July 05, 2015

Ivan Hlinka

Ivan Hlinka was one of the top centers in the world for much of the late 1970's and early 1980s but spent most of his prime in his native Czechoslovakia. To much of the far-off North American audience Hlinka was overshadowed by the Soviet showmen and even his own teammates like Milan Novy and Vladimir Martinec.

A big man at 6'2" 215 pounds, Ivan Hlinka was giant player by international standards. He was compared to Phil Esposito, though he was a better skater. He used size and quick steps of speed effectively to protect the puck expertly. Like Espo he scored a lot from the slot, but, like so many European stars, preferred to pass first.

Hlinka played in 11 World Championships and made the all star team in 1977 and 1978. Three times he was a World Champion (1972, 1976 and 1977) while winning five silver and three bronze medals as well.

Hlinka also participated in two Olympics, winning bronze in 1972 and silver in 1976. In 11 total Olympic contests, Hlinka scored 8 goals and 14 points.

He scored 848 points in 469 league games in his native country. He was named as the top player in the entire country in 1978, and was runner up in 1977.

However his biggest accomplishment came in 1976 when the Czechs upset the Russians and then took Canada to the limit before finally bowing to the Canadians. In the process Hlinka was named the top forward in the 1976 Canada Cup.

Because of communist occupation of the country, Hlinka did not have the freedom to pursue a career in the National Hockey League. That changed in the early 1980s when the cash-starved Czechoslovakians started selling the playing rights of veteran players only. NHL teams threw money at the communist hockey program to secure players like Hlinka who were near the end of their career.

In 1981 Vancouver Canucks general manager Jake Milford secured Hlinka and defensemen Jiri Bubla, the first Czechoslovakians to be allowed to move to the NHL. Despite securing each player, the Canucks owned neither player's rights as far as the NHL was concerned. Winnipeg had drafted Hlinka and the Colorado Rockies had drafted Bubla. The three teams had to work out a complicated trade that saw Brent Ashton join Colorado and Lucien Deblois move to the Jets.

In his first season he made an immediate impression by scoring 23 goals and 37 assists for 60 points, a team record for most points by a Canuck rookie at the time. The following season Hlinka was a big part of the memorable 1982 "Cinderella" Stanley Cup run.

Ivan Hlinka only played 2 seasons in Vancouver before retiring. He scored 123 points in 137 games. NHL fans never really got a taste of just how good Hlinka really was. The expectations of the aging stars may have been unfair.

Hlinka admitted his struggles.

“Sure it has been a big adjustment. You get told to shoot as often as you can from possible and impossible positions and you have to change all your thinking. In Czechoslovakia you carry the puck, you make goals, well, artistically. It is different here but then I didn’t come here to change Canadian hockey.”

“Maybe the worst thing for me,” he says, “has been the time zones, the feeling of distance and that sometimes has made me tired.” In Czechoslovakia he has sat through day-long trips on a rattling team bus, but there was never the psychological dislocation. A big man from a small country, Hlinka may have been dwarfed by the sheer logistics of his new league.

At the time Canucks assistant coach Ron Smith commented on Hlinka's transition.

"There was a feeling of disappointment,” said Smith. “We felt that Ivan was very much overestimating this league and underestimating his own potential to inflict himself. We listed some points he should think about, some things he could work on to improve his contribution”

Smith specifically mentioned shooting the puck more.

“His reluctance to shoot, considering his skill, was becoming a problem. He didn’t seem to have the confidence.”

Smith, showing his ignorance as to how Easter European stars were trained, said Hlinka needed to play with more urgency.

“He needed to hurry it up when he didn’t have the puck. When another guy had the puck we felt he should be moving over 20 feet at a faster rate.”

After his NHL stint Hlinka spent a couple of seasons in Switzerland before returning to his hometown of Litvinov to start an equally successful coaching career. He became the head coach of the Czech national team and, as all Canadians now know, is the gold medal winning coach in the 1998 Olympic games and the gold medal at the 1999 World Championships.

In 2000 Hlinka signed on to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins. The same summer Finland's Alpo Suhonen became coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. Together they became the first European trained coaches to step behind the bench of a National Hockey League team.

Hlinka's tenure in Pittsburgh was brief. In his first season the Penguins were 42-28-12, good enough to make the playoffs. But an 0-4 start the following season Hlinka was replaced by Rick Kehoe.

In August 2004 the hockey world was shocked by Hlinka's untimely death.

Hlinka was driving to a golf course in Karlovy Vary in western Bohemia to play one of the last golf games before beginning his third stint as Czech national team coach during the World Cup. Just a few kilometers before the golf course, a large truck coming in the opposite direction smashed into Hlinka's car. Police blamed the crash on an error by the truck driver and said Hlinka had virtually no chance to avoid the crash.

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