September 20, 2017

Legends of Team Canada: Petr Nedved

The 1994 Canadian Olympic team featured a sure-fire NHL sharpshooter to lead the Canadian team offensively.

And he wasn't even Canadian.

Correct that statement. He was newly Canadian.

Petr Nedved of the Czech Republic was holding out from the Vancouver Canucks in a contract dispute. The previous year he scored 38 goals for the Canucks and was a rising star in the NHL. 

He also acquired his Canadian citizenship and passport, something he still holds to this very day.

Looking for options to keep playing during his contract holdout, Nedved turned to the Canadian national team. Nedved had never represented the Czech Republic at international tournament at that point, so since he now had his Canadian citizenship he was ruled eligible to play for Canada.

It was not the first time Nedved made international headlines. 

As a 17 year old junior player with Litvinov, he made a daring decision that most of us can not even comprehend. While playing in Calgary at the Mac's Major Midget tournament, Nedved slipped into the night carrying nothing but his hockey bag. He had defected on January 2nd, 1989, with dreams of playing in the National Hockey League.

"The defection, that night, is something I'll remember the rest of my life. It was the biggest decision I ever had to make. I thought about staying even before I left for the tournament but I wasn't sure and I didn't know really what to expect. There were a lot of questions I was asking myself. Am I able to go back home? Will my parents be okay with my brother? I was almost more scared for my family than me. But I knew I wanted to play in the National Hockey League and, other than that, I didn't know much ... there were a lot of unknowns. Looking back now I'm surprised I was able to make that decision," Nedved told the Calgary Herald years later.

The center of an international dispute, Nedved hid out in Calgary for 5 months while he waited for his landed immigrant status.

All eyes were on the spindly Czech kid who did nothing to hide his fascination with Wayne Gretzky. He emulated him in every way. He tucked in his shirt the same, wore the same Jofa helmet, and copied his hunched over skating style. He'd fly down the win, curl at the blue line looking for an amazing pass, although he really should have been more greedy and use his laser of a shot more often.

Nedved tore up the Western Hockey League with 65 goals and 145 points in 71 games. His offense was undeniable. He had the creativity and vision of #99. He was a game breaker through and through. He had already showed more courage than any other player possibly could.

The Canucks drafted Nedved second overall in the 1990 NHL Draft, but did not really not what to do with him. He made the NHL team immediately, but he was too slight to make an impact. But sending him back to junior was not an option either, as he was too good for that league, and he had no other place to play. So the Canucks coddled him on the 4th line. To this day many believe Nedved's development was stagnated by this decision. He probably should have been returned to junior, even if the WHL offered no competition.

Nedved, despite glimpses of brilliance, never really found his way in the NHL until his third season, when he scored 38 goals and 71 points, despite getting next to no prime power play time. You see, by now the Canucks had secured Pavel Bure. With his 60 goals and explosive skating, the Russian Rocket became the offensive dynamo Vancouver was looking for. Nedved was second fiddle. The Canucks were trying to change his game to more of a two way game, as his Gretzky-mirroring did not mesh well with the puck-hogging Bure.

The Canucks were knocked out of the 1993 playoffs by Gretzky's L.A. Kings. At the conclusion of the final game Nedved sheepishly asked The Great One for his stick. That would prove to be Nedved's final act in Vancouver.

Showing the same resolve that he used to defect to Canada as a teenager, the principled Nedved held out in a contract dispute. The two sides were far apart in terms of money, but rumors had Nedved unhappy in Vancouver and demanding to be traded.

Interestingly, Nedved would stay in the news that season. He had gained his Canadian citizenship, and since he never play for the Czech national team, he was allowed to play with the Canadian national team that season. Wearing number 93 for the year he gained citizenship, he and Paul Kariya would lead Canada to a silver medal in the Olympics in the days before full NHL participation.

"The thing is, I feel Canadian. Canada is my home, for now and forever," Nedved said, who still does maintain a residence in Vancouver all these years later, though he primarily lives in the Czech Republic. "I wanted to be free, and Canada has made it possible. I am thankful to the country."

"This is not a marriage of convenience," insisted Canadian director of hockey operations George Kingston. "From the beginning it was clear Petr wanted to be an Olympian because he wanted to do something for Canada. Playing for Canada is a win-win situation for everybody."

With Nedved and up-and-coming phenom Paul Kariya leading the way, the 1994 Canadian team had something most Olympic teams of the past did not have - game breaking offensive stars. 

Canada's hopes of finally bringing home Olympic gold lied in the hands of a Czech defector. It almost worked, too, but Canada lost the gold medal game to Sweden in a memorable shootout goal by Peter Forsberg.

Nedved had opened the shootout with a goal, and shot again before Forsberg's winner. Nedved missed on what could have been the game winning goal for Canada.

"When I went to shovel the puck in, it just got too far ahead of me and I couldn't reach it. I had the win on my stick," said a dejected Nedved. 

That's how close Nedved came from being the greatest Canadian hockey hero since Paul Henderson.

Following the Olympics his NHL future was finally solved. He would go onto enjoy good seasons in Pittsburgh and New York before bouncing around the league. 

In 2007 his NHL career came to an end, but not his puck-chasing days. He returned home to the politically stable Czech Republic and played for many more seasons. 

In fact, he even was given special permission to play for the Czech Republic Olympic team at the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, some 20 years after playing for Canada at Lillehammer.

"I never thought, after 20 years, I would go back to the Olypics. This is a nice way to end my career."

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