Forty years ago this spring, Czechoslovakia returned to the top of the hockey world. It was a long time coming. The country had spent more than two decades as an also-ran, the team that won two world championship titles in the late 1940s devastated by the twin disasters of the English Channel air crash and the U Herclíků arrests.
Now, powered by a new generation of stars – international legends like Václav Nedomanský, the Holík brothers, Milan Nový, Ivan Hlinka, Jiří Bubla, Jiří Holeček – they’d finally hit the peak. Two straight silvers in international competition, in the 1971 World Championships and then the Sapporo Olympics, were followed by the country’s first ice hockey gold in 23 years at the 1972 World Championships.
Alongside the legends was an up-and-coming defenseman named Rudolf Tajcnár. The 24-year-old Slovan Bratislava defenseman had gradually increased his presence on the national team. He’d been a seventh defenseman on the 1971 team, but then – benefitting from tragedy, when superstar Jan Suchý was suspended for a fatal drunk driving accident – he became a firm part of the rotation in 1972. He saw regular time during the Winter Olympics, and then in the Worlds he kept up with the Czechoslovak offensive juggernaut, scoring five goals.
His future looked bright. His trajectory was firmly upward. But Tajcnár had played his final game for the national team, and was instead about to embark on a journey that would take him from Bratislava to the
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Rudolf Tajcnár was born April 18, 1948, in Bratislava -- two months after the coup that gave the Communists unchallenged power in Czechoslovakia. Not much is known of his youth -- he excelled in tennis along with hockey, and in fact would teach tennis in
In a handful of photos from these early days, Tajcnár looks like a character from a fairy tale, a good and strong woodcutter. Barrel-chested with a wide and honest face. He looks powerful, and by all accounts he was – the common memory from anyone who saw him play was his slapshot, still spoken of with awe decades later. In the spring of 1972, Rudolf Tajcnár looks invincible.
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Something went drastically wrong soon after his
Accessible records from the era are frustratingly incomplete. If he was a free man that year, it’s possible (though unlikely) that he played on a lower-division team. Preseason rosters printed in Czech house organ Rudé právo don’t list him with Slovan Bratislava – but a game recap printed during the season briefly mentions that he’s out long-term, along with injured teammates Nedomanský and Ivan Grandtner, making it sound like he was just on the disabled list. But while both Nedomanský and Grandtner came back that season, Tajcnár never did. When the rest of the team was playing Kladno and
Czechoslovakian media of the day tended to focus on the positive. If someone had a black mark by their name, they weren’t mentioned. So there aren’t any of the features we’d see today – no “Rudy Tajcnár’s Fall and Redemption,” no tales of a comeback. For one season, Rudolf Tajcnár was just gone.
But then the next year he was back and it’s as if nothing happened. Back on the Slovan blueline, back as a solid offensive defenseman. The only tangible sign now that anything had changed is an absence – he was no longer on the national team, either as punishment or because he’d been overtaken by a new generation
Tajcnár continued along for a few more years, sticking quietly with Slovan Bratislava for three more seasons, through 1976-77. A solid player from what can be seen. Then in 1977, something changed again.
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The first Czechoslovakian hockey player to defect and then continue his career was likely Milan Matouš, a forward for I. ČLTK Praha who jumped during a 1948 tennis tournament and later played in Italy and Switzerland. Soon after came Zdeněk Marek, during the 1949 World Championships in
But the 1970s brought a seismic upheaval to this situation, and the change came from the two parties that most unsettled hockey during the decade – the World Hockey Association and Alan Eagleson. When the WHA’s Toronto Toros got Nedomanský and Richard Farda to defect in 1974, ignoring international agreements designed to restrict defectors, the playing field changed. Nedomanský and Farda weren’t fringe players – the former was one of the best players in the world, big and strong and an offensive force; the latter a talented scorer for ZKL Brno. This was impossible to ignore – the whole game had changed.
But between Nedomanský and Farda in 1974 and the flood that began in 1979, there was one more player that made the great leap.
