SOCHI, Russia – Soon after Peter Stastny arrived at Shayba Arena on Thursday afternoon, someone asked him which team he would be rooting for in the Olympic hockey opener.
“Well, we’re playing Slovakia,” Stastny said. “So it’s USA, all the way!”
That pronouncement made his son, Paul, very happy. But there might be a few older, hard-core Slovakians – the ones whose memories go back to the wretched days under Communist rule – who might have regarded the elder Stastny as a bit of a turncoat.
A bit of history is in order: Peter Stastny is one of the famed trio of brothers (Marian and Anton were the others) who defected from Czechoslovakia soon after the 1980 Olympics to escape the Communist yoke and pursue their hockey careers and fortunes in the West.
All three had solid careers in the NHL. Peter was the best of them. He scored 450 goals for the Quebec Nordiques, New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues. In 1998, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Early in 1993, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Slovakia gained its independence from Czechoslovakia. Stastny, who had never played hockey for an independent Slovakia, decided to leave the NHL for a year so he could represent his country in the 1994 Olympics.
Stastny helped recruit players for his country. He was captain on a team of proud, veteran Slovaks on that first national team in Lillehammer. He even carried the flag in the Opening Ceremonies.
And it was 20 years ago Saturday that Slovakia tied the United States, 3-3, in the second Olympic game in its history.
I covered that game in Norway and wrote a column about Peter Stastny. I remember how he cried in the hallway outside the Slovakia locker room when he talked about how proud he was to finally represent his country.
Twenty years later, his son led the way as the U.S. handed Slovakia a 7-1 defeat, one of the worst in its international hockey history.
Paul Stastny, 28, a solid two-way center from the Colorado Avalanche, scored two of the Americans’ six goals during a dazzling display of speed and offensive virtuosity in the second period. You saw the talent that had Sabres fans wishing he might come to Buffalo in trade two years ago.
“We talked going into the game that the line of Stastny,” Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie “could be our best line in this game, and it turned out to be that for us,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma.
“Not only did they find themselves on the score sheet,” Bylsma said, “but every time they went over the boards they made something happen with their shifts and their offensive zone time. That’s the kind of depth throughout your lineup that you need to have, and we do have.”
It says something when a line that’s essentially your fourth can look like the best two-way unit on the ice. Slovakia, which has a dozen NHL players and lost to Finland in the bronze medal game four years ago, looked like some bar league team during that 14-minute siege.
Slovakians fans had to cringe to see their beloved national team tormented by the scion of their greatest hockey family. But Paul says his dad, who represents Slovakia in the European Parliament, is fine with it. Blood and family always came first with the Stastnys.
“He knows these tournaments don’t happen too often,” Stastny said. “I think we’re so young, we take everything for granted a little bit. It’s not until we’re done we realize how big a stage this is and how rare an opportunity this is.
“So when you do have six or possibly seven games,” he said, “you have to enjoy them and do your best and not put too much pressure on yourself.”
It was the first time in three tries that Stastny had beaten his dad’s former team. Playing against Slovakia has special meaning for him.
“Yeah, it always has extra meaning,” he said. “Playing against Canada or Russia is fun, too. Playing Slovakia is just as fun for me, because I have a lot of family back home watching. Both my parents are Slovakians, so I know a lot of the guys on that team.”
Stastny laughed when he was asked if he had any memory of 1994. He was 9 years old at the time, living in New Jersey. He says he was probably sleeping or in school when the games were played.
“The only thing I remember in ’94 is my dad getting to carry the flag the first time Slovakia was its own independent country,” he said.
“He’s pretty humble about it. If someone does ask, I try to keep my ears open and listen. But I know how special that was for him. It was one of his greatest achievements and one of most humble things he’s ever done.
“He’s proud of his history, and now that he’s done, he’s living vicariously through his children. So now we’ve got to try to live up to him a little bit.”