July 03, 2015
Though Igor Liba's NHL stat line does not hint at greatness, a closer look reveals he is a true legend of hockey, at least in his native Slovakia.
Liba only played one disappointing season in the NHL, but his countrymen and his international opponents always raved about his greatness.
"This guy was born for hockey. There's very few of such players. He's one of the greatest talents that Slovakia ever had," said the legendary Peter Stastny, arguably the greatest Slovakian player of all time, and NHL Hockey Hall of Famer.
Stastny added: "Comparable to Liba was Vladimir Martinec - simply guys who were technically abnormally gifted. But not only did he [Liba] have the technique, he had the feeling for the game, the vision. He had great hands, great stability - he wasn't super fast, but he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted - with anyone. And that's something that truly only the best of the best can manage."
Perhaps the biggest compliment came from Viktor Tikhonov, the coach of the Soviet national team - the team that had a great international rivalry with Czechoslovakia.
"If I could pick one Czechoslovak player for CSKA, it would be one of the most universal players in the world - Igor Liba," Tikhonov said.
An excellent skater and tremendous defensive player, Liba could compare nicely to a modern day Marian Hossa. Liba was gifted offensively as well. He loved to pass the puck and make plays, though he never used his heavy and accurate shot nearly enough.
He played in Kosice where he won five national championships, three as captain. He play famously on a line Jan Vodila and Miroslav Ihnacak.
"Liba is almost or maybe the best hockey player in Czechoslovakia," said Ihnacak.
Liba also played in six world championships, three Olympics and two Canada Cups.
The 1984 Olympics was his real coming out party. Multiple reports raved about his play and hailed him as the best player on the Czechoslovakian Olympic team. The team played a left wing lock system, really relying on Liba's skating ability to help out at both ends of the ice. Linemates Darius Rusnak and Vincent Lukac benefited offensively. The Soviets were said to fear Liba, but they managed to edge out the Czechoslovakian team for the gold medal.
Largely due to his play in the Sarajevo Olympics, Liba was named as the Czechoslovakian player of the year in 1984.
He came over to the NHL for the 1988-89 season. He was already 28 years old, unable to play in the west due to political reasons that prevented the many hockey greats from communist Eastern Bloc countries to pursue hockey careers in the NHL at the time. He did not have to defect, as, for a significant price, the Minnesota North Stars paid for his release, as well as the rights of national team linemate Dusan Pasek. The former unified state of Czechoslovakia, unlike the Soviet Union, had made it's older stars available to the NHL for cold hard cash.
Minnesota also had to secure Liba's NHL rights, as the Calgary Flames had drafted Liba way back in 1983. It cost the North Stars a fifth round pick in 1988. Add that to the cost of securing and signing Liba, bringing him to North America and all the time involved, the North Stars heavily invested in their future. It was not an investment that would pay off in the sense that he would never play for the North Stars.
Liba struggled in his initial training camp. Coming to America was a very foreign experience for Liba, both on and off the ice. He spoke basically no English, making communicating with this coaches and teammates very difficult. He was very homesick.
The North Stars tried sending Liba to their minor league affiliate so that he could be better acclimated to North America and the professional game. He refused to go, saying he would return home rather than play in Kalamazoo (IHL).
The stalemate was quickly resolved when the North Stars included Liba in a big trade with the New York Rangers. Liba was traded with Brian Lawton and Rick Bennett to N.Y. Rangers in exchange for Paul Jerrard, Mark Tinordi, Bret Barnett, Mike Sullivan and a draft pick.
Liba got off to a decent start in New York, scoring 2 goals and 7 points in 10 games before he was on the move again. Just before Christmas 1988 he was traded to Los Angeles by NY Rangers with Todd Elik, Michael Boyce and future considerations for Dean Kennedy and Denis Larocque.
Liba was thought to be a possible linemate for Wayne Gretzky, but, as Liba himself admitted, it was not a good fit "because we both passed the puck too much." Liba struggled on other lines, finishing his season in LA with 27 games played with 5 goals and 18 points. A separated shoulder and bruised hand did not help matters.
Following the season Liba made the hasty decision to return to Europe. It was a decision he would regret.
"Time has shown that I shouldn't have left the NHL so soon, and that I shouldn't have trusted false promises of people who promised me a great hockey life in Europe," said Liba.
"To this day, I regret it. One guy convinced me, that I should go to Germany. He conned me, it was too late when I found out that it wouldn't be it. I made the greatest mistake of my life. I could've continued in the NHL, I had the offers."
Liba never did report to Germany. He returned to Kosice, Czechoslovakia where he enjoyed so many fine years prior to his jumping to the NHL. He would later move to Italy, Austria and Finland, while returning to play for the Czechoslovakian and Slovakian national teams.