Monday, February 25, 2008
Updated: March 4, 2:43 PM ET
SKATING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT
By Jeff Bradley
The old man is tough, but he could have been a lot tougher.
You think you have it bad? You grew up in big houses in St. Louis and the New Jersey suburbs; I shared a one-bedroom apartment with four brothers and a sister. You gripe about cell phone reception; I worried about my phone calls being wiretapped! You complain, period. I wasn't allowed to complain until I escaped Czechoslovakia 27 years ago!
Paul Stastny, budding NHL star, hasn't heard these exact words from his dad, but that doesn't mean that Peter Stastny, legendary NHL star, isn't paying attention. Peter, after all, is a Hall of Fame forward renowned as much for focus and attention to detail over 15 NHL seasons as for his 450 goals, 789 assists and daring 1980 defection. In many ways, Peter's decision to leave home and country cleared the ice for an era of Eastern European stars in the NHL. But his escape also allowed his talented son to grow up playing the game as it should be played—for fun. Turns out, that may be the way to set up Gen Next for a shot at greatness.
Twenty-two sons of NHL Hall of Famers have gone on to skate in the bigs (see chart), but only a handful developed into stars. In fact, most sons of greatness are more Pete Rose Jr. than Sr.
Maybe it's those famous names on their backs (and, in Paul's case, the same number). Maybe it's a lack of talent or drive. Maybe it's the unrealistic expectations. Or maybe it's just the heckling from fans jealous of the multiply blessed. "You've got to try to block it out," says Paul, a laid-back 22-year-old. "But it's not always easy."
Paul learned early how to filter out taunts and other harsh comments, which served him nicely while he learned the game under the pointed guidance of his father—who still calls when he sees the kid lose the puck or spectate on the penalty kill—and later when he first skated into an NHL arena. And just as Paul can block out the tone of Peter's voice so he can concentrate on the wisdom, so too can he laugh off a coach's tirade and trust his own talent.
Yes, that talent. Paul does not possess jaw-dropping moves or blazing speed, but he's preternaturally economical when he traverses the ice. Somehow he gets there, before fans or foes think he will. That efficiency earned him serious time on the Avs penalty kill and man advantage. The game's movements, the split-second decisions about where to be and when to get there, are second nature to him. (Avs coach Joel Quenneville marvels at how "the puck just finds him.") And those who saw Peter watch Paul and say, "We know where that came from."
Joe Sakic, who called himself "officially old" when he became the first to play with both Peter (on the 1988-89 Nordiques) and Paul, is amazed at the similarities. "They're built the same," the Avs captain says. "Both are powerful skaters. And they look the same. Paul wears the same type of skates his dad wore, all beat-up and old-school, and uses the same old wood stick."
Peter says the resemblance goes deeper, that the game is in his son's blood. He sees instinct in Paul's effortless ability to ghost himself into the play, in the angles of his passes and the paths he takes when he plays without the puck. Says Dad: "I don't like to boast, but when I watch Paul, it's like watching myself." Peter also believes his son was born to be a center. "You have to have those instincts and qualities to anticipate and to know how to react," he says. "You cannot teach what he has." Will Paul ever be as good as his father? "I think he will be better," says Peter.
He's definitely different, at least in one key way: Paul says he'll never match Peter's intensity, and that may be another reason he's succeeded where other sons have failed. "My dad is the kind of guy who can't live with mistakes," says Paul. "He'll beat himself up over the smallest error. I can't play well unless I'm having fun. My dad loved to play hockey, but it became a job for him at a young age. For me, there's more to life than hockey."
These days, that goes for the father as well as the son. Peter is out of hockey now. Since 2004 he has represented Slovakia in the European Parliament and lives in his hometown of Bratislava. Some 18 years after communism's fall, Peter is trying to help the country he left—and never stopped loving—find its democratic footing. He's got a lot going on in his life, and a lot of stories to tell. About how he, his wife and his brother sneaked out a side door of the Innsbruck Holiday Inn in the middle of the night, hopped into a Mercedes driven by a representative of the Nordiques and sped toward Vienna and the Canadian embassy. About how he taught himself to speak French (the language of Quebec City) and English (the language of the locker room) within a couple of years of arriving in the NHL. About how he responded to any player who dared call him a "commie" without a ref's seeing the payback. The man who scored more points in the 1980s than any other player not named Gretzky can tell how he was asked to carry Slovakia's flag at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and could not contain his tears, then scored five goals in eight games for his country.
Still, the best story is what's happening on the ice in Denver (and St. Louis, where 25-year-old Yan Stastny just got a call-up to the Blues). The Avs are fighting for a playoff spot, and Paul leads the team in scoring with 50 points in 47 games. The kid has been benched recently by an emergency surgery (appendix) and a groin pull, but Peter likes the direction the boy's career is heading. "Leaving Czechoslovakia was the best decision in my life," he says. "The hardest, but also the best. And the biggest beneficiaries are my children. Watching them is my greatest thrill."
Paul smiles when told that, exposing a gaping hole where a tooth once lived. "Believe me," the son says. "He's not too thrilled when I play like garbage. He can be tough."
But he could have been a lot tougher.