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CZECH US OUT: Part 1, the beginnings

The history you never knew about the Flyers connection to the Czech Republic

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

Over the course of the Philadelphia Flyers history, the team has had some surprising connections to scouting and recruiting players from the former Czechoslovakia, even before the 1989 Velvet Revolution saw the fall of communism in the country and the creations of Czechia (Czech Republic) and Slovakia in 1993.

In a series of articles over the next several days, we will look at key events and players in the evolution of the Flyers' relationship with Czechoslovakian and Czech ice hockey.
 
THE SHERO INFLUENCE
Legendary Flyers head coach Fred Shero, never made any secret of his deep admiration for European hockey in general and Soviet hockey in particular. He was one of the few North American coaches to travel behind the Iron Curtain during NHL offseasons in order to study their methods of coaching and training. He brought back multiple practice drills he adapted to the Flyers.
 
As recounted in Jack Chevalier's "The Broad Street Bullies," Shero was also an ardent supporter of NHL teams becoming far more active in scouting and signing European talents.
 
"We should have more Europeans and Russians in the league," Shero told Chevalier in 1974. "But management [around the NHL] can't get it into their fat heads they're good enough to play. They always say, 'They lack this or they lack that.' What do they lack? Nothing, not even guts."
 
At Shero's insistence, the Flyers became one of the first NHL teams to employ a European scout -- Adolph "Augie" Kukulowicz -- on a part-time basis. It was also the Philadelphia organization that was the first NHL club to draft a Soviet-trained player - gifted but troubled and ill-fated Viktor Khatulev from Dinamo Riga - in the 1975 NHL Draft.
 
TRAGIC TALE OF 'RUDY'
On Nov. 6, 1977, the Flyers signed the first European-born and trained player in franchise history: a 29-year-old defenseman from the Slovakian portion of communist Czechoslovakia by the name of Rudolf Tajcnar (pronounced TIGHTS-nar). 
 
Tajcnar was a standout defenseman for the Czechoslovakian national team, including the 1972 squad that won a bronze medal in the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. On the ice, he was a world-class talent but off-the-ice was a troubled soul who suffered from bouts of depression, anxiety and mental illness exacerbated by alcohol abuse.
 
Shortly after the 1972 Worlds, Tajcnar was involved in a fistfight in a bar with several policeman and spent portions of the next four years in a psychiatric hospital, missing the 1972-73 season. He was barred from further participation on the national team.
 
In 1977, agent (and Czechoslovakian expatriate) Louis Katona helped Tajcnar defect to North America. He approached several NHL teams, including the Flyers, and told them he could not only secure Tajcnar's services but could also arrange for other, even more prominent talents to leave the communist country and come to the west.
 
The Flyers were the first team to say yes. Tajcnar joined the NHL squad during training camp in September 1977. He spoke virtually no English but Shero insisted it would not be a problem.
 
Tajcnar was unable to secure an NHL roster spot out of camp and was assigned to the American Hockey League's Maine Mariners. He struggled, both on an off the ice, but teammates, who dubbed him "Rudy", could see his skill level and found him to be a nice person off the ice.
 
As the season moved along, however, Tajcnar started to settle in. He posted 39 regular season points (7 goals, 32 assists) in 63 games and six more (3g, 3a) in the playoffs as the Mariners won the Calder Cup championship. Tajcnar moved on after one season and briefly appeared in the World Hockey Association with the Edmonton Oilers.
 
Sadly, he never found peace in life, either in his homeland or in North America. He eventually went back to Czechoslovakia -- two years before the Velvet Revolution ended the communist era -- and turned himself in for his defection a decade earlier. He received a pardon.
 
FLYERS vs. PARDUBICE
Spectrum (Dec. 26, 1977)
 
In December 1977, two of the top teams in the Czechoslovakian Extraliga - reigning champion Kladno and former champion Pardubice - played a series of exhibition games against National Hockey League clubs dubbed the Super Series.
 
On December 26, 1977, the Pardubice team paid a visit to the Spectrum to take on the Flyers. The Czech team featured quite a few notable players such as the late Ivan Hlinka, the high-scoring line of Vladimir "The Fox" Martinec, Jiri Novak and Bohuslav Stastny (which also played as a trio for the Czechoslovakian national team) and star goaltender Jiri Crha.
 
Despite the high end talent that the Czech team boasted, they were no match for the Flyers on their Boxing Day game at the Spectrum. The game was tied 1-1 at the first intermission and the shots in the first period were 14-10. Thereafter, Fred Shero's Flyers dominated the rest of the game. The Flyers sailed to a 6-1 win.

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