Sunday, April 13, 2008

Petr Nedved

My fascination with the National Hockey League Entry Draft more or less began in 1990 with Petr Nedved.

As a young fan of the lowly Vancouver Canucks, the draft represented hope. With Trevor Linden in place as the heart and soul, the team desperately needed a scoring superstar. With the draft in Vancouver and with the Canucks holding three of the first twenty-three picks, including #2 overall pick, these were exciting times.

The draft was said to be, and would prove to be, one of the deepest in history. Mike Ricci entered the previous season as the consensus top pick, but Owen Nolan and Keith Primeau caught up quickly. Jaromir Jagr would have undoubtedly been the top choice but there was still risk because his availability was still in doubt as political reform was still in progress.

But the man I wanted was another Czech player - Petr Nedved.

There was no worries about Nedved's immediate availability. 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, 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.

I, like probably most west coast fans, desperately wanted Vancouver to take Nedved. Keith Primeau, with his hulking size, was my other choice, although Philadelphia was supposedly offering Ron Sutter and Scott Mellanby if Vancouver flipped picks and slipped down to #4. They wanted Nedved too.

The Canucks did take Nedved, 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 I 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.

Following the Olympics his NHL future was finally solved. The St. Louis Blues signed him, which led to a compensation trade that saw Jeff Brown, Bret Hedican and Nathan Lafayette come to Vancouver. The move worked well for Vancouver, as the defensive depth and mobility allowed them to challenge the New York Rangers for the Stanley Cup that spring.

Despite the contract dispute and despite the less-than-great three years in Vancouver, I remained a Petr Nedved fan. He seemed really likeable, and being a Gretzky fan myself, I really wanted Nedved's mimicking game style to work on the west coast.

I didn't get to follow Nedved's career as closely after he left Vancouver. His tenure in St. Louis lasted only a few months as he was moved to the New York Rangers. Because Mark Messier did not take a liking to him, Nedved was then moved on to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Playing with Ron Francis and countryman Jaromir Jagr (not to mention the great Mario Lemieux in power play situations), Nedved posted his best season in 1995-96. Still, his 45 goals and 99 points were a far cry from the promise of Gretzky.

Another principled contract dispute saw Nedved return to New York, this time getting the chance to play with Gretzky. He called it his career highlight, but somehow I always felt Nedved lost his drive to be the next Gretzky. Perhaps all the money and the playboy lifestyle of a NHL star made him complacent to be Petr Nedved instead of being "the next one," which was fully his intention when he defected as a 17 year old.

Nedved would toil with Edmonton, Phoenix and Philadelphia before his NHL career quietly came to an end in 2007. Upon his return to the Czech Republic, he had scored 310 goals, 407 assists and 717 points in 982 games.

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