Once a defector from the old Czechoslovakia, then an NHL points leader during the 1980s, Stastny now watches son Paul play for St. Louis Blues
Nobody wore the jersey of the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques with more distinction than Peter Stastny. And after the NHL franchise relocated to become the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, the capital of La Belle Province was never quite the same. After his daring John Le Carre-style defection from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1980, Stastny was the cornerstone of hockey entertainment in this city for 10 seasons – and he still dreams of a Nordiques revival.
Flanked by his talented brothers Marian and Anton, Peter Stastny was a powerful, creative centre who brought a unique blend of talent and toughness to the ice. Not only did the Bratislava native log seven seasons with 100 points or more in Quebec City, but he also had 20 career fights with everyone from Dave “Tiger” Williams to Steve Yzerman. The 38th-highest scorer in NHL history (with 1,239 points) helped his native Slovakia make the 1994 Olympics after the old Eastern Bloc disintegrated, and as the general manager of the national team, he led his country to its only IIHF World Championship gold medal in 2002.
Fluent in Slovak, Czech, Russian, German and French, the outspoken 60-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer shared his thoughts on NHL and international hockey in English with Billy when we reached him by phone at his daughter’s Seattle home.
Q: Your son Paul has had three straight 40-plus-point seasons with the St. Louis Blues since arriving from Colorado. What do you think of his prospects with St. Louis?
A: I think he’s in the right place. I just hope he will get one full season without bad luck. He always seems to be playing well, and then, boom! Something always happens, bad types of injuries. It’s something you cannot avoid when you get hit by the puck. The last time he was hit by a teammate and broke his foot. [Vladimir] Tarasenko’s got a pretty hard shot. Hopefully he’ll be able to put a full season together.
The team is good the last few years, so that’s a lot of fun. Hopefully they can bring it all the way because they’re very close. Sometimes you don’t need major changes. You just need a little tweaking, looking for extra chemistry and some synergies. It’s about confidence. But they’ve got plenty of talent at every position.
The one weak thing in the past couple of seasons has been goaltending. If they can put in a slightly-above-average performance, that would be enough. You don’t need any super performances.
How do you like the appointment of former NHL sniper Miroslav Satan as the new GM of the Slovak national team?
Hopefully he’ll go do what I did: Bring back the glory of Slovak hockey. Bring them back to the top. He was a good captain and he has all these qualities. Hopefully he’ll use them properly. You just never know. He’s alone, and some more structural, systemic changes need to be made.
There are crooked, bad people running the country, corrupting the country. It’s politics: The government and the businesses, because most of the businesses are privatized by apparatchiks and old Communists. They still have a lot of clout. It’s almost like in Russia. Whatever they decide, that’s how it has to be, but that’s not necessarily the best outcome.
Stastny more recently
It’s been 37 years since you defected. Do you ever think about how different your life would have been if you’d stayed in Czechoslovakia during the twilight of Communism?
Every day. That was by far the hardest – but also the best – decision I ever made. I talked about it at the weddings of my children, because that’s when you need reminding.
I was raised a certain way. I’m conservative and I’m a practicing Catholic. I was basically an enemy of the regime. I would have had no future. I’m not a guy who would just let the regime change my personality, my values, my character. I would be constantly butting heads, even though you had no choice. They just would make you nobody. Just like they did to [Russian legend] Slava Fetisov or to anybody who stood up against them.
In the ’50s, they used to kill [dissidents], execute them, send them to prison camps for 25 or 30 years. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was different. They just labelled you as an enemy of the regime. You could not go to school and your children could not get higher education. The best you could do was get some blue-collar job as a driver or whatever.
For me, leaving wasn’t about hockey. It was about my family and raising my children in the free world where they could develop themselves to the absolute potential they had, and then make decisions for themselves – not the regime deciding for them. People can’t imagine how evil the totalitarian regimes are. It was not at the same level as North Korea, but very similar.
Away from the rink, how was life in Quebec City in the ’80s for you and your brothers?
We were treated so well. We lost a home, but we gained a home. I will always remain grateful.
We had a beautiful house in a quiet neighbourhood. There was a forested park and a huge river with a waterfall, the Chutes-de-la-Chaudière. It was just a gorgeous place where we lived, and my brothers were there. We always spent time together and we all had young children. We had a lot of friends, playing golf. We got tons of invitations. I’m always afraid of flying, and I hate small planes. So I always refused to go fishing or hunting. But I’d go and play some golf.
To learn French I took some immersive courses that took you three weeks, every day. You lived and breathed French. I got a solid foundation and built on this, and later on our kids went to French schools.
Which other NHL cities did you enjoy visiting?
At the time, going to L.A. was special. We would always organize like three days off there. Going to L.A. in February or the middle of winter, it was nice. It was 18 degrees Celsius. The girls there would be walking with their fur coats on and my teammates would be in short sleeves and shorts. For the locals, it was cold. For us, it felt like the middle of summer.
I loved playing in Minnesota because they had great ice, like Edmonton. And when I look at the stats, I loved Hartford for whatever reason. I first played there with the Czechoslovakian team in a [World Hockey Association] exhibition game around Christmas , and I just loved the complex. It was very Central European. You had a beautiful shopping mall and part of it was a 15,000-seat arena. It was luxurious. I was probably the highest scorer against that franchise. Not that I scored more than Gretzky, but we played Hartford more often than Edmonton did. We played the Whalers eight times a year, and I enjoyed playing them, clearly.
Do you think Quebec City will get an NHL team again?
It’s just a question of time. It’s all set. It’s all done. It’s all written. It’s all approved. It just doesn’t fit right now with the situation. We need some team to do poorly on the East Coast … They’re just waiting for the right moment to come, and Quebec will get an NHL team again. And deservingly so. I really believe [the announcement] could come as soon as next summer.