Hlinka also coached Czechs to '98 gold

Updated: August 17, 2004, 8:18 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Ivan Hlinka, a former Pittsburgh Penguins coach who led the Czech Republic to a gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, died Monday after being injured in a car crash. He was 54.

Hlinka's car collided with a truck late Sunday night near Karlovy Vary, about 70 miles west of Prague. He was taken to a hospital, where he died, team spokesman Pavel Barta said.

"Ivan Hlinka was hospitalized with serious injuries and despite all efforts he didn't survive," hospital spokeswoman Zdenka Markova said, adding that Hlinka's most serious injuries were to his ribcage.

Hlinka was reappointed Czech coach in May, and was set to lead the team at the World Cup of Hockey later this month.

"I am shocked," Czech President Vaclav Klaus said in a letter to Hlinka's wife, Libena, released by his office. "I personally knew Ivan Hlinka very well ... and I admired and respected him very much.

"He did a tremendous job for our country at home and abroad. His place -- not only in the world of hockey -- will remain empty for a long time and hardly anyone will ever replace him."

Police are investigating the accident, and local media reported that the truck had mechanical problems.

Hlinka was returning from the spa town of Karlovy Vary on Monday after gaining reassurances from Jaromir Jagr that the New York Rangers' winger would take part in the World Cup tournament starting later this month.

Hlinka's death came just more than a year after another gold-medal winning coach, Herb Brooks, died in a car accident. Brooks, who coached the U.S. hockey team to the "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, died Aug. 11, 2003, when his minivan rolled over after he lost control while driving near Minneapolis.

Brooks coached the Penguins for 58 games during the 1999-2000 season before giving way to Hlinka during the offseason.

Hlinka was behind the Penguins bench the following season and led Pittsburgh to the third round of the playoffs. He had a 42-32-9 record with the team before being replaced four games into the 2001-02 season.

In a statement, Penguins general manager Craig Patrick called Hlinka a "tremendous ambassador for the game of hockey."

"He was a great hockey player, a player that many of the current Czech players idolized growing up," Patrick said. "He brought a wealth of hockey knowledge and enthusiasm with him to the rink every day."

With the Czechs due to begin their World Cup campaign against Finland on Aug. 30, officials from the Czech ice hockey association will meet later on Monday to decide on a replacement for Hlinka.

Vladimir Ruzicka, Hlinka's close friend and another former NHL player who now leads Slavia Prague, is seen as the most likely replacement.

Hlinka was a player on Czechoslovakia's national team during the 1970s and '80s, helping the Czech's win the world championship in '72, '76 and '77. He was also on the team that won bronze at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, and silver at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

He played two seasons in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks from 1981-83, finishing with 42 goals and 81 assists in 137 games.

"Ivan's enthusiasm and commitment to the game will be greatly missed by the Czech Republic team as well as the entire hockey world, but his mark on the game will never be forgotten," the World Cup of Hockey Organizing Committee said in a statement.

He is survived by his wife and a son.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.