by John McGourty
RALEIGH -- Teams like players whom they see frequently hoisting season-ending or tournament-ending trophies. Everybody loves a winner.
Much has been written about how Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford signed free agent Cory Stillman because had just won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and the Hurricanes had only Aaron Ward, who had won with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Later, Rutherford would acquire another Stanley Cup winner in Mark Recchi (1991).
Through no fault of his own, Jaroslav Spacek has never won a Stanley Cup, but Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe knew when he traded for Spacek on Jan. 26 that the big Czech defender had won a gold medal with his national team in 1998 and World Championships in 1999, 2001 and 2005. Spacek would win a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino a few weeks after he was acquired by the Oilers.
Sometimes we look at weak teams and assume all the players are similarly weak but, inevitably, there's a player whose light is overshadowed by the surrounding dark. That would be a good way to describe the first few years of Spacek's NHL career.
Spacek was in no hurry to get to the NHL and the League, in turn, seemed in no hurry to welcome him. North Americans think of the hometown of his first club, Pilsen Skoda, as the birthplace of light, amber-colored beers, due to the popularity of imported Pilsner Urquell. But the city is also home to the giant Skoda Works, manufacturers of heavy machinery, machine tools, military aircraft, train locomotives, automobiles and arms.
When Spacek was passed over in the 1992 Entry Draft, he began his career playing for the Skoda-sponsored team in Pilsen. Spacek, who was born in Rokycany, east of Pilsen, played five years in that city and his offensive contributions dramatically increased in his final season. As a result, he was signed by Farjestads BK Karlstad to play in the Swedish Elite League. Spacek finished sixth in team scoring and was drafted by the Florida Panthers with the 117th overall pick in the 1998 Entry Draft.
Spacek started the 1998-99 season with AHL New Haven, then played 63 games for Florida, posting three goals and 12 assists while finishing plus-15. He played another season in Florida before being traded 12 games into his third season to the Chicago Blackhawks. They, in turn, traded him to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In his first full season with the Blue Jackets, Spacek established career highs with nine goals and 36 assists for 45 points. But he was hurt toward the end of the 2003-04 season.
Spacek returned to Pilsen, but was traded in the middle of the season to Slavia Prague. He gave a good account of himself and was signed to a one-year deal last summer by the Blackhawks. When their playoff hopes faded after an injury-riddled season, the Blackhawks shipped Spacek to Edmonton for left wing Tony Salmelainen.
"It was a tough situation there in Chicago," Spacek said. "I think I did OK, but the team didn't play well. My contract is up after the season and I knew there were clubs looking for defensemen. I was thinking I would probably be going to New Jersey, but they called me up and told me they traded me to Edmonton. I knew guys like Chris Pronger, Jason Smith and Steve Staios because I had met them at World Championships."
Spacek's Edmonton teammates are thrilled to have him, especially defensive partner Steve Staios, who doesn't have to play with his back to the opponent anymore!
"When I first got here, I was playing mostly with Chris Pronger. Then, they moved me over to play with Steve Staios," Spacek said Sunday at the annual pre-Stanley Cup media meet-and-greet. "That gives us two pretty good pairings and we can switch back and forth because we've played with the other guys. Then, we've got two very good young defensemen in Marc-Andre Bergeron and Matt Greene. So, I think we have a strong defense. We also have Dick Tarnstrom on this team and he was traded here the same day that I was.
Spacek and his Oilers teammates have had plenty to celebrate this spring.
"Steve and I have been working very well. He makes good passes and he talks to me all the time on the ice. We just fit together and it's working well. He was playing on the left side with Jason Smith and now, with me, he's back on his own right side. It's better for him. He can see the ice better and make quicker passes. He doesn't have to use the backhand as much as when he was on the left side."
"Jason and I played well together, I thought, but just before the playoffs, they put Jaroslav and me together and we've been having success," Staios said. "He knows how to play the game and he's very physical. We've been having success and I really enjoy playing with him."
"He's been great," Pronger said. "He was a key pickup for us, along with Dick Tarnstrom at the same time. He's played a lot of minutes, plays defensively and with a physical edge. He plays on the power play with me. Spacek's been a real force back there for us in a lot of different areas. He has a lot of experience, not only in the NHL, but in international competition, including winning an Olympic gold medal back in 1998. He was a solid pickup who gives us a lot more depth.
Even the "enemy" has great respect for Spacek. Hurricanes injured center Josef Vasicek has been his teammate on several Czech national teams and, despite the friendship, helps his team with advice on how to play against Spacek.
"He is a great player. He can make a first pass and he can play under pressure," Vasicek said. "Watch him and you'll realize that he can play in the big games. He's very good under pressure. The bigger the game, the better player he is. This is a great situation for him. When I was younger, he played together with Frankie Kaberle on our Czech national teams. He's a tremendous player."
At 32, Spacek knows his first chance to win the Stanley Cup could also be his last. He can be counted upon to leave it all on the ice.
"I've enjoyed this a lot. I'm on a winning team and we're playing in the Stanley Cup Final. I'm going to enjoy it and try to play my best and we'll see what happens. I've won championships before and I'd love to win the Stanley Cup."