Peter Stastny: 100 Greatest NHL Players
Defected with brother from Czechoslovakia to Nordiques, first rookie to score 100 pointsby Bob Duff / Special to NHL.com
The memory never goes away.
Tanks on the boulevard. Soldiers in the streets.
It was August of 1968. The Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia, and 11-year-old Peter Stastny was learning how ugly the world could be.
Video: Peter Stastny became first rookie to have 100 points
"They were the enemy; the hated ones," Stastny said, recalling the horror of his tiny homeland being overtaken by such a large foe.
"They were so big and we were just a tiny speck. But in the hockey rink, it was different. We were on even terms."
The Soviets still won most of the battles on the ice, but Stastny was part of Czech teams that upset them and won the World Championship in 1976 and '77.
Over the next two decades, much would change, both on the world stage and in international hockey, and Stastny was right in the middle of it.
In the summer of 1980, not long after skating in his first Olympics for Czechoslovakia, Stastny and his brother Anton defected to North America and joined the NHL's Quebec Nordiques, becoming the first NHL regulars from a country behind the Iron Curtain.
Playing for Slovan Bratislava during a European club tournament in Innsbruck, Austria, in late August of 1980, Stastny headed out for walk in search of a pay phone, his pockets filled with Austrian schillings to pay for a long-distance call.
Also in his pocket was a phone number scrawled on a piece of paper: the main switchboard number for the Nordiques.
Stastny asked to speak with Nordiques president Marcel Aubut, who immediately took the call when he was informed that someone named Peter Stastny wanted to speak with him.
Stastny informed Aubut that he and Anton would be willing to sign with the Nordiques in a package deal. Aubut and Gilles Leger, then the Nordiques director of personnel development, were on the next flight to Innsbruck.
The four of them met after tournament games, and covert negotiations took place. When it became apparent that a deal would be reached, Peter sent instructions to his wife, Darina, eight months pregnant at the time, to hurry to join them in Innsbruck.
Following an 11-1 loss to CSKA Moscow in the tournament final, when the players boarded the Slovan team bus, the Stastnys were missing, already in Aubut's rental car on their way to Vienna.
"[Those were] the scariest moments of my life," Stastny told IIHF.com. "It was like being part of a John le Carré novel."
Video: Stastny brothers are first Europeans to defect to NHL
The next day, the Stastnys arrived in Quebec and the shocking news hit the hockey world.
Their older brother, Marian, who was married with three children, stayed behind. But in retaliation for his brothers' defections, Marian was suspended from hockey in his homeland. He defected and join them in Quebec a year later, skating with his brothers on the same forward line. (Each of the three scored in an 8-3 win against the Boston Bruins at Boston Garden on Jan. 5, 1984.)
There were still more repercussions for the family: their father had his job and apartment taken away by the Communist government because of his sons' actions.
Back home, the Stastny brothers became what was known at the time as non-persons, their records expunged, their hockey feats deleted.
"Officially, no one talked about it," Jiri Hrdina, who played in the NHL from 1987-92, said of Peter Stastny, his teammate with Czechoslovakia. "Unofficially, everyone knew him and what he was doing.
"When we'd go to a friendship tour in West Germany, we'd get papers and read about him. Ninety percent of the people had their fingers crossed for him."
The Stastnys delivered. The three brothers quickly turned the Nordiques, who entered the League in 1979, into a Stanley Cup contender, with Peter Stastny, working at center between his siblings, putting up incredible, and sometimes historic, numbers.
In 1980-81, Peter Stastny posted League rookie records with 70 assists -- which he shares with Joe Juneau (Boston Bruins, 1992-93) -- and 109 points, becoming the first rookie to have a 100-point season. He won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie.
The Stastnys made a couple other entries in the NHL record book as first-year players. On Feb. 22, 1981, during an 11-7 win over the Washington Capitals, Peter (four goals, four assists) and Anton (three goals, five assists) each had eight points, setting League records for points in a road game and points in a game by a rookie, marks they still hold.
Two nights earlier, Peter and Anton had each finished with three goals and three assists during a 9-3 road win against the Vancouver Canucks, and Peter was certain that the jet lag from the long trip to Washington would lead to rough outing against the Capitals.
"I just remember feeling so tired when I got up that morning," Stastny said. "I thought, 'This is going to be a long night.'"
He was right, it was -- for the Capitals.
"It seemed like everything we touched that game went in," Stastny said.
With their scoring binges over those two games, the brothers each set the NHL record for the most points by a player in consecutive games with 14.
In the high-scoring NHL of the 1980s, Stastny was a beacon of production. His 1,059 points during the decade were second only to the 1,842 scored by Wayne Gretzky, and he is one of seven players in NHL history to record six consecutive seasons of 100 or more points.
Stastny skated in six NHL All-Star Games and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998, but the impact that he made on the game went far beyond the accolades. He set the standard for European-trained NHL players, even if he tries to downplay the accomplishment.
"There were guys ahead of me who paved the road," Stastny said.
"Vaclav Nedomansky, Richard Farda, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson -- they were the pioneers."
Still, Stastny's success was significant. By the mid-1980s, veteran Czech players were being permitted to play in the League, and by the early 1990s, players from the Soviet Union would follow.
All of them owed Stastny a debt of gratitude, some more than others.
In 1990, Stastny was traded to the New Jersey Devils, becoming teammates with two newly acquired Soviet hockey legends, defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov.
"You'd look around that dressing room and see some of the best players in the game," Stastny said. "Players like Fetisov, Kasatonov, they were superstars in their own country. You always knew if they were given the chance to come here, they would excel."
Stastny proved an enormous help. Fluent in Czech, Slovak, Russian, English, German and French, he was the club's unofficial go-between.
"If I could help out in any way, I was happy to do it," he said. "I remembered what it was like. I was in their shoes.
"It's tough, it really is. I remember in Quebec, we had the goalie [Sergei] Mylnikov. He was our only Russian. They sent along an official interpreter, but on hockey-related topics, he had no idea.
"I would talk hockey with Sergei. I think there was a special bond between us. He was very thankful, very grateful for the time I spent with him and that made me feel good."
While he'll never forget the day Soviet troops invaded his homeland, Stastny came to learn Russian players weren't all the different than he was.
"It is ironic, because they were the hated enemy," he said. "But I learned from meeting these fellows that they all have huge hearts, they are very good human beings.
"I don't think it's the people who are bad. Sometimes, the leaders, the system, they are what is bad."
Stastny became a citizen of Canada and helped it win the 1984 Canada Cup. After Czechoslovakia split into two countries -- Slovakia and the Czech Republic -- in 1993, Stastny represented Slovakia in the 1994 Olympics, serving as captain and carrying the flag during opening ceremonies.
"That was something more than a dream, carrying the flag for my new country," said Stastny, who was Slovakia's general manager when it won the World Championship in 2002.
Both of his sons, former NHL forward Yan and St. Louis Blues forward Paul, played internationally for the United States, and the Stastnys became the first family to represent four countries in international hockey.
In retirement, Peter Stastny continued to crusade against injustice, serving as a member of the European Parliament from 2004-14.
As much as his 1980 defection changed hockey, the game was the vehicle the center from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, used to gain freedom for his family.
"For him it was more about letting us grow up in North America than him blossoming as a player," Paul Stastny told USA Hockey magazine. "In the end it turned out well for him and all of us."
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