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Extraliga: Nearly 40, Nedved still going strong

by Bill Meltzer
More than four years removed from the last of his 982 regular-season NHL games, veteran forward Petr Nedved remains a highly productive player in the Czech Republic's Extraliga.

Now in his fifth Extraliga season since leaving the NHL, and his fourth with his hometown Liberec White Tigers (HC Bili Tigri Liberec), Nedved has 8 goals and 16 points through the first 11 games of the 2011-12 regular season.

The center, who will turn 40 on Dec. 9, has taken a long and winding road in a life and career that ultimately has led him back to the place where it all began. Born in Liberec and raised during the communist regime of the former Czechoslovakia, Nedved defected to Canada at the age of 17. He has represented Canada and the post-Velvet Revolution Czech Republic in international competitions.

Nedved's 14-plus seasons in the NHL best can be described as bittersweet. Taken by the Vancouver Canucks with the second pick of the 1990 Entry Draft, Nedved reached some lofty heights over the course of his career, but also went through more than his share of struggles, on and off the ice.

On the positive side, Nedved surpassed the 30-goal plateau four times, topping out at 46 in 1995-96 when he was part of an immensely potent Pittsburgh Penguins attack. He also finished just one point shy of the 100-point mark in his career season. Overall, Nedved scored at least 20 goals in eight different seasons, no small feat in light of the fact that the prime of his career coincided with an era of declining scoring in the NHL. His career log of 310 goals and 717 points is one the vast majority of players would be proud to claim as their own.


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Nevertheless, Nedved often battled throughout his career to shake the dreaded "underachiever" label. He bounced between seven different NHL clubs and changed teams nine times in all when you include two separate stints with the New York Rangers and Edmonton Oilers. His career also was marked by a couple of contract-related holdouts and a forgettable performance for an ill-fated Czech team that went winless at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

When Nedved's time in the NHL came to an end, he was the third-leading Czech-born and -trained scorer in League history, behind Jaromir Jagr and Bobby Holik. He since has been surpassed by Patrik Elias. Of course, it is his longtime close friend Jagr against whom Nedved's career inevitably is measured. Jagr was chosen three spots after Nedved in the 1990 draft and was his teammate in Pittsburgh and briefly in New York. As a result, Nedved's legacy often gets held up to the lofty standards of his six-time Hart Trophy finalist, five-time Art Ross Trophy-winning colleague, and pales in comparison.

"Petr doesn't need to take a backseat to me or anyone," Jagr told "He's had a great career, and is still playing. We never saw it as competition between us at all. Maybe you (media) liked to compare, but I never paid any attention to it."

Nedved's career is an interesting case study in how players' reputations form early in their careers and can be difficult to overcome, especially if the player is not fortunate enough to be part of a Stanley Cup-winning team.

Those who knew Nedved best claim he was maligned unfairly for lacking competitiveness (a reputation that started when, as a young player with Vancouver, he shyly asked his idol Wayne Gretzky for a stick in the handshake line after the Los Angeles Kings had beaten the Canucks in a playoff series). Although Nedved often was described by pundits as a poor postseason performer, he compiled a respectable 15 goals and 30 points over his final 39 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

As his NHL career progressed, Nedved also became a much stronger defensive player. He always was well-liked in the locker room and respected by his coaches and teammates.

"Petr is a tremendous person and a very skilled hockey player," Mike Knuble, a teammate with the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, told "Sometimes maybe the expectations get built up a little too high for certain guys when they come to a team, but Petr just went out and played the game. He had a little different role in Philadelphia than he did with the Rangers, and it didn't work out as well with the Flyers, but he was always a good teammate."

At age 35, a struggling Nedved became one of the early casualties of a disastrous 2006-07 season for the Flyers, one that saw the club post the worst record in franchise history. He was waived and sent to the AHL before going back to Edmonton (where had had posted 15 points in 16 games late in the 2003-04 season) and playing unremarkable hockey for 19 games.

Nedved moved back to the Czech Republic to play one season with Extraliga club HC Sparta Prague. He attempted a comeback with the Rangers the next fall, but did not earn a spot with the team.

"I knew that was the end in the NHL when I didn't make the Rangers, and I felt at least that I tried my best," Nedved told Czech media in 2008. "Also, it doesn't mean the end of hockey for me. I feel like I could still play and had something to contribute."

Nedved returned to the Czech hometown he left as a teenager. He joined the Tigers and has been a major stabilizing force on and off the ice. Rather than seeing his production decline with each passing season, it's actually increased. He had 28 points in 33 games in 2008-09, 35 points in 35 games the following season and 55 points in 44 games last season.

Nevertheless, there was speculation after last season that Nedved might hang up the skates. HC Liberec lost in seven games in the quarterfinals, despite Nedved having played spectacular hockey with 7 goals and 10 points. Instead, the team captain decided to return for another season, and has been even better in the early going of the 2011-12 campaign.

In a game last week, the Liberec center scored 2 goals in a 6-0 win against HC Kladno. It was a special game for Nedved, because the Kladno club is owned by his old friend Jagr.

Jagr, who is two months younger than Nedved and in the midst of an NHL comeback with Philadelphia at age 39, had a tongue-in-cheek response when asked about his former teammate stepping up against his Kladno squad.

"Ah, he's too old," Jagr said with a wide grin.

Right now, Nedved holds some domestic hockey bragging rights over Jagr. Through the first 11 regular season games, Liberec stands in first place in Extraliga. Kladno, which has struggled in recent years, started strong but has been on a skid of late, dropping to 10th place, seven points behind Liberec.
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