Monday, May 14, 2012

Rudolf Tajcnar

Forty years ago this spring, Czechoslovakia returned to the top of the hockey world. It was a long time coming. The country had spent more than two decades as an also-ran, the team that won two world championship titles in the late 1940s devastated by the twin disasters of the English Channel air crash and the U Herclíků arrests.

Now, powered by a new generation of stars – international legends like Václav Nedomanský, the Holík brothers, Milan Nový, Ivan Hlinka, Jiří Bubla, Jiří Holeček – they’d finally hit the peak. Two straight silvers in international competition, in the 1971 World Championships and then the Sapporo Olympics, were followed by the country’s first ice hockey gold in 23 years at the 1972 World Championships.

Alongside the legends was an up-and-coming defenseman named Rudolf Tajcnár. The 24-year-old Slovan Bratislava defenseman had gradually increased his presence on the national team. He’d been a seventh defenseman on the 1971 team, but then – benefitting from tragedy, when superstar Jan Suchý was suspended for a fatal drunk driving accident – he became a firm part of the rotation in 1972. He saw regular time during the Winter Olympics, and then in the Worlds he kept up with the Czechoslovak offensive juggernaut, scoring five goals.

His future looked bright. His trajectory was firmly upward. But Tajcnár had played his final game for the national team, and was instead about to embark on a journey that would take him from Bratislava to the U.S. to Switzerland and finally back to Bratislava, and in the process, put him among a small group of pioneers.

* * *

Rudolf Tajcnár was born April 18, 1948, in Bratislava -- two months after the coup that gave the Communists unchallenged power in Czechoslovakia. Not much is known of his youth -- he excelled in tennis along with hockey, and in fact would teach tennis in Switzerland at the end of his career. While still a teenager, he may have played some games for second-division Dukla Trenčín -- then in 1966 he arrived in top-league Košice, where he spent two seasons before moving on to Slovan Bratislava.

In a handful of photos from these early days, Tajcnár looks like a character from a fairy tale, a good and strong woodcutter. Barrel-chested with a wide and honest face. He looks powerful, and by all accounts he was – the common memory from anyone who saw him play was his slapshot, still spoken of with awe decades later. In the spring of 1972, Rudolf Tajcnár looks invincible.

* * *

Something went drastically wrong soon after his high point. In April 1972, Tajcnár was a world champion. When the Czechoslovakian league resumed play in the autumn, he was nowhere to be found. He sat out the 1972-73 season and it’s not clear why. Slovan Bratislava’s records cite “mental health issues.” When he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers down the line, part of the story was that he had beaten up several policemen and spent time in a mental health facility. Gil Stein – the Flyers’ chief operating officer for part of the 1970s – says that was a myth created by Tajcnár’s agent, a “sales pitch” intended to boost the player’s appeal to the team known as the Broad Street Bullies. Articles written after his death don’t mention any fight, just “disagreements” with the regime.

Accessible records from the era are frustratingly incomplete. If he was a free man that year, it’s possible (though unlikely) that he played on a lower-division team. Preseason rosters printed in Czech house organ Rudé právo don’t list him with Slovan Bratislava – but a game recap printed during the season briefly mentions that he’s out long-term, along with injured teammates Nedomanský and Ivan Grandtner, making it sound like he was just on the disabled list. But while both Nedomanský and Grandtner came back that season, Tajcnár never did. When the rest of the team was playing Kladno and Pardubice in the post-season, he wasn’t there.

Czechoslovakian media of the day tended to focus on the positive. If someone had a black mark by their name, they weren’t mentioned. So there aren’t any of the features we’d see today – no “Rudy Tajcnár’s Fall and Redemption,” no tales of a comeback. For one season, Rudolf Tajcnár was just gone.

But then the next year he was back and  it’s as if nothing happened. Back on the Slovan blueline, back as a solid offensive defenseman. The only tangible sign now that anything had changed is an absence – he was no longer on the national team, either as punishment or because he’d been overtaken by a new generation

Tajcnár continued along for a few more years, sticking quietly with Slovan Bratislava for three more seasons, through 1976-77. A solid player from what can be seen. Then in 1977, something changed again.

* * *

The first Czechoslovakian hockey player to defect and then continue his career was likely Milan Matouš, a forward for I. ČLTK Praha who jumped during a 1948 tennis tournament and later played in Italy and Switzerland. Soon after came Zdeněk Marek, during the 1949 World Championships in Stockholm. Marek ended up playing a season for the University of North Dakota. A handful of others trickled out over the coming years. Most of them ended up playing and coaching in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands. After the initial rush, few were prominent – more common were either youth players or fringe players at the end of their careers.

