In the mid-1960s, I was a high school senior who needed to graduate to activate a college hockey scholarship at a school where my academic credentials challenged their standards. English class was a favorite of mine, but it was also the most difficult. We had a thesis project that was critical to a good or passing grade. The subject matter had a wide scope, but it needed to entail some research, a written paper and a verbal presentation.
I, like many aspiring young hockey players, was enthralled with the NHL. Most hockey fans in Canada, myself included, believed the hockey world had one net in Vancouver, the other in Halifax and that the benches and penalty box were located along the 49th parallel. You could count on one hand the NHL players who were not Canadian. The Montreal Canadiens were my favorite team and Jean Beliveau my idol. For my thesis, I wished to chronicle their dominance, their impact on French Canada and the class and dignity Beliveau exuded.
While I was excited about my concept, my teacher was not. He called the research “low-hanging fruit.” I needed a new angle to satisfy him and get the grade I needed. And my summer job at Bright’s Winery in Niagara Falls provided me with a new direction.
At the winery, I worked with a man who had defected from Czechoslovakia. He was an engineer by trade, but accreditation and language limited his opportunities to work in that field. He was a great hockey fan, but his passion for the game lied across the pond. The Russians had emerged as the powerhouse and the Czechoslovakians were their greatest challenger. He had great pride in the Czech accomplishments, and spoke of his favorite player, Vaclav Nedomansky, with reverence, explaining that he possessed talent and finesse, that he was a gentleman and role model for all. It was not unlike the way I spoke of Beliveau. In addition, Nedomansky was thought to be among the world’s best athletes — a national team-level soccer player, highly skilled tennis player and the cornerstone of Slovan Bratislava and the national team.
My coworker’s passion piqued my interest, and since I knew very little, it met the criteria of research, context and presentation my thesis project required. I did the research, passed the course and enjoyed a great college experience on and off the ice. And while the project was interesting and informative, I was still enamored with Beliveau and Les Habitants. To me, hockey was still Canada.
It wasn’t long after, though, that the Swedish Invasion of the NHL and WHA began. Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Borje Salming, Inge Hammarstrom, Thommie Bergman, Dan Labraaten and Willy Lindstrom brought a new dimension of skill and imagination to the game at a time when it had reached its highest level of brutality and ferocity. They also showed character, persevering and adapting to their new surroundings.
But nothing quite awoke Canadian fans to the reality of the talent other hockey-playing nations possessed like the Summit Series. In an era without internet, we were largely in a blackout as to their accomplishments and were surprised and impressed with the exploits of Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Yakushev and the Soviet squad. The game was in the midst of an evolution, and globalization was the stimulus. However, because the Eastern Bloc countries were in lockdown when it came to NHL migration, other nations, including the Czechoslovakia, weren’t in the spotlight.
That changed when Nedomansky bravely and courageously challenged the lockdown and defected to WHA’s Toronto Toros at a time when the game was at its fiercest and pugilism was valued as much as speed and skill. The Europeans were tested and challenged at every corner. In his time with the Toros, he was a teammate of Frank Mahovlich. They formed a natural bond as players who understood the responsibility of being a role model to so many.
At the same time Nedomansky was making his arrival in North America, I had gone overseas to play in Finland. While players often fought over No. 4, 7 or 9 in Canada and the United States, European players fought over Nedomansky’s No. 14. They saw the World Championship in the same way we saw the Stanley Cup and thought of ‘Ned’ as we did Bobby Orr. Nedomansky was revered, a beacon of hope for young Czechoslovakians, some of whom – the Stastny brothers, Jaromir Jagr, Bobby Holik and Dominik Hasek – went on to become NHL stars.
Nedomansky had some great moments during his time in North America. He was a 50-goal scorer with the Toros and won the WHA’s equivalent of the Lady Byng Trophy. He twice reached the 35-goal mark in the NHL and hit the 70-point plateau twice, as well. His post-prime production in the WHA and NHL, leagues in which he spent nine combined seasons, compares favorably to several European Hall of Famers who plied their trade in the NHL. Regrettably, we didn’t get to see him in the NHL at the height of his talent.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s, and I had taken a scouting job with the New Jersey Devils. Marshall Johnston, an accomplished coach, NHL and international player was my boss and mentor, and he had arranged a dinner at New York City restaurant II Vagabondo, which has a bocce court. Nedomansky had been invited, and he reminded me of Beliveau that night, radiating humility, dignity and intelligence. (And knowing how great an athlete ‘Ned’ was, I avoided a bocce game.)
By the 1990s, ‘Ned’ joined me in the scouting world. Obviously, he had a lot of cachet in Europe, and two moments stand out, in particular. During one breakfast in Helsinki, he told me his story and about life before his defection. Breakfast turned into lunch and almost dinner. It was fascinating, a tale that rivalled a spy movie and opened my eyes to a world I had never known. Then there was the time our paths crossed in the Czech Republic, when 5,000 fans gave ‘Ned’ a standing ovation. His presence had not been announced, and the respect and admiration he was shown was overwhelming. He was a returning hero who meant so much to his people.
He continued to receive that level of respect when we were reunited as fellow scouts with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. He had just returned from coaching Team Europe at the World Cup, and he was met with utmost respect from all of those around us, even those too young to know or understand his story.
It’s reasons like these – the regard in which he is held, what he means to his compatriots, how he opened the door for a generation of Czech players – that John Davidson and the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee got it right by inducting ‘Ned’. This is an honor that represents so much more than a statistical summary. His defection gave hope to players behind the iron curtain. The migration of great European players enriched our game so much and gave way to the growth of the game globally. His character gave us all an example of dignity and class. He has been an inspiration and example to the world of hockey. This recognition reflects that.
Personally, I congratulate Vaclav. I feel richer for knowing him, and I know the Hall is richer for having him.
David Conte has been an NHL scout for four decades and spent more than 30 years with the New Jersey Devils, for whom he acted as the director of scouting and later executive vice president of hockey operations. He joined the Vegas Golden Knights in 2016 and most recently was named a special assignment scout by the New York Islanders.