Between Mario Retirement '97 and Mario Return '00, the Pittsburgh Penguins were clearly Jaromir Jagr's team. Jagr hand-picked playing styles and head coaches, and wrote his own rules as he went along. And it's no coincidence that a staggering number of Jagr's fellow Czech countrymen played in Pittsburgh during this short time. In the NHL there are usually about 40-50 players from the Czech Republic. Over those three years, a staggering 12 native sons (including Robert Lang, Jiri Slegr, Roman Simicek and Josef Beranek) would make their debuts in the black and gold. This is the story of one of those men, Jan Hrdina.
The Penguins drafted Hrdina in the fifth round of the 1995 NHL entry draft. The young Czech was a star in the Canada's Western Hockey League and played there the year after being drafted. After two more seasons in the minor leagues, Hrdina made the NHL in training camp for the 1998-99 season. He would skate the next four-and-a-half seasons with the Pens, playing 366 games and scoring 227 points (79 goals, 148 assists).
Jagr was the brash, outspoken one who craved the spotlight. His line-mate Hrdina - or "Honza," as he was called - was the polar opposite, content in the shadows. Hrdina's shoot-to-pass ratio always leaned toward the pass. Hrdina played in the days before YouTube, and that's lucky for him, because I swear I remember watching him in front of a completely open net force-feeding a pass to Jagr, who could not convert it into a goal.
Then there was the stick. For a player quiet off the ice and a guy who deferred to Jagr on the ice, Honza let his stick do the talking. Hrdina wrapped his hockey stick diagonally in hockey tape, creating a candy-cane like pattern. Some will tell you this improves the player's grip on a stick, but the aesthetics have to be the main motivation. And surely many youngsters a decade ago taped their sticks that way in tribute.
As a complementary player, Hrdina could not escape trade rumors. In fact, he may have been one of the first players to ever get wrapped up in a long-running rumor that eventually became an offseason joke. "Hrdina for Zubrus!" websites would scream, without fail, every summer. This referred to an "impending" trade with the Washington Capitals for center Dainius Zubrus that always seemed to be in the making, but never quite actually, you know, ended up coming true. These rumors only intensified in the summer of 2001 when Jagr was dealt to the Caps and brought over some of his personal favorites such as Kip Miller.
Ironically, it would be after Jagr left when Hrdina had his best season. In 2001-02, Hrdina set personal bests in goals, assists and points when he teamed up mainly with Russians Alexei Kovalev and Aleksey Morozov to become the team's second-leading scorer.
The Pens finally did trade Hrdina, shipping him to the Phoenix Coyotes at the 2003 trade deadline. By this point Pittsburgh had slipped into a deep financial malaise and were outwardly in "rebuilding" mode, but really just trying to hang on and meet payroll every week. In exchange for Honza and spare defenseman Francois Leroux, the Pens got gritty forwards Guilliame Lefebvre and Ramzi Abid and defenseman Dan Focht.
Abid would go onto play 19 NHL games in Pittsburgh and then wash out of North American hockey after the lockout. Dan Focht would play 64 games (and rack up a plus/minus of -30) for the Pens in the next two seasons and become one of the most pitiful and forgettable players on a mostly pitiful and forgettable team. Lefebvre actually showed some promise, putting up six points in 12 games with the Penguins in 2002-03, but then spent the next three seasons in the minors - which speaks to his talent level for not making those dreadful Penguin teams. Lefebvre chased the NHL dream for a while, and actually appeared in one game last year with Boston before signing for 2010-11 with a team in Hrdina's native Czech Republic. Kind of a nice way to close the circle on it, wouldn't you say?
As for Hrdina himself, the quiet player faded after leaving the Pens. He played 147 more NHL games with three teams after leaving Pittsburgh, recording only a combined 66 points (22g, 44a). Then he slipped back into the European leagues. He'd play a few more seasons before hanging 'em up in 2009.
But as a representative of an era when Czech hockey players dominated the lineup of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the late '90s/early 2000's, Hrdina will always be remembered - as the sidekick to the game's best player, the guy with the candy-cane stick and the quiet smile.