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Passing the puck

Passing the puck

Posted: January 12, 2000

By Frantisek Bouc

After 20 years, a revered Czech hockey veteran calls it quits Vladimir Ruzicka may be the greatest player North America never heard of, but for Slavia Praha fans he walks on water. He won't for much longer. At 36, after two decades as a pro, Slavia and 1998 gold-medal winning captain Ruzicka, who was playing in pain, announced the end of a glamorous career. NHL stars and Ruzicka's former teammates Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr immediately expressed surprise and regret. Ruzicka cited a groin injury and ongoing back problems. "I've never been injured before," he said, "so I felt quite annoyed." Ruzicka was as close to a Wayne Gretzky as the Czechs had, but didn't make his NHL debut until age 28. Until he threatened to boycott the Czechoslovak league in 1988, Communist sports officials kept him at home. And home was where he thrived. He made his pro debut at 16, skating for Litvinov, and scored against Dukla Jihlava 10 seconds into his ice time. His shot beat national team goaltender Jiri Kralik. In 1982, he was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, but was barred from leaving. But Ruzicka's global fame only grew. In the 1980s, he twice played for Czechoslovakia at the Olympics and won the gold at the 1985 World Championships. Still, Communist authorities blocked his NHL dream. Ruzicka said he "felt a life chance slipping away." He called his situation "desperate." He finally got a crack at the NHL - but only after threatening the boycott. Between 1989 and 1992, Ruzicka played 233 NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers, the Boston Bruins and the Ottawa Senators, amassing 82 goals and 85 assists. He was Boston's top scorer in the 1991-92 season. But the NHL, focusing on younger talent, had come too late. When he came home, Ruzicka joined Slavia. The road to Olympic gold Five times during his career, Ruzicka has led the Czech league in scoring. He's been the league's Most Productive Player four times. In 679 Extraliga games, he scored 431 goals. In 200 national team appearances, he added another 112 tallies. He has twice been named the country's Player of the Year. But the jewel in Ruzicka's crown was leading a star-studded Czech team to victory in the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano. "It's a great feeling to be in the limelight at this age," Ruzicka said at the time. "I thought it was all over for me when my NHL career ended." National team coach Ivan Hlinka's interest in Ruzicka perked up when he played spectacularly alongside Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Jagr during exhibition games in the summer of 1997. Ruzicka returned to the international arena later that year, playing for the Czechs at the Karjala Cup, a leg of the Euro Hockey Tour. It was the first time he'd worn a national team jersey for eight years. Although Nagano brought Ruzicka's national career to a close, his decision to retire surprised his Olympic teammates. "It's a pity. Vlada's always been a great player - such a player is born once in 20 or 30 years," Buffalo Sabres goaltender Hasek said. "No other player has caused me so many problems and scored so many goals in our league and in the NHL than him." "Ruzicka's quit?" Jagr asked. "It's a shame ... It's always bad when players like Ruzicka or Gretzky finish. ... When I was a junior and played at home, [Ruzicka was the best] on the national team and he was my hero." An emotional matter Ruzicka said that he would coach Slavia's junior team and take a management role. Slavia's junior team dominates the youth league and has won the Czech championship two years running. Its senior counterparts, meanwhile, are struggling to make the playoffs. NHL teams usually poach the fruits of Slavia's successful junior program. In the last three years, 11 Slavia juniors have been picked in the NHL entry drafts. Ruzicka admits that a NHL career is the ultimate goal of any hockey player. Players cannot be forced to stay home, he says. "It's hard to say whether it's better to leave at 17 or 28 as I did," Ruzicka said. "But all players should know that Europeans can succeed in the NHL only with technical and creative play. ... There are millions of madmen in America who can only shoot the puck against the board and skate from one edge to the other." Ruzicka is scheduled to make his final appearance on Extraliga ice when Slavia takes on Chemopol Litvinov in March. "I would like to play my last game against Litvinov," Ruzicka revealed. "I grew up in the Litvinov organization, it's an emotional matter for me." As it is for Czech and Slavia fans alike.

By Frantisek Bouc

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