But the 1970s brought a seismic upheaval to this situation, and the change came from the two parties that most unsettled hockey during the decade – the World Hockey Association and Alan Eagleson. When the WHA’s Toronto Toros got Nedomanský and Richard Farda to defect in  1974, ignoring international agreements designed to restrict defectors, the playing field changed. Nedomanský and Farda weren’t fringe players – the former was one of the best players in the world, big and strong and an offensive force; the latter a talented scorer for ZKL Brno. This was impossible to ignore – the whole game had changed. Czechoslovakia undoubtedly tightened controls on its players, but within the decade started letting older players – Bubla, František Černík, Hlinka, Milan Chalupa, Nový – go to the NHL in exchange for a fee. But the younger players – the Šťastný brothers, the Ihnačák brothers, Jiří Crha, Miroslav Fryčer – weren’t willing to wait and kept on heading west regardless of permission.

But between Nedomanský and Farda in 1974 and the flood that began in 1979, there was one more player that made the great leap.

* * *

Tajcnár’s story picks up in Switzerland. It’s not clear how he got there – when we first see him, it’s the summer of 1977 and he’s made the crossing. One story is that he came on a friendly tour with Slovan Bratislava and didn’t leave; it’s not clear whether that’s accurate. All we know of his reasons come from a interview shortly before his death – differences with the Czechoslovak government aside, he just wanted to play hockey abroad.

He signed with Swiss club HC Ambri-Piotta, but they were honoring an IIHF agreement barring defectors from playing for 18 months – Swiss teams played Czechoslovak clubs regularly over the years, and I imagine those exhibitions were lucrative for the Swiss teams. Tajcnár was stuck sitting, but he apparently didn’t want to wait.

Stein writes: “Our General Manager was Keith Allen, who had been having an ongoing dialogue with a Czech player agent regarding the possibility of Peter Stastny’s defecting from Czechoslovakia and signing with the Flyers. I do not remember the name of the agent, but he liked to refer to himself as ‘double-O seven.’ In the course of his talks, the agent said he also represented Tajcnár.”1

The Flyers – persuaded in part by the story about the policemen – were convinced and bought in. They sent assistant coach Mike Nykoluk to Switzerland to meet with Tajcnár and work things out.
“He had to sit out a year before he could play, so he wasn’t doing anything," Nykoluk says. "He was a little bit overweight. He must have been living the good life when he was there.”

The deal ran into several problems – not least that Tajcnár already had the contract with Ambri-Piotta. “We had to sort of sneak him out of Switzerland,” Nykoluk says. Because of that, a Swiss lawyer stopped working with the Flyers party – “he felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do” – and Stein came over to join the negotiations.

“I met with Rudi and his local lawyer, got his signature on a contract, and then flew with him to Philadelphia aboard a jumbo jet," Stein writes. "The flight was interesting, because Rudi spoke only German and Czech, but no English. All I could speak was English. Sitting with him in the upstairs first class section of the plane, I took a writing pad and drew a diagram of a hockey rink, then pointed to each position player and said ‘defenseman, winger, center, goaltender,’ etc. He took the pad from me and wrote the name of each NHL conference (Campbell and Prince of Wales), then each of the NHL divisions (Patrick, Norris, Adams and Smythe), then listed the teams in each division. I was impressed with his knowledge of the NHL.”

The Flyers sent him to their new farm team in Portland, Maine, to get into shape. The Maine Mariners contacted a local library to find a interpreter for Tajcnár – the library contacted Hana Strnad, a teacher and translator for all things Czech.

Strnad remembers Tajcnár as “very nice, a very polite person,” who “had a hard time adjusting to the United States’ way of life. He missed his mother’s cooking. But, he liked a lot of the stuff they had here. He was very interested in cars. He could get clothes that were different than what they had in Czechoslovakia. We went out to buy him checkered pants – then he was sorry.”

Jerome Mrazek, a goalie on that year’s Mariners team, says “I do recall Rudy to have been a gentle, unassuming man. A gentleman. There was a language barrier, but I think he appreciated being included in extra-curricular activities as I suspect he was, naturally, a bit homesick.”

Jim “Turk” Evers, the Mariners’ trainer that season,  says “Rudy was a quiet guy. He was probably the oldest guy on the team. He wasn’t a very sociable guy, but he was a funny guy. He was a really big, stocky guy. He must have weighed about 230 pounds, and that was a lot back then. He had that mustache, he looked like Captain Kangaroo.”

“I think Rudy was kind of a loner. But he handled it really well considering that he was one of the first Europeans to come over,” says Steve Coates, a right wing who came to the Mariners in a midseason trade.

