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CZECH US OUT: Part 3, Modern Era

The path for Voracek was paved by many others in the final look at the history you never knew about the Flyers connection to the Czech Republic

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

In the first year after the Velvet Revolution brought about the end of communism in the former Czechoslovakia -- and, eventually, the creation of separate Czech and Slovak republics -- there was still much uncertainty over when younger Czech players would be able to come over to North America to play in the National Hockey League. 

Once those fears were calmed, a steady stream of players from both countries started to seek their fortunes in the NHL. 

The third and final part of our history of the Flyers relationship with Czech hockey looks at the pivotal early post-1989 years and concludes with a look at how Jakub Voracek came to be a Flyer.

NEAR MISSES: Jagr and Nedved
The early 1990s were a dark period in Flyers history, marked by the team missing the playoffs five consecutive seasons (1989-90 to 1993-94). The spring of 1990 saw Bob Clarke's first tenure as general manager come to an end, and the hiring of former Seattle Thunderbirds (Western Hockey League) general manager Russ Farwell in his place.

The 1990 Draft was one of the deepest classes in NHL Draft history. A host of players selected that year ended up playing for the Flyers at some point in their careers. That year also marked one of the most agonizing historical near-misses in Flyers history.

According to The Hockey News 1990 Draft Preview issue, if Clarke had not been dismissed as GM, Philadelphia likely would have been inclined to roll the dice on Jagr's availability if he was on the board when the Flyers picked.

THN ranked Jagr's sixth overall in their pre-Draft ratings but noted, "After the World Junior Championships in Finland, Bob Clarke proclaimed Jagr as the best player available, but he has since been fired as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, who pick fourth overall. It remains to be seen if the scouting staff feels the same as Clarke."

New general manager Farwell coveted another Czech; Petr Nedved, who had played for the Thunderbirds the previous season after defecting to Canada. In an era before teams' leanings at the Draft became a closely guarded secret, Farwell readily admitted that Nedved was his prime target. 

With Owen Nolan likely slated to go first overall to the Quebec Nordiques, the Flyers made trade offers to Vancouver (picking second) and Detroit (picking third) with the intention of selecting Nedved. Both teams declined.

Vancouver selected Nedved second overall. After Detroit took Keith Primeau with the third overall selection, that left the Flyers with a choice: take Jagr and swing for the fences or go for a sure thing with Peterborough Petes center Mike Ricci. Dubbed "the safest pick in the Draft," a future NHL leadership material, Ricci was considered immediately NHL-ready and an emerging two-way talent.

The Flyers, as history shows, opted for Ricci while Pittsburgh chose Jagr fifth overall. 

Ricci had two solid seasons for Philadelphia before being traded to Quebec as part of the package that brought Eric Lindros' rights to the Flyers. Overall, Ricci had a solid career: 1,099 games played, 605 points, a Stanley Cup ring, a Selke Trophy finalist spot (1999-2000) and another top-four finish (2001-02) for the award.

Jagr, who always dreamed of playing in the NHL, carried a photo of Ronald Reagan in his school notebook, wore his hair long as a gesture of independence and sported uniform number 68 in honor of the Czechoslovakian uprising against the Soviet Union in 1968, took immediate advantage of the newfound freedom of self-determination after the end of communist rule. He attended the Draft in person

The rebellious teenager turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime talent; third in all-time NHL games played (1,733), third in goals (766), fifth in assists (1,155) and second in points (1,921). Much later in his career, he spent one season with the Flyers (2011-12) upon his return to the NHL from three seasons in the KHL. That year marked the beginning of a brand new identity for Jagr as one of the game's most beloved elder statesmen.  

CZECH-ING THEM OUT: The first full-time Czech scout
For the Flyers, the "modern era" of the team's scouting operations began in 1992 with the hiring of Vaclav Slansky Sr. as the organization's first full-time scout based in the Czech Republic. Slansky would go on to be fixture in the organization for the next quarter century and his work would start to become evident in very next NHL Entry Draft.

HE ANSWERS TO "VINNY"
Playmaking forward Vaclav "Vinny" Prospal was born in Ceske Budejovice in the former Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) on Feb. 17, 1975. Drafted by the Flyers in the third round (71st overall) of the 1993 NHL Draft, Prospal came over immediately to North America to play for the AHL's Hershey Bears.

Extremely skinny and unable to speak English when he first arrived in Hershey, Prospal's development was a lengthy process (although he mastered the English language quickly). It took Prospal until the 1996-97 season, by which time he was leading the AHL in scoring by a wide margin, to finally earn a callup to the NHL. He never went back to the minors again in a career that would eventually surpass the coveted 1,000-game milestone in the NHL.

