Enigmatic Reichel brings offensive flair to Toronto

Originally published on EuroReport.com in 2001

By Lucas Aykroyd

By now, most hockey fans know Robert Reichel is back in the NHL. But is the NHL back in Robert Reichel?

The cunning center from Litvinov doesn’t enjoy the same sterling reputation in North America as he does in Europe. Since his 1990 debut with the Calgary Flames, Reichel has often been tagged an enigmatic underachiever.

With the Flames, he scored 153 goals in regular season play, but added just five tallies in 26 playoff games. In Calgary, he is most remembered for failing to score on a 3-on-1 break in the Game Seven overtime of a 1994 first-round series against Vancouver.

Reichel’s brief tenure with the New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes ended with a bitter contract squabble.

So not all Leafs fans were thrilled with his decision to sign a three-year, $10-million deal with Toronto last summer after spending the last two seasons with Litvinov. Phoenix sent Reichel’s rights to the Leafs on June 12 along with Travis Green and Craig Mills in exchange for Danny Markov.

Reichel dismisses any suggestion that his motives were primarily financial.

“I’ve won lots of titles at the World Championships,” Reichel said. “Three times I’ve won the gold medal. I’m missing a Stanley Cup. That’s why I came back.”

Captaining the 2000 and 2001 Czech championship squads, the 5-10, 185-pound veteran has demonstrated he can lead as well as pass the puck and score goals. Many view him as a father figure to his younger teammates.

With fellow Czech Tomas Kaberle just having signed with Toronto, Reichel may get to play that role this year. So far, he’s doing his country proud on a potent line with Canada’s Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny of Russia.

“They put us together to score some goals,” said Reichel, whose style fits head coach Pat Quinn’s up-tempo game. “Every night it’s tough to produce, because we’re up against lots of good checking lines. But we can score with our first line or second line.”

Playing in the shadow of captain Mats Sundin should assist Reichel’s transition back to the NHL. The Leafs are loaded with offensive talent, including other off-season acquisitions like Mogilny and Mikael Renberg.

“We have lots of new faces here,” said Reichel. “I’m not saying we had a good start, but we’re starting to find one another. Everybody knows what his role on the team is, and everybody’s working very hard.”

Reputedly, coach Ivan Hlinka wasn’t able to inculcate a similar work ethic in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Reichel, who has played internationally under Hlinka for years, was surprised when Pittsburgh fired its Czech bench boss October 15 after losing its first four games of the season.

“I talked to him on the day he was fired,” Reichel said. “I think he did a very good job for Pittsburgh last year when he brought the team to the semi-finals. I’m disappointed, but on the other hand, he’s the general manager for the Olympic team. He’ll have lots of time now to see the guys. He’ll probably pick a very good team again.”

Surprisingly, Reichel wasn’t among the first eight players named to the Czech roster for the 2002 Olympics. But if history is any indication, he’s sure to play a major role in the quest to repeat as champions.

At the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, it was his quick wrister that clanged off both posts and into the net behind Patrick Roy, ultimately giving the Czech Republic a 2-1 shootout victory over Team Canada.

And at the 2000 World Championships, he scored a late goal that eliminated Canada from gold medal contention.

Reichel is well aware that both Canada and the United States will be hungry to prove themselves in front of a North American audience in Salt Lake City.

“Everybody wants to beat us,” said Reichel. “If you look at the last five years, we’ve probably won everything. If we stay healthy and ready to go, we’ve got a chance to win.”

He refuses to speculate about the opposition the Czechs might face, whether it’s a question of Canada’s choice of a number one goaltender or Peter Forsberg’s potential return in Swedish colors.

“I’m just concentrating on our team,” said Reichel. “We want to play our game, not be looking out for other teams.”

Doug Weight, Teemu Selanne and Jeremy Roenick are among the NHL stars who have expressed concern about Olympic participation due to the threat of terrorism. Reichel understands their point of view.

“It’s not a very good situation to have the Olympics in Salt Lake City,” Reichel said. “But from what I read in the papers, they have done a lot to be ready for terrorist attacks. I hope nothing will happen. You’ve got lots of athletes there from all over the world.”

In the meantime, Reichel will focus on achieving success with his new NHL team. Every year, Stanley Cup expectations run high in Toronto. Could this be the year?

“I hope we play well,” said Reichel simply. “You cannot win every game. But we’ll work hard every night and hopefully we get to the point where we can win a Stanley Cup.”

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