Despite the loneliness and culture shock, Tajcnár became a fan favorite with the Mariners. Diane Bore was the president of the booster club for the new team, a spot she held for two decades. “He was quite a ladies’ man. He was very pleasant and he always had a big smile. We sat in section 3 at the  Civic Center. During warmups, he’d always come over to the blue line and raise his stick to me and smile.”

“He was very popular,” Strnad says. “My students would bring in programs to have him sign.”

A big part of the popularity came from his thundering shot. “When he took a shot, he really took a shot,” Strnad says. “The fans would yell ‘Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!’ when he did.”

“Some of the players admitted later on – his shot was so hard it tended to rise and they were a little scared in front of the net,” says Augie Favazza, who covered the team for the Portland Press-Herald. “One of the players later said ‘it was the first time I heard a puck whistle.’ The team tried to get him to keep it down, but I think he was influenced by the crowd (and they loved it.)”

“He was quiet, but he was also like a father figure. We had a lot of young guys,” Evers says. “You could tell when he was mad – he’d give you that look like your Dad gives you.”

He played himself into shape, and impressed his teammates with his conditioning. Rick St. Croix, a Mariners goalie that season, says “When he first came over he would go through a pre-game off ice warm-up that was much more intense than we were used to.  He would be jumping and stretching and in fact doing what most players do today.  I think he was surprised that we were not doing our warming up the same way.”

“I remember Rudy being a really strong player. There was no question about it,” Coates says. But despite his size and strength, he wasn’t often an aggressive player. He later told a Swiss coach that they tried to make him into a “killer” in North America. “He didn’t like the way they played in the United States, all the fighting,” Strnad says. “He said they did a lot of passing (in Europe) as opposed to the checking here.”

* * *

The Mariners kept winning and Tajcnár was a big part of it. The Flyers were starting to look at bringing him up to Philadelphia when disaster hit.

“He was doing really well. We went to see him play in Hershey,” Nykoluk says. “We were gonna bring him up to the NHL – but His skate got caught in a rut there in Hershey and he twisted his ankle. That was the end of it there.”

Tajcnár’s one shot at the NHL had passed, though he did come back from the injury in time for the Calder Cup playoffs. He scored six points in the postseason as the Mariners completed their inaugural season with a championship.

After the season, the team’s ownership sent the players on a congratulatory trip to Las Vegas – a trip that brought a surprise to some of the other Mariners personnel.

“I remember him wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, with a big cigar and a drink in his hand – and he says ‘this is the life,’” Evers recalls. When those around him reacted with shock, “he just said ‘oh, I can speak English – I just don’t speak English.’” Coates recalls something similar -- “I asked him if he wanted to play golf, and he said no, he was going to play tennis – he spoke English!”

* * *

“He was very instrumental in winning the Calder Cup. He sure had a lot of talent,” Nykoluk says. “It was just too bad. I would’ve liked to see him make it the NHL, but some freaky thing happens.” Philadelphia let Tajcnár go after the season. He was now on the dark side of 30, and the Flyers had determined he wasn’t going to crack the lineup.

He was expected to rejoin HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland, but instead stuck around North America. In November he signed a ten-game trial contract with the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association – just two weeks after the Oilers made a slightly more ballyhooed pickup in Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers were one of the shining lights in the gloom of the WHA’s final season, challenging for the AVCO Cup while starting to assemble the team that would dominate the NHL in the 1980s.

Tajcnár hadn’t played since the Calder Cup finals, so he was sent down to get some seasoning. Tom Hodges was general manager of the Spokane Flyers, the Oilers’ affiliate in the Pacific Hockey League (like the WHA, in its final season). “Glen Sather called me one day and asked me ‘can you use a defenseman for a while? I want to get this fellow in playing shape.’ So he sent Rudy down.”

The new defenseman was well-received in Spokane – the Spokesman-Review newspaper called him a “standout,” and Hodges describes him as “a good defenseman, good with the puck.” But Edmonton wanted to see what they had, and in early December Tajcnár got summoned to the big club while it was on an eastern swing.

Rudy Tajcnár played two games for the Edmonton Oilers, his high point in North American hockey. The stats line isn’t impressive: 2-0-0-0-0 and -4. After a 6-4 loss to Indianapolis, the Edmonton Journal said he was “caught in a revolving door.” A few days later, the Oilers decided they’d seen enough – his 10-game trial was cut off. He was without a team again.

Re-enter Spokane. It wasn’t long before Hodges got a call from Tajcnár’s agent – but there was a hitch: “We had a league salary limit. The agent asked for more money than the whole team was getting.” That brought the talks to an early end, but a few days later, Tajcnár took matters into his own hands.

“Rudy called me. He couldn’t speak very much English – ‘Mr. Hodges, do you want me to play hockey in Spokane?’ I said ‘Sure.’ He said ‘okay’ and he agreed to come play for the salary we could give him.”