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Tajcnár’s story picks up in
He signed with Swiss club HC Ambri-Piotta, but they were honoring an IIHF agreement barring defectors from playing for 18 months – Swiss teams played Czechoslovak clubs regularly over the years, and I imagine those exhibitions were lucrative for the Swiss teams. Tajcnár was stuck sitting, but he apparently didn’t want to wait.
Stein writes: “Our General Manager was Keith Allen, who had been having an ongoing dialogue with a Czech player agent regarding the possibility of Peter Stastny’s defecting from
The Flyers – persuaded in part by the story about the policemen – were convinced and bought in. They sent assistant coach Mike Nykoluk to
“He had to sit out a year before he could play, so he wasn’t doing anything," Nykoluk says. "He was a little bit overweight. He must have been living the good life when he was there.”
The deal ran into several problems – not least that Tajcnár already had the contract with Ambri-Piotta. “We had to sort of sneak him out of
“I met with Rudi and his local lawyer, got his signature on a contract, and then flew with him to
The Flyers sent him to their new farm team in
Strnad remembers Tajcnár as “very nice, a very polite person,” who “had a hard time adjusting to the
Jerome Mrazek, a goalie on that year’s Mariners team, says “I do recall Rudy to have been a gentle, unassuming man. A gentleman. There was a language barrier, but I think he appreciated being included in extra-curricular activities as I suspect he was, naturally, a bit homesick.”
Jim “Turk” Evers, the Mariners’ trainer that season, says “Rudy was a quiet guy. He was probably the oldest guy on the team. He wasn’t a very sociable guy, but he was a funny guy. He was a really big, stocky guy. He must have weighed about 230 pounds, and that was a lot back then. He had that mustache, he looked like Captain Kangaroo.”
“I think Rudy was kind of a loner. But he handled it really well considering that he was one of the first Europeans to come over,” says Steve Coates, a right wing who came to the Mariners in a midseason trade.
Despite the loneliness and culture shock, Tajcnár became a fan favorite with the Mariners. Diane Bore was the president of the booster club for the new team, a spot she held for two decades. “He was quite a ladies’ man. He was very pleasant and he always had a big smile. We sat in section 3 at the
“He was very popular,” Strnad says. “My students would bring in programs to have him sign.”
A big part of the popularity came from his thundering shot. “When he took a shot, he really took a shot,” Strnad says. “The fans would yell ‘Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!’ when he did.”
“Some of the players admitted later on – his shot was so hard it tended to rise and they were a little scared in front of the net,” says Augie Favazza, who covered the team for the Portland Press-Herald. “One of the players later said ‘it was the first time I heard a puck whistle.’ The team tried to get him to keep it down, but I think he was influenced by the crowd (and they loved it.)”
“He was quiet, but he was also like a father figure. We had a lot of young guys,” Evers says. “You could tell when he was mad – he’d give you that look like your Dad gives you.”
He played himself into shape, and impressed his teammates with his conditioning. Rick St. Croix, a Mariners goalie that season, says “When he first came over he would go through a pre-game off ice warm-up that was much more intense than we were used to. He would be jumping and stretching and in fact doing what most players do today. I think he was surprised that we were not doing our warming up the same way.”
“I remember Rudy being a really strong player. There was no question about it,” Coates says. But despite his size and strength, he wasn’t often an aggressive player. He later told a Swiss coach that they tried to make him into a “killer” in
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The Mariners kept winning and Tajcnár was a big part of it. The Flyers were starting to look at bringing him up to
“He was doing really well. We went to see him play in Hershey,” Nykoluk says. “We were gonna bring him up to the NHL – but His skate got caught in a rut there in Hershey and he twisted his ankle. That was the end of it there.”
Tajcnár’s one shot at the NHL had passed, though he did come back from the injury in time for the Calder Cup playoffs. He scored six points in the postseason as the Mariners completed their inaugural season with a championship.
