Even at 42, there is a youthful cast to Petr Nedved's facial features. There might be a little salt and pepper in the whiskers and a few extra lines in the cheeks, but you can still see the boy inside the man, the one that defected to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia at 17, whisked away during a midget tournament in Calgary in 1989.
Nedved left his home, believing he might never return. At the time, the lure of playing professionally in the NHL outweighed all other considerations. It may have been the recklessness of youth, or the inability to foresee how the political sands would shift so soon, all of which would have made the Cold War intrigue unnecessary.
"My whole life has been a strange journey," Nedved said Friday. "It's nothing new for me."
Twenty years ago, Nedved played for Canada during the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, soon after receiving his citizenship and while he was embroiled in a contract dispute with his NHL team, the Vancouver Canucks. Altogether, Nedved played 982 NHL games and scored 717 points for the Canucks, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers. He is now winding down his career in the Czech Extraliga with his hometown team, HC Bili Tygri Liberec.
Even though he still carries a Canadian passport, and isn't planning to give it up, Nedved is here representing the Czech Republic in the men's Olympic tournament. Under IIHF rules, he is eligible to suit up because he has played the past six years in the Czech domestic league, putting up significant numbers.
"I knew you guys didn't think I was still playing," Nedved said to a group of reporters, adding his trademark laugh. "But here I am."
Nedved is a smiling, happy-go-lucky type. That he is here for his last Olympic hurrah – and even still playing at his age – is a testament to perseverance and love of the game.
"I love the competition and I still have the drive," Nedved said. "This is it for me. It's time. But I never thought at the end of my career, after 20 years, I would go to an Olympic Games, so this is a nice way to end my career."
There was some controversy over Nedved's inclusion on the Czech team, which passed over a number of in-their-prime NHL players, including Calgary Flames leading scorer Jiri Hudler. But Nedved is believed to be important for team chemistry and will likely play on the second line with Patrik Elias and Milan Michalek.
The No. 1 line will feature fellow greybeard Jaromir Jagr, flanked by Tomas Plekanec and Roman Cervenka.
Nedved is three months older than Jagr, and they share a lot of history.
In the 1990 NHL entry draft, Nedved was the second player selected, three places ahead of Jagr, who slipped to fifth only because of the uncertainty over when he might be able to come to the NHL. The answer ultimately proved to be almost right away, and Nedved and Jagr eventually ended up playing together for the Penguins.
"I spent three great seasons with him in Pittsburgh and we're great friends, so I'm looking forward to seeing him," Nedved said. "We have the same sense of humour, so we don't even have to say anything to start laughing. It's going to be nice."
Playing for Canada at the Olympics, so soon after he defected in January, 1989, from communist Czechoslovakia, proved to be one of the defining moments of Nedved's career.
He recalls it being "a little bit tough" to play against the Czechs (the country peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993) because "we beat them and we basically sent them home.
"I remember in the dressing room, the celebration, it was a mixed feeling for me. Before the tournament, I was hoping that it wouldn't happen, but the hockey gods wanted it to," he said. "I'm not just saying this because you [Canadian reporters] are here: I enjoyed every moment, playing for Canada. It was awesome.
"Now, I'm not going to lie to you either. Here, I'm playing for my own country, where I'm from. It's a special meaning to me, especially at my age."
Once he retires after this season, Nedved plans to make Prague his home base. He also owns a home in Miami and plans to travel to both Vancouver, where he began his NHL career, and Calgary, where he defected.
"We have a good team and we didn't come here to watch either," Nedved said. "It's a short tournament, so it comes down to a couple of games and, if you time it right, anything could happen …
"I never won the Stanley Cup, even though I played in the NHL for a long time," he concluded. "I've touched the medals at the World Championships and, obviously, have the silver from Lillehammer. Hopefully, something big is going to happen here."
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