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CZECH US OUT: Part 2, the players involved

History you never knew about the Flyers connection to the Czech Republic.

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

With Part 1 exploring the beginnings of Czech-Flyers relationship, Part 2 will take a deeper look into some key players that the Flyers were in on.

SEEKING THE STASTNY BROTHERS
While the Flyers had mild interest in Rudy Tajcnar, the primary reason why they signed him was a precursor to trying to recruit three other Czechoslovakian players whom Katona promised he could deliver: Slovakian brothers Peter, Anton and Marian Stastny. 

Feeling it could better their chances of bring over all three brothers, the Flyers drafted Anton in the 12th round (198th overall). According to Full Spectrum,
agent Louis Katona's price tag was steep. He asked for $320,000 for himself ($20K up front, $300K upon completion) to assist in securing the Stastny brothers' defection and arrival to play for the Flyers. Each of the brothers would then sign five-year contracts, paying $1.25 million apiece for Peter and Marian and $850,000 for Anton over the life of the contract. 

When legendary Flyers general manager Keith Allen informed owner Ed Snider of the terms, the conversation was brief and right to the point. On a team that already had the LCB line (Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber) and Rick MacLeish as the nucleus of its forward corps, Snider wanted to know if the Stastnys would be worth the money. 

"Can we beat Montreal for the Cup if we get them? Can we beat Boston?" Snider asked.

"Yes," Allen said.

"Do it," Snider said. 

Unfortunately for the Flyers, Katona was unable to fulfill his promise (but kept his $20,000 in upfront money, per Full Spectrum). Ultimately, the NHL voided the Flyers selection of Anton Stastny in the 1978 Draft. At the time of the Draft, he was too young to be eligible for selection. In 1979, after the NHL's merger with the World Hockey Association and the lowering of the draft-eligible age (pre-1979, players under age 20 were ineligible), the Quebec Nordiques selected him in the fourth round (83rd overall) of the Entry Draft. 

In August 1980, Peter and Anton Stastny defected to Canada during an international tournament in Austria and joined the Nordiques. A year later, Quebec negotiated with Czechoslovakian officials for permission to allow eldest brother Marian to join his brothers. Peter Stastny went on to a Hockey Hall of Fame career (1,239 points in 977 games), Marian had a pair of seasons with 35+ goals and between 79 to 89 points, while Anton had four seasons with 30+ goals including a career-high 39 goals in his rookie year and topping out at 92 points in 1982-83.

COOKIE COMES OVER
The late Miroslav "Cookie" Dvorak was born in Hluboka, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) on Oct. 11, 1951. A longtime star in the domestic league and a standout defenseman for the Czechoslovakian national team, Dvorak was allowed by the communist government to leave for North America and play in the NHL as part of a money-raising program that allowed selected older Czech and Slovak players to play in the NHL in exchange for a transfer fee.

Nearing his 31st birthday, Dvorak was selected by Flyers in the third round of the 1982 NHL Draft. He went on to enjoy three strong seasons as a Flyer. Dvorak won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the team's top defenseman in 1983-84. For his Flyers and NHL career, he played 193 games and posted 85 points (11 goals, 74 assists) and a combined plus-85 rating. He had two assists in 18 career playoff games.

Dvorak spoke virtually no English upon his arrival in Philadelphia but nevertheless quickly became fast friends with defense partner Brad Marsh. The two became lifelong friends, staying in touch long after their playing days ended.

Nicknamed "Cookie" by teammates, Dvorak instantly became a popular figure throughout the Flyers' locker room for his solid play on the ice and his warm sense of humor, willingness to poke fun at himself and outlandishly outdated fashion sense off the ice. Rather than being offended by comparisons to the fictitious Festrunk brothers (Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin) of "Saturday Night Live" fame, the fun-loving Dvorak delighted in it.

A slick puck mover and capable positional defender, Dvorak adapted quickly to the smaller North American rink. He posted 37 points and a plus-27 rating his first year, providing a boost to Philadelphia's second pairing. 

In his second year, with previous season Norris Trophy runner-up defenseman Mark Howe battling intermittent injuries, Dvorak took on more demanding minutes and won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers top defenseman although his raw stats (31 points, plus-19) were a bit lower and he, too, missed time with injuries.

LATAL & HOSTAK
The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia opened the door for much younger players to come to North America without the personal danger and familial consequences that came from defecting. Two such players were defenseman Jiri Latal and forward Martin Hostak.

Puck-rushing defenseman Latal was born in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) on February 2, 1967. Originally drafted by the Leafs with the 106th overall pick of the 1985 Draft, the Flyers acquired his rights from the Leafs in 1989.

Latal was a fast-rising star in Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution marked the end of the communist regime and it became easy for players to come to North America without defecting (or obtaining permission from the government and national hockey federation).

The young defenseman played three years for Sparta Prague in what is now the Czech Republic and two for Dukla Trencin in what is now Slovakia. Latal played a prominent role for Team Czechoslovakia at the 1985, 1986, and 1987 World Junior Championships, winning a pair of silver medals and being named to the tournament all-star squad in 1987.

When Latal arrived in Philadelphia at age 22, he came with a lot of hype as a potential star defenseman with considerable offensive upside. He started out in the AHL with the Hershey Bears in order to get acclimated but was clearly too good for that level. In 22 games for the Bears in 1989-90, Latal racked up 10 goals and 28 points. He was then called up to the big club.

Unfortunately, the player struggled in the NHL with both consistency and injuries, including knee surgery, a separated shoulder and cracked ribs. Latal did not like the much more physical nature of the North American game on the small rink and sometimes became skittish when pressured by NHL-caliber forecheckers.

Latal, who had been touted as someone with two-way upside, ended up having trouble defensively in the NHL. Injuries limited him to just 92 games over three years. However, Latal's undeniable puck skills occasionally shined. He posted a respectable 12 goals, 36 assists and 48 points for subpar Flyers teams that missed the playoffs each season.

After a serious knee injury and decreased playing time with the Flyers Latal returned to Europe. 

Multi-ralented forward Martin Hostak was born on Nov. 11, 1967 in Hradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). The Flyers' third-round pick (62nd overall) in the 1987 NHL Draft came over to North America in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution brought about the fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia.

Hostak was a prolific offensive player for Sparta Prague and the Flyers were excited by his combination of size (6-foot-4, 200-plus pounds) and skill. Unfortunately, he struggled to adapt to the North American game and produced just three goals and 14 points in 55 games over parts of the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons with the Flyers. He rarely used his size to his benefit and mostly hung around the perimeter. However, Hostak did show a willingness to backcheck. 

While his NHL career was brief and disappointing, Hostak enjoyed a fine international career. Upon his return to Europe, he played mostly in Sweden and for the Czech national team. He was something of a fixture in Sweden with Modo at the time local products Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund were rising young stars with the team. Later, Hostak had a successful stint with Luleå HF.

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