August 28, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Vaclav Nedomansky

When Vaclav Nedomansky defected to Canada in 1974 to play for the Toronto Toros in the WHA, not many people in North America realized what a great star he was back in Europe. Vaclav was 30-years old at the time and had a marvellous career behind him in the European rinks.

Young hockey players around Europe cherished his number 14 in the same way as North American kids cherished Gordie Howe's number 9, Guy Lafleur's number 10 or Bobby Orr's number 4. Vaclav was the ultimate hero for thousands of fans who loved the way he dominated games.

Vaclav was born in Hodonin, in what would now be the Czech Republic, but his parents were Slovaks.

Vaclav's talent was obvious very early on and he soon came to the Slovak club Slovan Bratislava where he played from 1962 until he left for North America 1974. During the 12 seasons in the Czechoslovakian league he scored a stunning 369 goals in 419 games. He led the league in scoring four times (1967, 71, 72 and 74).

He was not just a dominant force in the Czechoslovakian league but he was also super when he played for the Czechoslovakian national team. He scored 163 goals in 220 games and played in 10 World Championship tournaments between 1965-74 as well as two Olympic tournaments in 1968 and 1972.

In 1972 he was the offensive catalyst who led Czechoslovakia to a gold medal, breaking the Soviet dominance. He scored 15 points, including 9 goals, in the 10 games. The same year as he defected he led all goal scorers during the 1974 world championship tournament and was selected as the best forward of the tournament. He had also been a first All-Star three times (1969, 70 and 74) on the right wing.

Scouts and managers in the NHL were drooling over the 6'2" and 210 Ibs Slovak. He had all the tools necessary to become a star in the NHL. He not only had the size but he also possessed the best wrist shot in the world at that time. On a couple of occasions his wrist shot was reportedly clocked at 90 miles per hour which was harder than most players slap shots at that time.

When Vaclav came to the Toros he was teamed up with future Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich. Even though Vaclav didn't set the league on fire upon his arrival, he nevertheless scored a very respectable 81 points (41 goals) in 78 games. The next season (1975-76) he had adapted a little more to the smaller rinks and showed his marvellous skills. He scored 56 goals and 98 points for the Toros. He won the Paul Deneau Trophy that season awarded to WHA's most gentlemanly player.

As the Toros moved to Birmingham in 1976 Vaclav continued to score goals, even though his production fell to "only" 36 goals during the 1976-77 season. He was then signed as a free agent by Detroit Red Wings on November 18, 1977. He was finally playing in the NHL, almost 10 years after NY Rangers GM Emile Francis had tried to lure him over to New York.

His first season in Detroit wasn't all that great and he scored only 28 points (11 goals) in 64 games, not exactly the numbers one would expect from a World class player. But as soon as Vaclav settled down in the Motor City, he came back and showed flashes of his brilliance. Although clearly past his prime he scored 38 and 35 goals the following two seasons (78-79 and 79-80). His 73 and 74 points was a really good result considering the fact that he was 35-36 years old playing for one of the worst teams in the league. Although not as fast as he used to be he still had that deadly wrist shot as well as great touch around the net. As his speed deteriorated he became more and more of a power forward who thrived in the slot. He was hard to move away from the slot in the same fashion as Phil Esposito was and became something of a power play specialist.

He played a couple of more seasons in Detroit before he was signed by NY Rangers as a free agent on September 30, 1982. He scored a goal in his first game with the Rangers before getting claimed off waivers by St.Louis on October 6, 1982.

Ironically enough it was Emile Francis who was behind the deal, the former Rangers' GM who had his eyes on Vaclav back in the 1960's was now a St. Louis GM. He finally got Vaclav on his team, ok so "Big Ned" was almost 39, but it didn't matter to Francis. 

The New York management weren't happy about losing Vaclav. They never figured that anybody would be interested in a 38-year old player with a million dollar contract, but they had forgot about Francis. They were determined to get "Nedo" back and traded young prospect Andre Dore to St. Louis in exchange for Vaclav and Glen Hanlon on January 4, 1983. "Big Ned's" stint with St. Louis only lasted for 22 games before he came back to the "Big Apple". Upon his return to NY Rangers he scored 11 goals in 34 games, 8 of them coming on the power play. He finished that 1982-83 season with 31 points (14 goals) in 57 games before calling it quits, almost 40-years old. 

A marvelous career that had spanned for over three decades came to an end which saw "Big Ned" score close to 800 goals. Had he been able to play in North America during his prime then he could very well have challenged Esposito's then record 76 goals in a season.

Vaclav later went on to scout for the Los Angeles Kings.

No comments: