A tribute to Ivan Hlinka

Ivan Hlinka, photo: CTK

Just over two weeks ago the Czech Republic lost one of its all-time great sports heroes, former hockey player and later coach, Ivan Hlinka, who was killed in a car accident just outside the west Bohemian town of Karlovy Vary. In this Special we look back at Ivan Hlinka - the player, the hockey legend - as recalled by players and friends, a man mourned by many and now sorely missed.

Ivan Hlinka,  photo: CTK
"I've been an optimist since birth. I think a coach has to be an optimist by nature otherwise he can't do his job as well." - Ivan Hlinka

Certainly Ivan Hlinka was an optimist and he had every reason to be one following a brilliant career on the ice that began when he was just 12 years old.

At 16, Hlinka was already playing for the Czech club Litvinov; by the age of twenty he had already been named captain of the team. He would remain with Litvinov a phenomenal 19 years. The peaks of his career then came in the 1970s when, as a Czech forward, he helped Czechoslovakia win three World Championships. What's more, in 1976, Hlinka was also a key player on the team that downed Team Canada in the Canada Cup.

"Thirty seconds left... 0-0 here in Montreal. Martinec to Augusta, Augusta centres, gooooaaaal!"

As a player Hlinka also made his mark by becoming one of the first Czechs to ever cross-over to the NHL. In 1981 he joined the Vancouver Canucks, and, amazingly, set that team's record for most points ever notched by a rookie - 60 - a respectable number indeed.

Over two years with the Canucks Hlinka notched 42 goals and 81 assists. Clearly he still had a great measure of drive that would propel him into a coaching career with the Czech national side, and, for a spell, even with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Ivan Hlinka,  photo: CTK
But, with the passage of time we will remember Ivan Hlinka most for the Czech Republic's golden run in the 1990s. Behind the bench Mr Hlinka led the Czechs back-to-back championship titles, once over Finland, once over Slovakia.

And, then there was the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano - a tournament apart.

"The Russians throw the puck down the ice for the icing call, but it's the end of the game! The end of the game and the Olympic gold is ours!"

In Nagano Ivan Hlinka led the Czechs over the U.S. and over Canada in what has become a legendary semi-final that came down to penalty shoot-outs. Robert Reichl scored the Czechs' lone goal against Canadian legend Patrick Roy, while Czech great Dominik Hasek stoned them all.

"Shanahan - the fifth Canadian player. If he misses we're in the final. Shanahan! Ohhhh! He's missed, he's missed, he's missed!"

The final, then, was almost academic: a one-goal win over Russia, clinched by defenseman Petr Svoboda. He almost couldn't believe his luck at the time. "I had to hold my breath till the very end: a one-goal-lead doesn't mean anything."

Tribute to Ivan Hlinka,  photo: CTK
On returning to the Czech Republic, the national team including its beaming white-haired coach was greeted by thousands of well-wishers on Prague's historic Old Town Square. Among those who sent congratulations was then-president Vaclav Havel.

"I am celebrating along with our fellow citizens. A short while ago I spoke with Dominik Hasek. I told him people here were calling for 'Hasek to the Castle' and I told him I was looking forward to him as my successor! He replied, however, that he'd still like to play hockey for a little while!"

It has all faded now, and all that are left are the memories. None of Hlinka's friends, fellow players and those he had coached could believe that he had died. Defenseman Jiri Slegr had this to say:

The funeral of Ivan Hlinka,  photo: CTK
"I knew Mr Hlinka for many years, I used to play on his lawn, and he taught me a lot. Of course, it took many years and many steps. I'll always remember him as a good person who taught us how to win. It's thanks to him that many of us became the good players we are today, and we'll always be thankful for that. It's very difficult for me to talk about it - it's like when my own father died: it will take me a long time to come to terms with it."

Forward Martin Rucinsky, also said that for him Ivan Hlinka was something like a father.

"It's difficult for all of us. It's difficult to concentrate on hockey just now. For me it was a terrible tragedy. Ivan was something more. Ivan was an icon of our nation, and he had a huge impact on my life."

But, perhaps most indicative of the country's loss, in the end, are the words of ordinary fans, who came to pay their respects in Litvinov, the town where he played. They said the country had lost a great player, a great coach, and a great man.

"He was one of the best, and a great person!"

Candles were lit and thousands came to say final goodbyes, and now, appropriately, the hockey stadium in which he spent much of his professional life has been renamed in Ivan Hlinka's honour.

One last note: at the time of his death Ivan Hlinka was looking forward to the first games of a new tournament. After a hiatus of several years from behind the Czech bench, he had returned to coach the Czech national team in the World Cup of Hockey, where many have slated that a Czech-Canada final would be appropriate given the rivalry that has grown between the two hockey nations in recent years.

The shock of Hlinka's death, however, was so great there must be many players for whom the excitement for the game has momentarily subsided.

All the same some players say, they would like to win in honour of their coach. They say he wouldn't have wanted players to give up the tournament, but to keep on playing the game, trying to win the way he taught, and - with a little luck - to earn success.