Paul Stastny's performance exemplifies the 'American Dream'
When the U.S. men’s hockey team impressively opened its 2014 Olympic hockey schedule with a dominating 7-1 win over Slovakia, its offensive leader was Paul Stastny.
Stastny, a 28-year-old center for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, scored two goals on the afternoon, the first of which put the U.S. up 3-1 and ignited a second-period rally that would ultimately finish with six American tallies.
Embedded video_content_type: Paul Stastny puts home the rebound
The Americans’ first win of the Sochi Olympics was not the first time that a Stastny played in a USA/Slovakian Olympic hockey game, though.
The first time a Stastny skated in a U.S./Slovakian Olympic hockey game came 34 years ago, when Paul’s father, Peter, was part of a preliminary-round game at the 1980 Olympics between the U.S. and then-called Czechoslovakia that’s most prevalently remembered as the “Miracle” team’s first win in its historic march to gold in Lake Placid.
Except, Paul Stastny’s father didn’t win an Olympic gold medal in 1980.
He played for Czechoslovakia.
And back then, the family name was Šťastný.
1980 Lake Placid Olympics
When he made his way to Lake Placid 34 years ago, Czechoslovakia’s best hockey player, Peter Šťastný, had more on his mind than just winning an Olympic medal.
He was also eyeing his freedom.
But, as a 23-year old superstar athlete from a communist country at the height of the Cold War, Šťastný was being watched.
And not just him; his brothers, Olympic hockey teammates Anton and Marian, were also under constant surveillance.
At the airport. In the streets. When they stayed in the Olympic village. During their games. Even in the locker room between periods of games.
The Šťastnýs were being watched. And they knew it.
Watching the Šťastnýs was the ever-intrusive “oko”, their nation’s fanatical secret police force, which followed the brothers, visibly or not, wherever they went. The mission of the “oko” in Lake Placid was simple: Keep tabs on Czechoslovakia’s Šťastný brothers, three of their country’s most decorated athletes, and make sure that nobody was able to sneak away.
After all, it would be awfully harmful for Czechoslovakia, both politically and athletically, to lose three of its top hockey players, practically in front of a worldwide audience.
So, the “oko” – the Czechoslovakian word for “the eye” – was watching, and the Šťastnýs had no way out.
With the secret police hovering around them and no way of escaping, the Šťastnýs instead returned to their home country from the 1980 Olympics with a disappointing 3-2 record and a fifth-place finish, all in the shadows of Herb Brooks and company’s historic, “miraculous” triumph over the Soviet Union.
Photo: Getty Images
After returning home to Bratislava, brothers Peter, Anton and Marian Šťastný resumed play with their club team, HC Slovan Bratislava, which they had led to a league championship a year earlier.
And the Šťastnýs, especially 2014 Olympian Paul’s father, Peter, were still being watched.
Except the Šťastnýs were no longer only being watched by the secret police.
Now, also watching was the NHL, which had paid attention when Peter’s 14 points in seven games at Lake Placid made him arguably the best player, for any country, at the 1980 Olympics.
The NHL team watching the Šťastnys closest was the Quebec Nordiques.
But, the Nordiques were more than just watching .
In 2014, if an NHL team wanted to acquire a European player, all it would have to do would be to “do it”. Draft them. Sign them. Trade for them.
Make a hockey move. Acquire a player.
In 1980, to get a player from communist Czechoslovakia, the Quebec Nordiques had to beg, borrow and deal to even have a prayer of ever putting a Šťastný on their roster.
In the end, Peter Šťastny’s elaborate escape – and transformation to the North Americanized “Stastny” – in time for the 1980-81 NHL season was facilitated when he got in contact with Nordiques officials when he was in Austria, just a few miles from his Bratislava home and behind the lightly-protected Austria/Czechoslovakia border.
Still in Eastern Europe, but a much clearer path to the West than he would’ve had if he tried to directly defect from Czechoslovakia.
Once Stastny arrived in Austria, there were last-second transfers of money for bribes, midnight rendezvous, police escorts and a dramatic James Bond-style car dash away from the secret police through the narrow streets and sidewalks of Vienna to the Canadian embassy.
Then there was a flight to Amsterdam.
And then another flight to Quebec, where the escapees, 2014 Olympian Paul’s father, Peter, and uncle, Anton, joined the Nordiques for the 1980-81 NHL season.
The third brother, Marian, joined them a short time later.
An American Son
Starting his NHL career in Quebec, Peter Stastny became a full-fledged Canadian, using his new citizenship to play for his adopted country’s – Canada –national teams and enjoy the freedoms of a North American lifestyle.
Peter Stastny did more than just reap the benefits of going from living behind the Iron Curtain to becoming a highly-paid North American professional athlete. He also established himself as an elite NHL player, using his savvy, speed and skills to rack up the second most points of any NHL player (986) during the 1980s – behind only Wayne Gretzky.
Photo: Getty Images
In the process of his ascent to North American superstardom, Peter Stastny’s wife gave birth to two boys, Yan (b. 1982) and Paul (b. 1985), who, born as Canadians, would eventually also become American citizens when their father finished his Hall of Fame career playing for the New Jersey Devils and the St. Louis Blues in the 1990s.
Two sons, born in Canada and of Slovakian bloodlines, who’d reach the NHL as Americans citizens. One of whom, Paul, who would go on to represent the country where his father has gone on to live in freedom in the Olympics.
“It’s kind of crazy to think of where he came from,” says Paul, who cites St. Louis, Missouri as his hometown. “And for me to be able to represent the USA, after all the countries he’s represented, it’s an honor for me.
“It’s something that nobody would have ever thought of when my dad grew up in communism. Then, he decided to defect over and make a life-altering decision that changed everything and the future for everyone in his family.
“It was probably the toughest decision he ever made. From family, to friends, to not being able to tell anyone. Then there was the threat of torture, as well as the possibility of never being able to see his family again.
“At the same time, defecting was probably also the easiest decision he ever made. You almost have to grow up in an era like that with that kind of government to realize that sometimes, you have to do something extreme to change things. He knew all the opportunity he would have by coming over to North America.
“I think we’re so lucky to live in the world we live in now, where we’re we don’t even have to come up with ideas like that or think of stuff like that.
“The best thing for him was having all of his kids born over here.”
Embedded video_content_type: Paul Stastny scores second goal of the game
After one game at the 2014 Olympics, Paul Stastny being born in North America has paid dividends for USA Hockey, too.