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Alumni Spotlight: Richard Smehlik

Defenseman played in 83 Stanley Cup Playoff games for Sabres

by Brian Duff @duffersabres / Sabres.com

After playing two seasons professionally in then Czechoslovakia, Richard Smehlik was drafted 97th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 1990. The world was changing dramatically at that time and following two more seasons in his homeland - and his first Olympic Games in 1992 - Smehlik ventured to North America to begin a more than decade-long career in the NHL.

Who inspired you to play the game?

When I was growing up, at first I wanted to do some sports, so I was not like really looking for any inspiration. I started playing soccer in the beginning and then I got chosen for a soccer school, but my parents wouldn't let me play soccer at the time so then I chose hockey. 

Smehlik was born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, the same hometown as longtime NHL defensemen Filip Kuba, Marek Malik, and Roman Polak and goaltender Petr Mrazek.

How old were you when you felt like you were getting really good at hockey?

Probably later, once I started playing on Czech national teams, like 16, 17, 18, 19 years old. I kind of started realizing, you know, that I'd become pretty good at what I do, but there was still a long way to go. 

Smehlik won gold for Czechoslovakia in the 1988 Under-18 European Junior Championship.

Were you excited to come to Buffalo/North America or were you nervous, unsure?

Well, I was nervous at first because at the time, I didn't speak any English - like nothing. And my dream as a player in Czech was never the NHL because of communism so we never thought we could come play in the NHL. Like the highest level I could go was the Czech national team and then play for Olympics and World Championships and stuff like that. 

Then when the [Berlin] Wall came down in '89, you know that's when everything started moving. Players started getting drafted and when I was drafted by Buffalo, I didn't know what Buffalo was. I didn't know a lot of NHL players at the time. I only knew [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mario] Lemieux and [Paul] Coffey. I just wasn't familiar with the NHL scene.

Four Czech-born players drafted ahead of Smehlik in 1990, including Petr Nedved and Jaromir Jagr, who were taken second and fifth overall, respectively.

How well did you know Dominik Hasek before he joined you with the Sabres in 1992-93?

Well, Dom I briefly met on one of the Czech national teams. He was already a star in the Czech Republic and I was just a young guy, getting my feet wet in the Czech national team at the time and we were getting ready for a World Championship, I think, in Switzerland. We just met briefly on the team.

And then a second time, he and I were going to army and he was just leaving the army. So we spoke a little bit there, but that was like the first time I met him personally. But I knew who he was because he was a star in Czech.

What was your favorite memory from your time with the Sabres?

Oh, there's plenty of memories! My favorite probably would be playing in the longest game against New Jersey when Dave Hannan scored the goal. But actually, I had a lot of memories you know, making the playoffs [and winning a round] after so many years when we beat Boston with the Mayday goal, that was a great memory too. A lot of good memories in Buffalo.

From 1992 to 2002 Smehlik - despite missing the entire 1995-96 season due to a knee injury - played in 589 regular season games for the Sabres, second only to Rob Ray's 692 during that time. He also led the team with 83 playoff games played over that decade.
 
Twenty-one years later, what does your Olympic gold medal with the Czech Republic mean to you?

Well, I'm never a person that likes to look back too much, you know; I like to try and live in the present. But looking back, I think it was a great achievement from us because nobody expected our group to do anything great at the time. It was all about US-Canada. 

But we believed we had a very good team, and believed that we could beat anybody with Dom in the net, but we also had other good players who could score and we were a well-balanced team. I think we just came from nowhere and people did not expect us to do that well.

Smehlik also won bronze medals at the 1990 World Junior Championship, the 1992 Olympics, and 1992 World Championships.

Are you involved with Czech hockey today?

I follow hockey, but I'm not involved in hockey that much. I left my hockey career behind me and I like to do other stuff. I currently train and teach at Buffalo Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy, so that's my passion right now. It has helped me become a stronger and better person.

Describe the experience of winning the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003.

It was great for me again because I knew after the season I would be retiring. I always said I would retire in my 30s. At the time, I signed with the Thrashers they were interested in signing a longer deal, but I knew I was retiring after the season. So I just wanted one year and then at the deadline, I was traded to the New Jersey Devils. 

So I was coming to a team that was really established, and I was just a [insurance] type of guy for them. It was tough as a newcomer trying to fight for more of a spot, but it was a great opportunity! But I wish we had won it when I was with the Sabres [in 1999]. That time was an awesome run and I have a lot of good memories, good group of guys, a lot of fun going that deep in the playoffs.

Smehlik appeared in five postseason games for the Devils, including four in the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa.

Why did you choose to stay in Buffalo after your career ended?

I played a long time here, I had a lot of friendships, my kids grew up here and Buffalo is a great city. A good community and a lot of friendly people that reminds me of my city back home. I don't like hot weather. I like four-season weather and so it was an easy choice for me.

What led to you owning and operating the Amherst Boarding Kennel?

I've always loved animals. Even back home when I grew up, I helped my friend train police dogs and I knew animals were always my passion. So when I opened my business, I think it was in 2001, with another partner, I was still playing hockey and we opened up the boarding kennel. I always knew there needed to be life after hockey and this is my passion, my passion for animals and it keeps me busy. Every day is a different day and it's a lot of fun.

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