Defector. Sniper. Canadian Olympian. Enigma.
Lots of words can be used to describe the life and hockey career of Petr Nedved. “Czechoslovakian Olympian” was never a phrase that even he, now 42, thought would be appropriate. But now, two decades after competing in his first Olympic Games in 1994 — as a Canadian — and 25 years after defecting, he will compete in Sochi for a country he once helped defeat.
“I knew you guys didn’t think I was still playing,” he said with a smile. “Here I am.”
The fact that he is still playing at all, let alone at an Olympic level, comes as a surprise to most North American hockey fans, but he is still playing in the Czech Republic, and averaging more than a point per game, since he left the NHL in 2007. But his storybook trip to Sochi started long before he left the NHL, and even before he even entered the league.
In 1989, Nedved, just 17 at the time, took it upon himself to get in touch with the police while participating in a midget tournament in Calgary and defect from communist Czechoslovakia — with just $20 and his hockey gear to his name. He never even told his parents about his plans, despite the fact that he had his own reservations. He told the <em>Calgary Herald</em>:
“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.”
Just a year later, he was drafted second overall by the Vancouver Canucks and began a long NHL career in which he played 982 games, scored more than 300 goals, and was known as one of the game’s elite snipers for a time. In 1994, the same year he won the silver medal with Canada, he even married supermodel Veronika Verekova. Certainly, his career has been different than that of most every other hockey player, even those few who have also been lucky enough to marry supermodels.
“My whole life has been strange,” says Nedved, who is well aware of the fact that he has chosen a different path than most.
If not for International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rules, Nedved might have been able to compete in Vancouver in 2010, but he had to have four years away from international hockey after moving back to Czechoslovakia. In 2011 though, after regaining eligibility, he captained his Czech team at the Karjala Cup tournament.
Though his best playing days are long gone, Nedved gets to compete on a team full of players who are at least approaching his age. The Czech roster includes 10 members over the age of 30 and features friend and hockey legend Jaromir Jagr, who will turn 42 during the tournament.
Nedved and Jagr have always gotten along, since they were teammates on the Pittsburgh Penguins. “We have the same sense of humor,” Nedved said. “We don’t have to say anything and we’re laughing.”
The Olympic Games will likely be more of a swansong than anything else for Nedved, who will hang up his skates after this year. “I still love the game. I love the competition. I still have the drive. This is it for me. This is my last season in my career,” he said. “It’s time.”
But don’t be surprised if he gets a goal or two and plays an important role.
“Sometimes he needs only one shot, and he’ll put it in,” said teammate and long-time NHLer Tomas Kaberle. “Sometimes one chance in a hockey game makes a big difference.”
Considering the long, and sometimes strange, road he has been down, being named to the Olympic team might be a pleasant surprise to not only fans of the game, but Nedved himself. “I never thought at the end of my career, after 20 years, I would go to the Olympic Games. This is kind of a nice way to end my career.”
For Nedved, the phrase “Czech Olympian” will certainly have a nice ring to it.