By Ryan Whirty
Right winger Jaroslav Jirik didn’t have much of a statistical impact when he played three games for the St. Louis Blues in 1969-70. But his effect on the destiny of international hockey was far-reaching.
More than 40 years ago, the native of Brno, Czech Republic, became the first player behind the Iron Curtain to compete in the NHL, a development that hinted at the flood of Eastern Bloc talent that would arrive in the ensuing years.
Jirik, who died in a small-plane crash in the Czech Republic July 11, is especially beloved in his native country. He keyed the Czech triumph over the Soviets in the 1968 Olympics, recognized today as one of the greatest games in Olympic hockey history. Then, as a member of the Czechoslovakian national team, he helped upset the mighty juggernaut from the Soviet Union in the World Championship in March 1969. That emotional victory came just months after the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia to brutally squash calls for political reform.
Between his trailblazing abroad and his dedication to his homeland, Jirik earned the respect and admiration of a hockey world that mourned his passing at age 71.
The 1969 World Championship was Jirik’s last. He was hampered by injuries that kept him out of the first win against the Soviets, but would not hold him back for the second. Jirik and teammate Jaroslav Holik led the Czech team’s rebellion against Soviet influence by covering up the red star on their jerseys with tape.
The Czech victories in that tournament represented a massive moral and emotional triumph over the imperial force that crushed the spirits of the Czech people just seven months earlier. After the 1969 wins, wild celebrations and anti-Soviet protests erupted in the streets.
However, even before the Czechs’ triumph at the worlds, Jirik’s standout play for ZKL Brno in the Czech pro league caught the eyes of former scout and assistant Blues GM Cliff Fletcher, who entered into negotiations to acquire the rights to the fiery winger. Fletcher succeeded when international officials gave permission for the 30-year-old Czech star to go.
Jirik drew praise from Blues coach Scotty Bowman, who told the press Jirik was “very aggressive, a good two-way player.” However, Bowman also hinted European rules regarding checking would make it tough for any European to gain a foothold in North America.
Bowman’s words proved prophetic. Jirik spent much of 1969-70 with the Blues’ Central League affiliate in Kansas City before being called up to the big club late. He competed in three games for St. Louis and played decently, but didn’t register a point. However, by simply appearing in the contests, Jirik became the first Eastern Bloc player to play in the NHL.
While in Kansas City, Jirik made a quiet impression. He was fairly fluent in English, but was also shy, said teammate Don Giesebrecht. “That was understandable with him coming to our country,” Giesebrecht said. “I think he was missing his home country sometimes. It was a big cultural shock when he came to Kansas City.”
Jirik, who was older than most of the other players, was assertive on the ice when needed. “He held is own,” Giesebrecht said. “He didn’t back away from anything. He was a well-built kid, very muscular and mature-looking. He didn’t avoid contact or anything.”
Jirik ended up tallying 19 goals and 35 points in 53 games with K.C. “It’s more of a scramble in the minor league,” Jirik told THN at the time. “They play positions more in the NHL, the game is so much faster and they handle the puck so much better. It’s a lot harder.”
After the season, the Blues asked Jirik to stay for another campaign, but he decided to return to his homeland for five more seasons with ZKL Brno before retiring in 1975. He then embarked on a successful coaching career and in 1978-79 he guided the Swiss national team. After retiring from coaching, he became a successful sports agent in the 1990s.
While Jirik ended up blazing a trail to the NHL for Eastern European players, it was on the international scene he will be best remembered.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hockey News.