July 11, 2011

Jaroslav Jirik, NHL's First Czech, Dies In Plane Crash

Jaroslav Jirik died in a plane crash on Monday. The 71 year old Jirik, who was piloting his ultralight one seat plane, crashed near the city of Brno, about 125 miles southeast of Prague.

Jirik is renowned as being the first "Iron Curtain" trained player and the second European trained player in NHL history.

When he came over to North America he was already a seasoned veteran who had stared both in the Czech league as well as internationally. Jaroslav had 10 World Championship tournaments (WC All-Star in 1965) and three Olympic tournaments behind him. He represented Czechoslovakia 134 times (83 goals) and played 450 league games (300 goals).

His numbers alone speaks volume of what a dangerous goal scorer he was. Jaroslav was very unorthodox for a European player. He scored most of his goals standing in the crease area stuffing in rebounds. He didn't mind getting his nose dirty and despite not being very big he was extremely hard to move out from the slot when he parked there.

Discovered by Carl Brewer

Jaroslav's playing style was perfect for the NHL. He first caught the eye of former NHL defenseman Carl Brewer who then tipped Scotty Bowman (St. Louis coach at that time) about him. A young Cliff Fletcher went to Czechoslovakia in 1969 to sign three players, they were Jaroslav Jirik, Jan Havel and Josef Horesovský. The Czech government had given them their permission to let them play in North America. The problem was that Havel was 27-years old and Horesovský only 23, so the Czech government changed their minds about these two and only released Jaroslav Jirik because he was 30-years old, which was the age when they usually released their players.

A Cup Of St. Louis Coffee

When Jaroslav came over to North America he immediately entered the St. Louis Blues training camp in Ottawa and in New Brunswick. After one of the training games Jaroslav was voted as the best foreigner, which he admitted made him laugh out loud because he was the only foreigner on any team.

After ten pre-season games Jaroslav was sent down the Blues farm team, Kansas City Blues (CHL). He played very well with Kansas and scored 35 points including 19 goals in 53 games and was voted as the team's Rookie of the year. When it was clear that St. Louis would make the playoffs they dared to call up Jaroslav for a tryout with St. Louis.

Meets Stan Mikita

Jaroslav was thrilled over the opportunity to play alongside such legends as Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, guys he had only heard of before. His first NHL game was against Chicago and Jaroslav admitted years later that he was in awe of players like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Stan Mikita himself was born in Czechoslovakia and lived there until he was seven years old skated up alongside Jaroslav and patted him on the back saying in perfect Slovak "Ako sa mas? (How are you?)." This friendly gesture from the great Blackhawk legend was a big thing for Jaroslav. Mikita was a huge legend in Czechoslovakia at that time and not many had seen him play but they all knew who he was. Now Jaroslav was standing eye to eye with probably the most respected player in Czechoslovakia.

After the Chicago game Jaroslav only played two more games. In one of them he actually scored against Los Angeles but the goal was disallowed. Five years earlier the first European trained player, Swede Ulf Sterner also had a goal disallowed and never scored in the NHL. So Jaroslav missed out on the opportunity to become the first European trained player to score a goal in the NHL. He was held pointless in the three NHL games but played so well that St.Louis wanted him to stay for another year. They of course couldn't guarantee a spot on the team but told him that his chances were very good, especially since he had adapted very fast to the North American style of play.

Going Home

Jaroslav, who only months before had married in the USA, declined the offer and wanted to go home. He later said that he regretted that decision. "I only wish that I had been 25-years old instead of 30 when I came over," he said.

Jaroslav returned to the Czechoslovakian league and his team RH Brno, a club that he had played on from 1961 to 1975. When he retired in 1975 he became a coach in the Czechoslovakian league for many years. He also coached the Swiss national team between 1977-80.

Jaroslav was a greater player than most people knew when he came over to North America. Today he is regarded as a legendary player in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately the North American crowd only got a brief look at this top notch player who most certainly could have become a fan favorite with his fearless play in front of the goal.

Special Thanks To Patrick Houda

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