobby says that Andrea went with their father's blessing. Bobby knew that sooner or later he would go too.
The 1989 draft was held in Minnesota, and Andrea, who was living in the Twin Cities at the time because Musil was playing for the North Stars, attended it. When Bobby was picked, she immediately called him. Bobby, who had had contact with Hartford scout Jiri Chra, a family friend from Czechoslovakia who tended goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1970s, was not surprised. The revolution, which would not occur for another six months, was unforeseen, but the Whalers had confidence that they would not have to wait long to acquire Bobby's services. "Believe me," says Hartford general manager Eddie Johnston, "it wasn't a big gamble."
Holik told the Whalers that he would leave Czechoslovakia as soon as his two-year military obligation was completed, in 1991. That way he would be a defector, not a deserter. Early last year, Lendl returned to Czechoslovakia and interceded on Holik's behalf with top government officials. Holik's hitch was reduced to one year, and he signed with the Whalers during a visit to Hartford last March.
The Whalers see Holik becoming a dynamic worker who will get 40 goals a year and hit and check. Pushed by his father and briefed by his brother-in-law, Holik has dedicated himself to the point of obsession. Learning how to succeed in the NHL has been difficult. Learning how to fail has been even harder. "He can't get to sleep after we lose," says left wing Todd Krygier, Holik's roommate and linemate. "His mind is always on hockey. Oh, I think he's still enjoying himself. He can't get over all the flavors there are of bubble gum, and he has his Discman, of course, but he's not caught up in all the material stuff. I'll tell you where his head is at. With his signing money, he bought his dad a Mercedes and his mom a Peugeot. He bought himself a Chevy Beretta."
After that overtime loss to Buffalo at the Hartford Civic Center, the Whalers showered, dressed, gave curt answers to reporters' questions and headed home. Holik, though, lay on the floor of the locker room, contorting his body. "My father gave me these exercises," he said as his teammates departed. "We can talk while I stretch."
Sitting on the floor with his legs straight out before him, Holik leaned forward, extending his hands to his calves. He was reaching, as always, for his dream.