Czeching in with Jiri Bubla
Sunday, 12 August 2007
Originally published on EuroReport.com in 2000
By Lucas Aykroyd
If the doors of opportunity had ever opened, Jiri Bubla might have shone for Czechoslovakia in the NHL of the 1970’s as Borje Salming did for Sweden. Instead, the 5-11, 200-pound native of Usti nad Labern kept his talents on the other side of the Atlantic, combining solid defense and offensive savvy for HC Litvinov. He was named to the IIHF World Championships all-star team in 1978 and 1979 and also garnered Best Defenseman honors in 1979. Two years later, he was finally released to play in North America, and the Vancouver Canucks acquired his rights from the Colorado Rockies. Bubla logged 256 regular season games for Vancouver from 1981-82 to 1985-86, scoring 17 goals and 101 assists in the twilight of his career. He became a Canadian citizen in 1986 and is now enjoying his retirement in British Columbia. EuroReport caught up with Bubla, 50, at the inaugural Richard Brodeur Celebrity Classic golf tournament in Vancouver August 8. The event reunited members of Vancouver’s 1982 Stanley Cup finalist team and raised funds for leukemia research. More information is available at www.kingrichardgolf.com and www.leukemia.ca.
EuroReport: How much did you know about the NHL as a young player in Czechoslovakia?
Jiri Bubla: We didn’t know anything. We got some scores, maybe two or three weeks old. But now everything is prospering and it’s changed a lot. The young guys have opportunities. When I played for the national team, I would have liked to come over here but they wouldn’t let me go till I was 31. They had rules. Play a minimum of 250 games for the national team, win the World Championships three times, and so on. That left perhaps six or seven guys free to go. Ivan Hlinka and I were the first to come to North America officially. Other players defected.
EuroReport: But today, it’s all paid off. The “European invasion” has had a big impact on the game.
Bubla: Hockey is going to get more exciting. A few years from now, the game will be much cleaner. Fighting is slowly disappearing. After all, which other sport allows fighting? This is not boxing or wrestling.
EuroReport: Well, things have been pretty peaceful here today. Getting together with your old Canuck teammates must bring back a lot of memories. What do you remember most about 1982?
Bubla: I don’t have many memories, because it was my first season and after 23 games I broke my ankle! I was out for the whole season and the playoffs. It was exciting to watch my team go to the finals, but I was mad because I wanted to play. Even if I was hurt, normally I would play but couldn’t. My worst year in professional hockey was 1982! But still, it’s nice to get together with these guys after all these years. Some of them must have put on forty pounds! [laughs]
EuroReport: Looking back further, in September 1972 you played for the Czech national team in a game against Team Canada on its way back from the Summit Series against the Soviet Union. What was that like?
Bubla: We tied them 3-3. We were up 3-2 with eight seconds left, but Phil Esposito scored from the faceoff circle. It was an exciting game. I set up Stastny for our first goal. Not Marian, Bohumil! [laughing as he corrects the interviewer] He came from Pardubice.
EuroReport: What do you think about Ivan Hlinka taking the head coaching job with the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Bubla: I am very happy for him. He deserves it, especially after the Olympic Games. Everybody talked about Hasek and Jagr, these big names. But he didn’t get much credit. It’s always said that “coaches don’t win the games, players do.” That’s true. But he put these guys together, and other coaches before him, like [Ludek] Bukac, one of the best coaches in Czech history, couldn’t do the same. He didn’t just grab all the best players. Ivan made his guys work together!
EuroReport: Do you think he can do it again in Pittsburgh?
Bubla: I hope so. I speak to him almost every second week. He’s really excited. It’s going to take time, because he’s from another country. The language is always a little different. But in a few years, he’s going to accomplish something good.
EuroReport: How do you like the progress your son Jiri Slegr has made with the Penguins?
Bubla: He’s played very well. But what I don’t like is that when he came over here, he changed his style. He used to play more offensively, like I did. When he got here, he struggled with the Canucks, and they tried to change him. I think (and maybe I’m wrong) he listened to them too much. I am very happy for him, but if he hadn’t changed so drastically, he would be even better.
EuroReport: The Czechs have had such great success in international hockey over the last three years. What’s the main reason?
Bubla: Four years ago, there was the World Cup. Bukac got together all these top players: Jagr, Nedved, everybody. But he didn’t bring them together. There was an excuse for this guy, an excuse for that one. And it was a disaster! After that, Ivan really turned the program around.
EuroReport: Today, how much are you involved with the Canucks?
Bubla: I play for the alumni team now and then. Otherwise, not too much.
EuroReport: What else is up with you?
Bubla: Before, I was running a restaurant. Now my wife is taking care of this a little bit. I’ve had some coaching offers from Europe, but I decided not to do it, because I’ve been here in Vancouver since 1981 and this is what I chose for my kids. They live happily here, so I’ll probably stay here forever, however long that will be!