Tajcnár’s run in Spokane was brief but productive. He scored at a better than point-per-game pace, with six goals and 24 assists in 24 games. Two of those goals came in a January 14 rout of the Los Angeles Blades, drawing rave reviews from Chuck Stewart in the Spokane Daily Chronicle the next day:

“(the crowd) reserved its biggest cheers for Tajcnár. Every time the big Czech would come on the ice the appreciative crowds would roar approval. And each time he’d touch the puck there’d be a big ‘ooh’ or ‘aah,’ depending upon what he did with it.

“Booming point shots, with all of his 235-pounds behind them would get the ‘oohs,’ especially when the pucks would splat off the end boards. It was a drive from the point that accounted for his first goal, and one from center ice which got No. 2.

“’I like that,’ the friendly giant smiled when asked what he thought of the applause he gets. ‘That’s a very big help for me.’”

For the second straight season, though, he was derailed by injury. In the March 3 game against Phoenix, he ruptured ligaments in his knee. It was a bad night all around for the Flyers – teammate Roy Sommer, now coach of the AHL’s Worcester Sharks, remembers “I went down, I punctured my lung. Don Dirk ripped his shoulder out in a fight, Rudy was skating and he tore up his knee. We were all in the training room, it was like Vietnam. All of us were like the MASH unit. Rudy was just shaking his head.”

The injury ended Tajcnár’s season and his North American career. The Pacific Hockey League was gone the next season, and so was he.

* * *

His time in the United States came to an end in shocking fashion, with one more severe injury coming in an unexpected manner. While visiting New York City, he was attacked by thugs – “just a random act,” according to Hodges –stabbed several times and hospitalized.

However serious his wounds were, he was back playing hockey in the autumn. He understandably gave up on North America at this point, and went back to Switzerland – signing with HC Ambri-Piotta, beginning his career with them two years later than expected. The club was in the Swiss second league, working to win promotion (they finally did in 1982, a year after Tajcnár left, then for good in 1985).

His coach there was Jiří Kren, who as a player had pursued a similar path to Tajcnár. Kren was a young player for Sparta Praha when he defected in Switzerland during the 1963 Spengler Cup. He played briefly for some Canadian lower-league teams, then went on to Germany before returning to Switzerland and playing and coaching there.

Kren says Tajcnár was "very fine technically and very strong physically,” but “rarely used his athletic advantage.”

“Some times for a joke we sent him before the game in underwear to the adversary’s dressing room, just to step in and to say ‘sorry, I made a mistake with the dressing room.’ With his impressive physical (size) … the adversary team was shocked and for some time lost the ‘winning spirit.’”

Tajcnár scored 23 goals over two seasons with HC Ambri-Piotta, then moved on to Swiss third-league side HC Ascona. No statistics exist from his time there – though he did play the 1982-83 season along fellow defector Richard Farda, once his teammate on the Czechoslovakia national team, now similarly winding down his career.

* * *

One obscure tale marked a strange and sad coda to Tajcnár’s hockey career. In 1987, he defected back to Czechoslovakia – crossing the border under an assumed name, and turning himself in.  In an interview before his death, he said he was simply homesick -- but it didn’t sound like life back in Bratislava was much happier. In that interview, and one with Tajcnár’s friend Milan Kužela in 2011, it sounds like his final years were lonely – forgotten by the hockey establishment, ravaged by drinking problems and depression.

Rudolf Tajcnár died in Bratislava in the summer of 2005. He was 57.

* * *

1the agent was Louie Katona, a restaurateur in Toronto. I was unable to reach him for an interview.

* * *

A handful of acknowledgements. The top photo comes from the Maine Mariners' 1977-78 team photo; the middle photo comes from a Mariners program from that season.

Two articles by Václav Jáchim were invaluable in getting information on Tajcnár’s life in Czechoslovakia -- this memorial piece including an interview with Tajcnár, and this interview with Tajcnár’s friend and Slovan defense partner, Milan Kužela.

Members of the Society for International Hockey Research e-list provided some details for this piece, including the breakdown of Tajcnár's brief time in Edmonton. The Spokane Daily Chronicle article that's quoted extensively can be found here.

If anyone has more to contribute about Rudolf Tajcnár, I can be reached at postpessimist at gmail dot com.

For those concerned about sourcing, all interviews were conducted via phone except for Gil Stein (letter), and Jerome Mrazek, Rick St. Croix, and Jiří Kren (e-mail). Thanks to everyone who took the time to help me out.

And thank you, for reading this far!


commonkid said...

nice story

ironpigpen said...

spectacular stuff!

Jay said...

I remember him in Portland as a Maine Mariner loved him as did some local bartenders, huge shot, just a bear of a man.