Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and fall of the iron curtain, Czech players have been flowing to the National Hockey League. The Golden Era of Czech hockey even saw the small European nation claim the No. 1 spot as the NHL’s leading producer of skaters outside of North America.
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That was back in the 2000s. At that time, the Czech Republic reached its peak, which culminated in the 2001-02 season, when 77 of their players hit the NHL ice. With names like Jaromír Jágr, Milan Hejduk, Roman Hamrlík, Patrik Eliáš, and Dominik Hašek dominating in the league and many trophies being won at international tournaments, it was not far-fetched to call the nation a hockey powerhouse.
However, following the glory days of success, Czech hockey has been in a regression. In the 2019-20 season, only 33 Czech players got the opportunity to play in the NHL, the lowest number in the past 25 years. Despite this unflattering fact, they still make up for roughly the same percentage of players in the league as all other foreign-born players in the NHL.
Throughout the years, numerous Czechs have tested their skills in the best hockey league in the world, and many of those happened to wear a Penguin on their chest at one point in their career. This list ranks the top five Czech players who played for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
5. Robert Lang
Being drafted just one year after the Velvet Revolution, which meant the end of the totalitarian communist regime, Robert Lang represented a breakthrough generation. Former NHL player and then-general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, Rogie Vachon, used his seventh-round pick in the 1990 draft to select a young big-bodied center from the Czech Republic.
“I was back in Czechoslovakia and news like that—it was great, it was just completely life-changing. It was a great time and you just don’t forget stuff like that when it happens.“Rob Lang
Lang later earned his spot on the team’s roster, skating in 147 games as a King, however, his prime days were yet to come. After spending some time back in the Czech Republic, Lang returned to the NHL and finally stuck with the Penguins in the 1997-98 season. During his five-year stint with the team, he got to play with his fellow countrymen like Jágr, Jiří Šlégr, Martin Straka, and others, registering 103 goals and 261 points in 345 games.
4. Tomáš Vokoun
Yes, everybody knows who the best Czech goaltender in history is. Yet, there is another esteemed individual, who skated in almost as many games as Dominator. Tomáš Vokoun played 700 NHL games with four different organizations, all while keeping a very solid record of save percentage and goals-against average.
Spending most of his career with what were, at that time, not very successful Nashville Predators teams brought Vokoun the opportunity to guard the net in just 11 playoff games. In the 2012-13 season, though, Vokoun got the role of No. 2 goalie behind Marc-Andre Fleury and even overtook him for a couple of playoff matches. During those 15 years, the goaltender with a lightning-fast glove totaled a .917 SV% and 2.55 GAA. Problems with blood clots hastened the end of his career.
3. Petr Nedvěd
In the same year as Lang and Jágr, another young Czech was drafted. Only this one had the expectations set way higher. The Vancouver Canucks selected Petr Nedvěd second overall, right after Owen Nolan. And he managed to do what was not as usual at that time – make the NHL roster in the season succeeding the draft.
Following two years of getting experience with the Canadian team, the big center showed his true potential, scoring 38 goals and 71 points at the age of 21. And after playing for the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers, he eventually found himself at the top of his game in his two years with the Penguins. The prolific goal-scorer even netted one of the most famous goals in the organization’s history, the game-winning goal to defeat the Washington Capitals in the fourth overtime of Game 4 in the first round of the 1995-96 playoffs. He registered 78 goals and 170 points in 154 games with the Penguins.
2. Petr Sýkora
The youngest player on this list displayed his skillset to the NHL scouts in the 1994-95 season, when he played for the Detroit Vipers in the International Hockey League. After getting selected 18th overall along with the likes of Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan in 1995’s first round, he turned out to be one of the top players from that class. With a total of 721 points throughout his career, Sýkora ranks third among that year’s draftees.
The main asset of his game was a great scoring instinct and a tremendous shot, which saw him hit the 25-goal plateau six times during his 15 seasons in the NHL. The forward is well-known to the New Jersey Devils fanbase for spending a substantial portion of his career with the organization and winning the 2000 Stanley Cup. Sýkora managed to repeat the feat as a part of the Penguins when they beat the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
1. Martin Straka
One of the best Czech hockey players of all time. Straka wasn’t the biggest nor the strongest – his qualities lied elsewhere. His beginnings in the NHL weren’t by far the smoothest. Following uncertain performances in the first couple of seasons, he bounced back and forth between different teams, until he finally reached his original destination, the Penguins.
In Pittsburgh, Straka found himself on a line with Jágr, and the chemistry, luckily for both, started clicking perfectly.
“Straka often centered Jagr, which propelled Jagr to four scoring titles, one Hart Trophy and two Ted Lindsay awards during that time.”Dan Kingerski
The duo never managed to win another Stanley Cup for the Penguins together. However, they achieved comparable success. In 1998, the Czech national team won gold at the so-called “tournament of the century“ – the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. And Straka, time and time again, demonstrated his most valuable asset – to play his best game when it matters the most. The 5-foot-9, 174-pound forward registered 165 goals and 442 points in 560 games with the Penguins and after going through a stint with the Kings and the New York Rangers, he closed off his marvelous career as a general manager, franchise owner, and a player at his hometown team.
The One and Only
All of the aforementioned athletes accomplished great things in the field of professional sport. Yet, there is one that stands out from the rest. And not just from the Czechs, but all players in the rich history of the NHL. The legendary Jaromír Jágr stands up there with the greatest to ever lace them up, like Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, and others.
Since the exceptionally talented winger hit the NHL ice with the Penguins for the first time, he made his presence felt. Along with Lemieux, they captured two Stanley Cups in a row. And that was only the beginning of Jagr’s extensive collection of hardware. The resume speaks for itself. No. 68 went on to win the Art Ross Trophy five times, the Ted Lindsay Award three times, the Hart Trophy, the Bill Masterton Trophy, two World Championship gold medals, and an Olympic gold. With a total of 1,921 points, the icon also sits second on the NHL all-time scoring list, behind only Gretzky.
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In the past few years, not many Czech players dressed up with the Penguin on their chests. One of the few exceptions that still plays for the organization is Dominik Simon. However, his contract will have been expired after the end of this season and his future with the team is uncertain. Thus, it now seems highly unlikely that this list will need to be changed any time soon.