Bobby Holik, the thinking man's hockey player, has checked out
some of the great monuments in America: the Liberty Bell,
Independence Hall, the Capitol, Mario Lemieux. Most times Holik
uses a guidebook. In the case of Lemieux he uses a Sher-Wood,
poking and probing, not to turn the Pittsburgh Penguins icon into
a brochette but to sap his strength and maybe his will. In the
New Jersey Devils' 3-1 win over the Penguins in Game 1 of the
Eastern Conference finals, Holik was matched against Lemieux in
all 19 of Lemieux's even-strength shifts, which for Lemieux was
like getting up from the dinner table 19 times to take a call
from a telemarketer. Hounded by Holik as well as Holik's
linemates John Madden and Randy McKay, Lemieux was held shotless
last Saturday, only the third time in 57 games since his return
from retirement on Dec. 27 that he'd been blanked.
Holik is the reason why New Jersey is different from other elite
teams. A top-scoring line, a franchise defenseman and first-rate
goaltending are pretty much standard issue for any Stanley Cup
contender, but only the Devils have a 6'4", 230-pound irritant
on their third line who combines the threat to score with a
singular ability to unnerve. No forward is tougher on the NHL's
top centers than the 30-year-old Holik. The tributes pour in, in
the form of retaliatory slashes and punches and one crude but
legendary message in the New York Rangers' dressing room three
seasons ago. The names and numbers of the players on each of the
Devils' lines and defensive pairs were written on a grease
board--17 SYKORA, 25 ARNOTT, 26 ELIAS, for instance--but next to
16, Holik's number, was inscribed ASSHOLE.
"You can't hurt him," New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur says. "Try
to slash him, you're only wasting your time. He's so strong. It's
so funny when you see guys like Mark Messier getting livid with
Bobby. They get mad at him, and he's like, All right, hit me. He
plays the game hard and takes a lot of abuse."
In a perfect world Bobby would have become the stylish forward
his father, Jaroslav, a standout Czechoslovakian pro player in
the 1970s, had envisioned, but the son wound up playing the same
rough-edged game that the father had. Bobby learned early that
there's no such thing as a perfect world. He grew up listening to
Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, trying to make sense of
the scratchy broadcasts that emanated from his radio. He played
on a club team (Dukla Jihlava) and served about a year in the
military. After being drafted in the first round by the Hartford
Whalers in 1989, Holik came to the U.S. (the Whalers bought his
rights from his team) and has been exploring his adopted country
May 20, 2001
The most difficult act in hockey isn't tying up Lemieux's stick
in the slot but breaking the mind-numbing cycle of
rink-hotel-airplane that rules the players' lives and ices their
souls. Holik finds it all but impossible to recruit a teammate
for, say, a quick tour of the National Air and Space Museum in
Washington, D.C. He visited the museum in the former Texas
School Book Depository on the 30th anniversary of John F.
Kennedy's assassination in 1993 and caught the Van Gogh exhibit
in Washington a few years ago. On one road trip to the nation's
capital, he sat on a bench and gazed across at the Capitol's
dome and mused about how close he was to the epicenter of power
in what he still calls "the free world."
Holik became a U.S. citizen in November 1996 and voted in his
first presidential election last year, experiencing a chill when
he drew the curtain in the booth. "Millions of people gave their
lives to have that right," Holik says. "People say, 'Oh, I'm too
busy to vote.' That's the reason I became a citizen, to have
"People watch him play and get the impression he's a cruel
person because of that nastiness on the ice, but there's a lot
to Bobby," Devils center Scott Gomez says. "Bobby and I always
sit together at the back of the plane, but I'm reading PEOPLE
magazine and he's reading a book about history or something."
The volumes Holik most recently read were Tom Brokaw's The
Greatest Generation and Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the
World, about the men who built the transcontinental railroad.
Holik says the first and only time he tasted alcohol was when he
took a sip from the Stanley Cup in 1995. A big night out for him
is a movie. However, even in the monolith of the dressing room
there's enough space for a contrarian such as Holik, especially
one who whipped Lemieux on 15 of their 20 face-offs in Game 1 and
whose five goals and 12 points through Sunday ranked him third to
Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias in the Devils' playoff scoring this
Holik, who is married and has a four-year-old daughter, says his
most pressing concern for his adopted country is the decline in
morality since the 1950s, a heartfelt expression from a rogue
practitioner of hockey's dark arts. While doing whatever is
necessary to win a game forms the ethical framework, there's
still an amoral streak to Holik's play, one graced by the subtle
cross-check, the concealed face wash, the hidden punch in an
after-the-whistle scrum. "One of his favorites is when he goes to
the net and tries to knock you over into your goalie," Penguins
defenseman Marc Bergevin says. "Then he skates away. Stuff will
be happening, and he gets out just before they call a penalty."
Holik is profoundly stubborn, having stayed out of training camp
before the 1996-97 season until he extracted a promise from
management that he would no longer be paired with McKay and Mike
Peluso on the one-dimensional Crash Line, a gambit that worked
but still flew in the face of New Jersey's well-starched ways.
"In 1996 I asked for the challenge of playing against top lines,"
Holik says. "I wanted to play against the best players. I look
forward the whole season to this time of year."
The Penguins had a different perspective last Saturday: upside
down. Holik dumped defenseman Darius Kasparaitis head over heels
into the Devils' bench in the dying seconds of the first
period--it was the signature moment of Game 1--and then skated
150 feet to the far corner to stare and jaw at Lemieux. Holik
would crush Jaromir Jagr and his aching right shoulder into the
boards with two minutes left in the third period, but a more
important hit was the one Holik absorbed: an interference
penalty on Kevin Stevens in the second period that led to
Sykora's winning power-play goal.
Of course, there was a history lesson to be learned in Game 1,
when Holik schooled Lemieux. If the Devils end Pittsburgh's
fairy-tale run, their achievement should be marked with one of
those plaques that dot the New Jersey landscape. This one would
read: MARIO LEMIEUX SLEPT HERE.
"People get the impression he's a cruel person because of that
nastiness on the ice," says Gomez, "but there's a lot to Bobby."