Czech NHL rookies – Petr Svoboda

By Robert Neuhauser
When you see the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ice, some players can’t be overseen due to their size. One of them is Petr Svoboda, the 20-year old rookie hailing from the Czech Republic. How difficult was his way into the world’s best league?

It was almost sure that Petr will be hockey player someday. He was born 06-20-1980 as a son of one of the top deensemen in Czechoslovakia, Radoslav Svoboda. In the early 80’s was Radoslav Svoboda a regular with the National team and played a solid defensive game. On that day Petr couldn’t know, but as time passed by, he realized this fact and began to watch his father playing games. Petr loved hockey since he was born. He loved it even more in the spring of 1985, when the Czechoslovakian squad won the World Championship in front of the excited Czechoslovakian people in Prague. There he could see his father with a gold medal around his neck. He could be proud, but it was time to start a hockey career of his own. The little Petr was brought to the team of HC Dukla Jihlava, where he took his first strides. The coaches decided that the tall Petr will be playing defense and Petr wanted to be just like his dad, so everything was OK. Dad taught Petr all the basic skills and gave him all the tips how to improve his game. Quite good to get tips from a world champion, eh? This payed immediate dividends as Petr developed into one of the most feared defensemen among the Czech kids. The now retired dad followed his practices and Petr was willing to listen to the advices. Besides, he always worked on to be in a good physical shape and has put impressive numbers in the weight room as he became a 13-year old guy. So this right-shooting prospect turned into a big, strong and both skilled defenseman.

One of the most critical points of everyones career, moving up to the midget league, was no problem for Petr. He established himself on the roster of the Jihlava midgets in 1995-96. Despite this fact he played only sparingly for the Under-16 team and missed the Four-nations tourney, that year in Voskresensk, Russia. Not good news for both Svobodas. So Petr worked hard in the summer of 1996, added some bulk and saw himself as a regular with the Under-17 team in 1996-97. Besides he was the top defenseman for the Jihlava midgets. The top of the Under-17 team season was that year in Sundsvall, Sweden, at the European Youths Olympics. Petr was paired there with Filip Stefanka for most of the time and even he was scoreless, his good defensive game didn’t remain unnoticed. As Petr recently stated, he doesn’t want to be on the ice when his team allows even one single goal. This turned into a motto of his career. He continued his stellar play in 1997-98, when he played for the juniors of Jihlava and the Under-18 team. And it was the draft year. The first great event was for Petr his first game in the Extraleague, his only game among the seniors that season. And then came the most important event, the European championship of the Under-18 teams in Sweden. In front of dozens of NHL scouts Petr scored the game tying goal in the first game, a 2:2 tie against Russia as Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Alexander Zevakhin scored both goals for team Russia. Another goal came in the 6:4 win against the home Swedes, but that was it. The Czechs finished fourth, but Petr’s play looked promising concerning the NHL draft. Petr arrived there with his family as a potential second rounder. That was really true. After 3 Czechs taken in the first round, the 35th placed Toronto Maple Leafs turned Petr into the first Czech taken in the second. He was happy with going to the famed Canadian team, but he knew that he has to fight hard and improve a lot before he can even visit the Leafs camp. But he was good enough to play for Jihlava in the Extraleague. In 1998-99 he played there 40 games and recorded 6 points (1 goal + 5 assists) along with 28 PIMs. But by the Toronto Maple Leafs staff mostly appreciated information was that Petr made the roster for the Under-20 teams WJC in Winnipeg. The team’s performance was bad, the of Petr quite solid. The Czechs finished 7th, worst showing at the WJC ever. But Petr put a sound defensive game on display, just like his motto states. In the summer of 1999 he faced the necessity to change the team. HC Dukla Jihlava lost the series against HC Znojmo Eagles and Jihlava had to replace them in the Div I league, when they finished last in the Extraleague and lost the series against Div I champion of Znojmo. Wealthy team of HC Ocelari Trinec contacted Petr and he signed a contract. He could play in the Exraleague again. Trinec wanted to have two big prospects on the roster, Martin Havlat at forward and Petr Svoboda at defense. They had them. Petr established himself on the 3rd line and played regularly, paired with vet Jiri Kuntos for most of the schedule. And as time passed by, the Under-20 team coaches mentioned Petr as on of the locks for the defense for the upcoming WJC. He had a experience from the last year’s WJC and had his roster spot sure. This championship saw on of the best defensive performances by Petr. He checked the opponents whenever he could, left no one stand in front of the Czech bet, fought hard for the puck, blocked a lot of shots and did a lot of takeaways. The ruesult was, that the Czechs didn’t allow any single goal when Petr was on the ice! Just like his motto states. Though he recorded only 2 assists, he could feel as one of the biggest contributors when he had the gold medal around his neck. A great defensive showing, Petr was +5 along with 4 PIMs. Everyone on the Toronto staff had to be delighted. After the sweet days of the victory were over, the Extraleague went on and Petr recorded 3 points (1 goal + 2 assists) in 46 games for Trinec and was a +7 along with 44 PIMs. In the playoffs Petr played 3 games of the four games played by Trinec and was scoreless with a -1 for the 6th placed Trinec. His stellar play was no secret for the National team coaches, who invited him to the Sweden Hockey Games in Stockholm. The game against Russia was the first for Petr in the National team. The first in which he had been on the ice when the Czechs allowed a goal was his fourth game against Sweden, a 3-1 win. The goal came in the 3rd period by Jonas Ronnqvist. The Czechs finished second in the tournament. In April then Petr played 6 exhibition games against Slovakia, Switzerland and Russia between April 11th-20th. Though he played well, he din’t make the team for the World Chapionship, at which the Czechs won gold again. A disappointment, but he could prepare for the Leafs camp even harder. This started in September. After a good rookie camp he played well for the Leafs but one time he was demoted to play for the Baby Leafs. But the next day he got recalled, so he could make his NHL debut on October, 7th, 2000, against the Montreal Canadiens and score his first NHL goal the next game against the Dallas Stars. By now Petr plays for the St.John’s Maple Leafs (AHL) and stands at 12 games, 2 points (1 goal + 1 assist) for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Good luck!