Prospal posted 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 18 regular season game for the Flyers during the 1996-97 stretch drive and then posted four points in five games in the team's first-round playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately, Prospal suffered a broken wrist during a practice before the team's second-round series against the Buffalo Sabres and was out for the rest of the postseason as the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Final.

The next season, Prospal had his share of ups and downs during the first half of the season and then suffered a fractured left fibula on Jan. 3, 1998. While he was still healing, the Flyers made a trade on Jan. 17, sending Prospal and Pat Falloon to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Alexandre Daigle.

Ten years later, Prospal briefly returned to the Flyers. Although only acquired as a rental, Prospal was productive for Philadelphia in his second stint. In 18 late-season games in 1997-98, he posted 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) and a plus-seven rating at even strength. In the playoffs, he contributed 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 17 games to help Philly advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

Prospal went to play a total of 1,108 games in the NHL and record 765 points.

A FIGHT GREATER THAN HOCKEY
Six picks after the Flyers took Prospal in the third round of the 1993, the Flyers selected Czech offensive defenseman Milos Holan with the 77th overall pick.

Holan was born in Bilovec, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) on April 22, 1971. He was a prolific scorer who loved to shoot the puck at any opportunity. Before coming over to North America, he rack`ed up 68 points (35 goals, 33 assists) in 53 games for HC Vitkovice in 1992-93 and earned a spot on the Czech team at the 1993 IIHF World Championships.

Upon Holan's arrival in Philadelphia for their 1993-94 training camp, the Flyers realized that Holan's explosive shot and offensive instincts were NHL power play caliber but that he had a lot to learn about playing without the puck.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound defenseman dressed in eight NHL games for Terry Simpson's Flyers in 1993-94, recording two points (one goal, one assist) and a minus-four at even strength. He spent much of the season in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears, where he averaged more than a point per game (seven goals, 29 points in 27 games) and then went home in February. 

Holan did not feel well during training camp with Anaheim in September 1995, but played through it. After 16 games (two goals, four points, 24 penalty minutes, minus-12), he was diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia. He underwent a bone marrow transplant four months later. Holan missed the rest of the 1995-96 season and the entire 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons but made a full recovery.

JAKE MAKES AN IMPACT
Throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s, a slew of Czech (and Slovak) players had stints with the Flyers. By this point, it was hardly notable for Europeans from any of the major hockey nations to join an NHL team. The younger generation of Czechs, especially those born in 1989 and beyond, tended to blend in more easily on the ice and in the locker room. The off-ice adjustments were also less of a culture shock than for their predecessors.

Without question, the latter generation Czech player who has had the biggest impact on the Flyers has been Jakub Voracek. Acquired for Jeff Carter from Columbus in the 2011 off-season trade that also brought the first-round pick used on the selection of Sean Couturier, Voracek is entering his ninth season as a Flyer. Better known as a playmaker than a goal-scorer, Voracek last season secured his sixth 20+ goal season as a Flyer. He has topped 60+ points five times as a Flyer and 80+ points twice. Voracek is the first European player to reach the 600-game mark as a Flyer.

Something that is less-know about Voracek and the Flyers is that the team considered trading down in the first round of the 2007 Draft to select him. 

Flyers scouts - initially the assessments of the amateur scouts and later via the pro scouting staff - had been high on Voracek for several years because of his combination of size, speed and playmaking ability. As a matter of fact, Voracek had very much been on the Flyers' radar for the 2007 Draft.

The Flyers held the second overall pick in the 2007 Draft. The Edmonton Oilers held three picks in the first round (6th, 15th and 21st), but hoped to move up. The Oilers offered the 6th and 21st picks to the Flyers in exchange for the second. 

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren drove a hard bargain. He insisted that the Oilers include all three of their first rounders if they truly coveted the second overall pick. Ultimately, the two teams stood pat.

Philadelphia selected James van Riemsdyk with the second overall pick. If the move-down deal with Edmonton had come to fruition, the Flyers would probably have taken Voracek with the sixth overall pick according to Holmgren. 

After he turned pro, Voracek had some early-career growing pains with the Blue Jackets. Nevertheless, his potential was obvious. Voracek posted 134 points over his first three NHL season. By comparison, Carter produced 132 points over his first three NHL campaigns with the Flyers after he was selected with the 11th overall pick of the landmark 2003 Draft. 

The Flyers pro scouts, along with Holmgren, believed that it was only a matter of time before Voracek's NHL offensive game took off in its own right. The jump off point proved to be in the second half of the 2011-12 season. Subsequently, Voracek became part of the team's offensive nucleus after moving up in the lineup.

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