After the season, the team’s ownership sent the players on a congratulatory trip to
“I remember him wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, with a big cigar and a drink in his hand – and he says ‘this is the life,’” Evers recalls. When those around him reacted with shock, “he just said ‘oh, I can speak English – I just don’t speak English.’” Coates recalls something similar -- “I asked him if he wanted to play golf, and he said no, he was going to play tennis – he spoke English!”
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“He was very instrumental in winning the Calder Cup. He sure had a lot of talent,” Nykoluk says. “It was just too bad. I would’ve liked to see him make it the NHL, but some freaky thing happens.”
He was expected to rejoin HC Ambri-Piotta in
Tajcnár hadn’t played since the Calder Cup finals, so he was sent down to get some seasoning. Tom Hodges was general manager of the Spokane Flyers, the Oilers’ affiliate in the Pacific Hockey League (like the WHA, in its final season). “Glen Sather called me one day and asked me ‘can you use a defenseman for a while? I want to get this fellow in playing shape.’ So he sent Rudy down.”
The new defenseman was well-received in
Rudy Tajcnár played two games for the Edmonton Oilers, his
“Rudy called me. He couldn’t speak very much English – ‘Mr. Hodges, do you want me to play hockey in
Tajcnár’s run in
“(the crowd) reserved its biggest cheers for Tajcnár. Every time the big Czech would come on the ice the appreciative crowds would roar approval. And each time he’d touch the puck there’d be a big ‘ooh’ or ‘aah,’ depending upon what he did with it.
“Booming point shots, with all of his 235-pounds behind them would get the ‘oohs,’ especially when the pucks would splat off the end boards. It was a drive from the point that accounted for his first goal, and one from center ice which got No. 2.
“’I like that,’ the friendly giant smiled when asked what he thought of the applause he gets. ‘That’s a very big help for me.’”
For the second straight season, though, he was derailed by injury. In the March 3 game against
The injury ended Tajcnár’s season and his North American career. The Pacific Hockey League was gone the next season, and so was he.
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His time in the United States came to an end in shocking fashion, with one more severe injury coming in an unexpected manner. While visiting
However serious his wounds were, he was back playing hockey in the autumn. He understandably gave up on North America at this point, and went back to
His coach there was Jiří Kren, who as a player had pursued a similar path to Tajcnár. Kren was a young player for Sparta Praha when he defected in
Kren says Tajcnár was "very fine technically and very strong physically,” but “rarely used his athletic advantage.”
“Some times for a joke we sent him before the game in underwear to the adversary’s dressing room, just to step in and to say ‘sorry, I made a mistake with the dressing room.’ With his impressive physical (size) … the adversary team was shocked and for some time lost the ‘winning spirit.’”
Tajcnár scored 23 goals over two seasons with HC Ambri-Piotta, then moved on to Swiss third-league side HC Ascona. No statistics exist from his time there – though he did play the 1982-83 season along fellow defector Richard Farda, once his teammate on the
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One obscure tale marked a strange and sad coda to Tajcnár’s hockey career. In 1987, he defected back to
Rudolf Tajcnár died in
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1the agent was Louie Katona, a restaurateur in Toronto. I was unable to reach him for an interview.
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A handful of acknowledgements. The top photo comes from the Maine Mariners' 1977-78 team photo; the middle photo comes from a Mariners program from that season.
Two articles by Václav Jáchim were invaluable in getting information on Tajcnár’s life in Czechoslovakia -- this memorial piece including an interview with Tajcnár, and this interview with Tajcnár’s friend and Slovan defense partner, Milan Kužela.
Members of the Society for International Hockey Research e-list provided some details for this piece, including the breakdown of Tajcnár's brief time in Edmonton. The Spokane Daily Chronicle article that's quoted extensively can be found here.
If anyone has more to contribute about Rudolf Tajcnár, I can be reached at postpessimist at gmail dot com.
For those concerned about sourcing, all interviews were conducted via phone except for Gil Stein (letter), and Jerome Mrazek, Rick St. Croix, and Jiří Kren (e-mail). Thanks to everyone who took the time to help me out.
And thank you, for reading this far!