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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

Canada Cup: Czechoslovakia's last ride

The second strongest hockey team behind the Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia had a history of moderate success in the Canada Cup going into the 1991 tournament. They finished second in the inaugural tournament in 1967 (a round robin competition), won bronze in 1981 and finished fourth in 1987. Czechoslovakia also had quite a bit of success at the World Hockey Championships in the 1970s and 1980s, winning a medal each year from 1969 to 1985 and again from 1987 to 1990.

With the decline of communism well under way by 1991, Czechoslovakian hockey faced a similar fate. The 1991 Canada Cup would see the team finished in sixth place with a 1-4 record. The 1992 World Hockey Championships, hosted on home ice in Prague, would be their final tournament as a nation; in 1993, for international hockey competitions, the country would be split into the modern nations of Czech Republic (today known as Czechia) and Slovakia.

This subset is one of the last times Czechoslovakia's men's hockey team will be pictured in trading card form. Forever memorialized are the bizarre jerseys, with the rotated flag as the main crest on the chest. I know graphic software has vastly improved, but I'm sure people were capable of rotating an image before printing. The cards also show that Jofa was clearly the team sponsor for equipment, including the awesome bucket helmets, which most of us fans of NHL hockey associate with Petr Klima.

Following the 1991 Canada Cup, the countries would diverge on two paths. Czech Republic, almost double in population compared to Slovakia, would go on to greater immediate success, with many big wins in international tournaments in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This includes a gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and four golds at the world hockey championships (1996, 1999-2001). Slovakia would take a bit more time to peak, breaking through with a gold medal at the 2002 world championships, followed by a bronze and silver the following years.

Just like with the Soviet Stars post, players that have cards appearing elsewhere in the set will only have their international hockey story told. For those who do not appear later on, their whole hockey history is shared.

Card # 16 – Zigmund Palffy

The 19-year-old forward was a point-per-game player in his native Czechoslovakia, making his first international appearance for his home country at the 1991 Canada Cup. He would record one goal in five games, and then represent Czechoslovakia in the world junior championships later that year.

Palffy was selected by the NY Islanders in the second round of the entry draft the June prior to the Canada Cup. He would make his NHL debut in 1993-94 with the Islanders, the beginning of a 12-year career that was included three All-Star game appearances; he would also suit up for the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.

After the breakup of Czechoslovakia, Palffy would play internationally for Slovakia, representing in three Olympic games (1994, 1998 and 2010) and winning a world hockey championship gold in 2002.

Card # 17 – Josef Beranek

Beranek, a 22-year-old forward, had been drafted in the fourth round of the 1989 draft by the Edmonton Oilers. The previous season in Czechoslovakia he had scored 60 points in 58 games, and would make his NHL debut with the Oilers immediately after the Canada Cup; during the tournament he would record two points in five games

Beranek would play nine seasons in the NHL, spread out with the Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks, scoring a career-high 28 goals in 1993-94.

A native of the Czech Republic, Beranek would represent his home country at the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Olympics, winning gold in Nagano.

Card # 18 – Jiri Slegr

A 20-year-old defenceman, Slegr was drafted in the second round of the 1990 entry draft by the Vancouver Canucks; Slegr’s father, Jiri Bubla, played five years for the Canucks in the early 1980s. He was also the owner of a greasy mullet that any North American NHLer would be jealous of.

During the Canada Cup, Jiri would score one point in five games and would play in the Olympics the following year. He would also be a part of the 1998 Olympic gold winning Czech squad, as well as 1996 and 2004 World Cup teams.

In terms of NHL career, Slegr would make his NHL debut in 1992-93 with the Canucks, scoring 26 points in 41 games. His sophomore season would be his best statistically, recording 38 points; that would not be enough to keep him from being traded to the Edmonton Oilers late in lockout season of 1994-95.

Following two partial seasons in Edmonton, Slegr would then be traded three times between 1997 and 2002: first from Edmonton to Pittsburgh, then to Atlanta and then to Detroit. He would be part of the 2002 Red Wings Cup winning team, playing in only nine games, including one playoff game.

Slegr would sign back with the Canucks as a free agent in 2002 and then be traded a fourth and final time in January 2003, this time to Boston. After two partial seasons with the Bruins, Slegr would sign back in his native Czech Republic for the 2004-05 season, playing five additional seasons of pro hockey before retiring.

Upon retirement, he would enter politics, being elected to Czech Parliament as a member of the Czech Social Democratic Party. After three years in parliament, including picking the wrong side in an internal leadership schism, Slegr would return as a player coach with his former team HC Litvinov. Today he is the head coach, general manager and chairman.

In total, Slegr appeared in 625 NHL games, scoring 249 points, spread out over 11 seasons.

Card # 19 – Martin Rucinsky

A 20-year-old left winger who was drafted in the first round by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1991 draft, Rucinsky was making his first Canada Cup appearance for Czechoslovakia, recording two assists in four games. Previously, he had burst on to the international scene at the 1991 World Juniors, recording 14 points (9 goals) in the tournament.

Rucinsky would be a part of the Czech Republic teams that peaked internationally in the late 1990s and early 2000s, participating in the 1996 and 2004 World Cups as well as the ’98, ’02 and ’06 Olympics, winning gold in ’98 and bronze in ’06. Add in three golds at the World Championships and you have a very solid international career.

He would make his NHL debut after the Canada Cup, appearing in two games for the Oilers before being traded to Quebec for Ron Tugnutt.

Card # 20 – Jaromir Jagr

The 19-year-old right winger was a known commodity in North America, having been drafted fifth overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in June 1990. Jagr had been playing in the Czech junior leagues since he was 12 years old and scored an incredible 57 goals in 35 games as a 15-year-old. In his rookie NHL season of 1990-91 he scored 27 goals and 57 points, finished sixth in Calder voting, and added 13 points in 24 playoff games as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

The Canada Cup was Jagr’s first appearance in senior international hockey (he did end up scoring 18 points in seven games at the 1990 World Juniors.) Jagr would score one goal in five games for the disappointing Czechoslovakian squad at the 1991 Canada Cup.

The rest of Jagr’s international career would be void of such disappointments: he would play in two World Cups (1996 and 2004) and four Olympics (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010), winning Olympic gold and bronze medals to go with two gold and two bronze medals from the World Championships.

The next Canada Cup entry will feature Finland, a nation going in the opposite direction of Czechoslovakia.

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