The history surrounding diversity and the changing face of the National Hockey League has the makings of a classic espionage novel.
In particular, the story of the Stastny brothers, Peter and Anton, raises intrigue with their defection from Czechoslovakia with the help of the Quebec Nordiques organization.
In 1980, Peter went to Innsbruck, Austria and placed a phone call to the Nordiques to arrange transportation for his brother, wife and himself to Canada. Their brother Marian was also in Austria, but his wife, Eva, and three children were still in Bratislava, leading him to defer to his defection to 1981.
Not expecting the brothers to split apart, security surrounding the CSSR team was lax, allowing for Peter, Anton, and Peter’s pregnant wife Darina to slip into the night and fly to Canada after their final game.
The Stastny’s story must have inspired 16-year-old Petr Nedved as eight years later, during a midget tournament in Calgary he would defect as well.
By no means are the Stastnys the first Europeans to play in the NHL, but their story is one that is a benchmark of sports: overcoming adversity.
One such player who broke barriers was Willie O’Ree the first black man to play in the NHL. On January 18, 1958, while donning a Boston Bruins sweater, O’Ree laced up his skates to play Montreal.
He would later become the first black player to score a goal on New Year’s Day, 1961. Again the feat was accomplished against Montreal, on netminder Charlie Hodge.
But racial intolerance was a constant, more so in American cities, O’Ree shared in the National Post, January 26, 2008.
In one game, against the Black Hawks, forward Eric Nesterenko butt-ended O’Ree, knocking out his front teeth and splitting his nose.
O’Ree retaliated by breaking his stick over Nesterenko’s head, leading to a bench-clearing brawl between the two squads.
Another first in the NHL was Manon Rheaume, the first woman to play in the league. During Tampa Bay Lightning’s expansion season, the 20-year-old Lac-Beauport, Quebec native played the first 20 minutes of an exhibition game against St. Louis Blues, September 23, 1992.
During her time between the pipes, she allowed two goals on nine shots. Regardless of save percentage, she flashed the leather spectacularly on an opportunity by Blues forward Nelson Emerson.
Other pioneers include Jaroslav Jirik, who was the first Eastern Bloc player in the NHL, suiting up for St. Louis, Finland’s Tommi Salmelainen, the first European-born draft pick, Nashville Predator Jordin Tootoo the first Inuit player and Alexander Mogilny, the first Russian to defect in 1988.
Fellow countrymen would join Mogilny once the Iron Curtain eventually fell.
The world is represented. Recently retired Paul Kariya is half Japanese, as is current San Jose Shark Devin Setoguchi. Leafs forward Nazem Kadri is Lebanese. Former Calgary Flames defenceman Steve Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland.
Since 1995 the NHL has been working with O’Ree to offer kids of all backgrounds a chance to take to the ice through their program, Hockey is for Everybody. Some of the league’s top talents have been ambassadors, including Bill Guerin, Scott Gomez and Raffi Torres.
All three have Latin American heritage. Guerin’s mother is from Nicaragua. Torres’ parents are of Mexican and Peruvian heritage.
As for Gomez, who modestly shrugs of the badge of being a trailblazer, his parents are of Mexican and Colombian backgrounds.
“It’s hard for me to think of myself as a pioneer,” he had said in a program for the Willie O’Ree all-star game. “That’s a title you reserve for players like Jackie Robinson and Willie O’Ree — people who struggled throughout their lives to pave the road for future generations.”
Sponsored by The Canadian Experience and Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment, “Canada’s Hockey Experience: The Sport of a Country” is a unique, 20-week online series on the history of hockey.