Sykora seeks more happy endings in Anaheim

Originally published in The Prague Post in 2002

By Lucas Aykroyd

“I’m going to Disneyland” is what pro athletes in North America often crow after they capture a championship. Yet for National Hockey League players, Anaheim has historically resembled a graveyard more than a Magic Kingdom.

Winger Petr Sykora is hoping to reverse that trend after joining a bulked-up Mighty Ducks roster this season. But the 25-year-old Plzen native knows it won’t be easy.

Sykora was the kingpin of a July 6 blockbuster trade with the New Jersey Devils that also saw Mike Commodore, J.F. Damphousse and Igor Pohanka don Anaheim colors, while Oleg Tverdovsky, Jeff Friesen and Maxim Balmochnykh went the other way.

Now he is expected to spark a club that hasn’t made the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference since 1999. It’s a tall order.

Rookie Ducks coach Mike Babcock is impressed with the eight-year NHL veteran, but doesn’t want to build up grandiose expectations.

“I really like Petr,” said Babcock. “Number one, he loves the game. He comes in with a smile on his face every day and he’s very professional. But pressure is an amazing thing. If the puck doesn’t go in the net for you, suddenly you start carrying the weight of the world around on your back. He said to me one day, ‘It feels like 27 tons are on my back.’ And I said: ‘Just get out there and be who you are.'”

It shouldn’t take long for Sykora to reaffirm his identity as one of the top stickhandlers and shooters in the game. The 5-11, 191-pounder is excited about teaming up with aces like Paul Kariya and Adam Oates on the power play.

Before Oates suffered a broken hand against Vancouver September 24, the 40-year-old free agent acquisition was already developing good chemistry with Sykora, who sometimes plays the point with the man advantage.

“Oatsie is one of the best passers in this league and probably ever to play the game,” Sykora said. “The way he makes those plays is unbelievable. So it’s just a question of getting used to him and getting open and putting some pucks in the net.”

In the “what have you done for me lately” culture of the NHL, one poor season may have cost Sykora his spot with the Devils. He fell from a career-high 81 points in 2000-01 to just 48 last year. But he wasn’t the only one to feel the edge of New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello’s scythe.

“I think New Jersey is trying to put together a brand new team,” Sykora said. “They let go of Jason Arnott and Randy McKay too. Maybe I didn’t fit in anymore.”

Fellow Czech sniper Patrik Elias is another teammate Sykora had to leave behind. The two have been compared constantly since debuting together with the Devils in 1995-96. But Sykora doesn’t see his move to Anaheim as an opportunity to prove he’s better than his old friend.

“I really miss Patty. He’s one of the closest people I have. We spent a lot of time together. I watch Patty closely, and we talk to each other almost every day about how things are going. You never know, maybe one day we will be back together again.”

But for now, it’s time to start over, on and off the ice.

Sykora is wearing 39 on his back instead of 17 this season, a number he insists he chose after consulting with friends in the Czech Republic, rather than as a tribute to the now-retired Dominik Hasek.

Living close to the beach is a nice change from the bleak industrial landscapes of New Jersey. With the help of his pal from Plzen, defenseman Pavel Trnka, Sykora is settling in and checking out the hottest Italian and Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles.

Despite earning $3,535,000 US this season, Sykora remains single. But he doesn’t come home to an empty place. He brought his pet chinchilla P.J. along from New Jersey. One advantage of the cute rodent is that it doesn’t require supervision when Sykora is travelling, and it may even do double duty guarding the house.

“I’ve got a new Doberman, and the dog is scared of the little P.J.,” Sykora grinned. “He’s still the man of the house!”

On a more somber note, the young scoring star narrowly avoided the ravages of the flooding in the Czech Republic this summer.

“I had a feeling it was going to come, so I jumped on a plane and came over here,” said Sykora. “I was very lucky that my family and everybody I know live on a hill in my city. But I know there were a lot of problems, especially in Prague. So I wish them all good luck, and I hope it’s going to get better for them.”

He has mixed emotions about his experience as a member of the Czech Olympic squad that went to Salt Lake City in February.

“I was disappointed because I thought we had a great team. It was just that we couldn’t score that goal against Russia in the quarter-finals. I really thought we played better hockey. Still, the overall experience was unbelievable. Just to see all the athletes and everybody watching all the events was great.”

If NHL players participate in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, Sykora is determined to be there for a second shot at gold. And if Anaheim should bow out of the playoff race this season, he says he’ll go to the World Hockey Championships in Finland.

“I’m happy that I’ve had lots of chances from the national team and I’m going to give them back anything I have. So any time they call me and I’m healthy, I’m going to come.”

In the long term, his positive attitude and fighting spirit may prove to be just what’s needed to end the culture of losing that has plagued the Ducks for years. He’s showed his character with nine points in 13 career Stanley Cup final games. He’s sacrificed his body, celebrating his first Cup from a hospital bed after suffering a Derian Hatcher hit in 2000.

Now Petr Sykora hopes he’ll get to script some more Disney endings.

“We need to make sure that we’re in a position to make the playoffs,” said Sykora. “We don’t want to be out of it by Christmas. We have to try to stay up there with the big dogs like Colorado and Dallas. We are a long way away, but if we keep doing what we’re doing, we can get there.” Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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