The tragic passing of Ivan Hlinka continues to send expressions of disbelief around the hockey community. The popular Czech Republic head coach was killed in an automobile accident on Monday while on his way to a meeting with Jaromir Jagr. The man generally credited with propelling the Czech hockey team onto success on the world stage, was preparing to tie up some lose ends with Jagr. His goal was to make sure the Czech star would be joining his countrymen in this summers World Cup of Hockey.
Hlinka is being mourned in his homeland for his heart and soul determination for the Czech Republic. He starred as a player as they won world championships in 1972, 1976 and 77; he represented his country in the Olympics as well with a bronze medal in 1972 and Silver in 1976. His coaching efforts for the Czechs were equally successful taking his players on to two world championships and three Olympic medals including the Gold medal in 1998.
And while he is probably best known for his coaching expertise in world hockey, Hlinka was also a trailblazer in the NHL. He joined the Vancouver Canucks in 1981 as he and countrymen Jiri Bubla began the wave of Czech players to cross the ocean and find success in the NHL. Hlinka only spent two years in Vancouver, but his time there firmly placed his name in the record books, he shared the record for most points by a rookie when he and Pavel Bure both ended up with 60 points in their debut year. During his two year stint in Vancouver Hlinka tallied 42 goals and 81 assists over 137 games. He never seemed to receive the attention that many of the Canuck projects of those years did, and his short stay in the NHL guaranteed that his star would shine bright but fast.
Hlinka played in Switzerland for a year before turning his attention to coaching and running a national program. With the exception of his short time with the Penguins first as an assistant and then as a head coach, most of Hlinka’s coaching talents were provided for the benefit of his Czech compatriots. His time behind an NHL bench was short, from 1999-2001, but his stint as one of the first European head coaches provided a new approach to hockey in the NHL, five man units long a staple of the European game were given a try in Pittsburgh, the result led to mixed reviews as the Penguins and their coach suffered a bit of a communication gap, which eventually resulted in his return to Europe.
It was however his early playing days that made a difference in the slowly evolving NHL. He created the path for other Czech players, making things a little bit smoother and easier to travel over the years. When he and Bubla made the trip the idea of Czech’s in the NHL was a rather foreign concept. Check any line up today and you’ll find many sons of both the Czech and Slovak homelands that can raise a glass in tribute to the trail blazed by Ivan Hlinka.
His team will no doubt take to the ice with a heavy heart in a few weeks; however, they can take comfort in knowing that the burden is shared by all fans of hockey.