NHL Draft Stories: Petr Svoboda Takes the Stage

The NHL Draft is just under a few weeks away. The draft always provides plenty of drama and intrigue amongst fans and media. This has been true since its inception. While people tend to get excited about trades and prospects, there are other moments that leave people scratching their heads. For this edition, we head back to 1984 when the Montreal Canadiens and a fresh-faced Czechoslovakian player shocked the hockey world.

Svoboda Takes the Stage

No Easy Way Out

In 1984 the only way out for an Eastern Bloc player was to defect. In 1980, Czechoslovakian brothers Peter, Anton and Marion Stastny defected to join the Quebec Nordiques. They were the first players to defect to join the NHL. It is hard to comprehend how difficult the decision was for these young men. You have to leave everything and everyone you know behind. You don’t know if you will ever see your family ever again. Not knowing if you will ever be allowed to go home again. On top of that, the family you leave behind is punished for the choice. It was a difficult choice to make. Sometimes a choice you had to make in the moment, leaving with nothing by the clothes on your back.

The Stastny brothers paved the way for Czech players to defect to the NHL but they were grown men when they defected. It’s a lot more difficult for a 17-year-old prospect to decide to leave everything behind to follow his dream.

1984 NHL Draft

The 1984 Draft was a loaded one. At the top was Laval Voisins centre Mario Lemieux. He was the no-doubt top pick. Still, there were a lot of other great prospects. The draft produced Hall of Fame players Brett Hull, Patrick Roy and Luc Robitaille. Other great players in the draft included Kirk Muller, Al Iafrate, Ray Sheppard, Kevin Hatcher, Gary Roberts and Gary Suter.

There was also a 17-year-old defenceman from Czechoslovakia named Petr Svoboda. Teams thought very highly of him. Svoboda was a bit ahead of his time as he was a true two-way defender. He could shoot, pass, skate and get physical. He was the top-rated European prospect. There was a belief that Svoboda could go as high as number two overall if he wasn’t playing behind the Iron Curtain. So despite his talent, Svoboda was viewed as a middle-round pick.

When the Montreal Canadiens stepped up to the podium to pick at five overall, nobody thought Svoboda was in play. Habs GM Serge Savard, expected to announce Shayne Corson (Habs picked him eighth overall), sent the hockey world for a loop when he announced Svoboda as the pick. The pick was met with laughs and eye-rolls from the other teams. That was until, like something out of a wrestling promotion, Svoboda appeared on stage to be greeted by the Habs management. It left the other teams stunned. Never before had a player from behind the Iron Curtain appeared at the NHL Draft.

Svoboda’s Journey

So, how did this happen? How were the Habs able to produce Svoboda at the 1984 NHL Draft? Well, it started in Czechoslovakia. Svoboda was considered one of the best 17-year-old prospects in the world. Unfortunately, the Communist Party that ruled the Eastern European country blocked him from freely being able to chase his NHL dream. Still, Svoboda was not ready to give up on that dream.

Svoboda led Czechoslovakia into the European U-18 Championships in Munich in April 1984. Svoboda played well and continued to impress NHL scouts. What nobody knew at that time was Svoboda was planning his escape. During a game, he noticed some people he knew that had already defected to West Germany. It was then he made up his mind. After the final game of the tournament, the Czechoslovakian dressing room was full of teammates, coaches, and dignitaries… perfect for trying to disappear.

Svoboda sat in his locker, looked around the room, took a shower, got dressed and slipped out the back door of the arena. He left everything else behind. Waiting for him were the people he knew and they brought him to West Germany where his aunt (who also defected) took him in. In all the commotion, nobody on the Czechoslovakian team noticed he was gone.

Svoboda was holed up with his aunt for three months before he was able to make his move to North America. Only the Habs seemed to know where Svoboda was. They arranged to fly him to Montreal in secret and negotiate a contract after Savard promised to pick him fifth. The Habs hid Svoboda in a Montreal hotel until the draft where he would make his shocking debut.

Worth The Risk

Svoboda joined the Habs for the 1984-85 season. Despite not knowing any English or French, Habs veterans Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey took Svoboda under their wing and made the transition much easier. He appeared in 73 games, scoring four goals and 31 points. During his time with the Habs, Svoboda would pair with Chris Chelios on the Habs top defensive pair. He would win the Stanley Cup with the Habs in 1986. While he carved out a nice career for himself, injuries really hampered Svoboda’s development into a truly great defenceman. Still, Svoboda was a solid player for a long time in the NHL.

After eight seasons in Montreal, Svoboda would make stops with the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, and Tampa Bay Lightning. He became the first Czechoslovakian player to play in 1,000 NHL games. Perhaps his greatest achievement came at the 1998 Winter Olympics. With the political climate changed in Europe, Svoboda could return home again and represent his country. Playing for the Czech Republic national team, Svoboda scored the only goal in the gold medal game against rivals Russia.

In the end, Svoboda got to live out his NHL dream and become a Czech national hero. As Svoboda said himself:

“I guess I’m lucky because everything worked out the way I wanted it to. I don’t regret my decision for a second.”