Monday, June 20, 2011

Atlanta's Czechs (Part 1)

The brief period of furious mourning passed -- apparently, among the things we've learned over the past month and a half is that thanks to my inner strength I can indeed cope with being abandoned by a hockey team. The story of my voyage of self-discovery will be released by Random House in August, $29.95 hardcover.

But I'm not yet averse to a little nostalgia. One of the things that made the Thrashers easy to root for (for me, at least. Perhaps not you) was their willingness to sign our Slavic brothers. In their brief time in the league, the Thrashers employed (by my count) 16 Czechs and four Slovaks -- in comparison, the longer-lasting Avalanche have had only eight Czechs. The Thrashers' roster sometimes looked like I'd assembled it in a poorly-thought-out game of Eastside Hockey Manager.

A look back is in order. In their first season alone, the Thrashers had the following guys on the roster:

Patrik Štefan -- when they make the sad Thrashers movie, the Štefan pick will start it off. He would have benefited from more time in the minors, not playing in the IHL, not suffering so many concussions, not forever being known as "the guy picked in front of the Sedins." Scored 25 points in 1999-2000 -- surprisingly, that wasn't his best year. He'd broken down by 2008 and is now an agent in California.

Petr Buzek -- forever the answer to the unasked trivia question, "who was the Thrashers' first all-star," presumably picked because of his not-actually-horrible-by-Thrashers-standards -22 in 99-00. He'd been a promising prospect whose career was derailed by a nasty 1995 car accident; 99-00 was his only full NHL season. He played only 14 games for the Thrashers over the next two seasons before being dealt to Calgary -- after 1 1/2 part-time years there he returned to the Czech Republic. He's now in management with Dukla Jihlava.

František Kaberle -- If you have anything bad to say about this guy, don't say it 'round here. Came over from the Kings in a mid-season trade, was one of the Thrashers' steadiest defensemen in the early years. Losing him for nothing was the start of the downward spiral. Won the Cup with Carolina in 2006, he's been back in the Czech Republic for a few years -- he'll play for Plzeň next season. With Tomáš winning the Cup this year, the Kaberle brothers can swap stories over beers in Kladno this summer.

Martin Procházka -- Even my Czech Thrashers memory isn't infallible -- I routinely forget that he ever played in Atlanta. Racked up one assist in three games in his NHL swan song. He's split the past decade between Russia and the Czech Republic; after taking last year off, he's reportedly coming back with Kladno next season. (edit: hours after I wrote this, he signed with EV Regensburg of Germany instead.)

Vladimír Vůjtek -- Doomed from the start, I remember him best because he caught a skate blade in the face in the pre-season. After that, it's perhaps understandable that he only lasted three games before returning to Europe, where presumably skate blades stay where they belong. Also notable because a large Vůjtek photo remained on the wall of the team shop for several years after his departure. He had a curious career arc -- he'd play on the fringes of North American hockey, head back to Europe for a few years, then return to the U.S. for a cup of coffee. The Thrashers experience didn't totally put him off and he returned for a five-game stint with the Penguins four years later. After that, he collected passport stamps with appearances in Finland, Russia, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. He's since packed it in and is now an agent in Prague.

Coming soon: part two!

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