SOCHI, Russia – Petr Nedved is old.
Well, older looking than in his last National Hockey League season with the Edmonton Oilers in 2007. Gray hair, creased face. But he’s still playing hockey at 42. On an Olympic level.
“Here I am!” declared Nedved after the Czech Republic’s practice on Friday in Sochi. “Still have my teeth!”
Nedved has been in hockey self-exile for the last seven years. No NHL, no KHL. The scoring winger – 717 points in 982 games in the League, 310 of them goals – has played in his homeland the Czech Republic since he and the Oilers mutually parted ways. He’s been better than a point per game player over there for HC Sparta Praha and HC Bili Tygri Liberec, his hometown team. Playing out the string, having fun.
“I was taking one year at a time and playing out my career,” he said. “I still love the game. Love the competition. Still have the drive. But this is it for me. My last season. I feel like I could play for a couple of more years, but it’s time."
Then Nedved got the call. An unexpected one. The one from the Czech Republic’s hockey braintrust that wanted him at their Olympic orientation camp for the 2014 Sochi Games.
Suddenly, his grand finale in pro hockey was going to include its grandest stage.
“I never thought at the end of career I’d go to the Olympic Games,” he said. “I don’t feel like I did when I was 18, but I’m holding up pretty good."
It’s the first time he’ll represent Czech Republic at the Winter Games. But it won’t be his first Winter Games.
“Yeah,” he said, “that was 20 years ago.”
He was wearing a maple leaf on his sweater, representing Canada.
Now we’re 20 years later, and he could be facing the Canadians in Sochi, representing the homeland from which he defected when he was 17.
“My life has been a strange journey. Nothing new for me,” he said.
It was 1989 when Nedved led Chemical Works Litvinov to Calgary for the Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament. He hoisted the trophy on the ice of the Saddledome with his teammates; when they went to the airport the following morning, he wasn’t with them.
He had defected, with $20 to his name and his hockey bag in hand. He wanted to play in North America and wasn’t going to slip back behind the Iron Curtain. As he told the Calgary Herald (via Canucks Legends):
“Am I able to go back home? Will my parents be okay with my brother? I was almost more scared for my family than me. But I knew I wanted to play in the National Hockey League and, other than that, I didn't know much ... there were a lot of unknowns?”
By 1990, he was playing in the NHL, taken No. 2 overall by the Vancouver Canucks. By 1993, he was playing for the Canadian National Team, having gained citizenship. He had five goals in eight games for Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics, as Canada overcame expectations and won the silver medal, but fell to Peter Forsberg and Sweden in a gold medal shootout.
“We weren’t favored to bring the medal, and we lost the game in the shootout. It’s a sweet, bitter memory,” Nedved said.
“I enjoyed every moment playing for Canada. It was awesome,” he said. “But it was a little bit tough when we played Czech Republic and we beat them.”
Canada eliminated the Czechs, 3-2, in the quarterfinal of the medal round. It was a game Nedved dreaded playing heading into the tournament. Its aftermath wasn't easy. “I can remember that celebration. It was a mixed feeling for me. But I never had a regret,” he said.
Nedved was ineligible to play for the Czech Republic until 2011. IIHF rules dictated that he needed at least four years away from international hockey “while playing for a club in a country where he holds citizenship during that time.” He came back to his homeland in 2007; four years later, Nedved captained the Czechs at the Karjala Cup tournament.
Three years later, he’ll represent them in the Winter Olympics – with a chance to meet Canada in the medal round.
“It’ll be a little special," he said.
"Hopefully we return the favor to them.”
Petr Nedved is old.
He's nearly twice the age of one of his Olympic teammates, winger Ondřej Palát of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "Everywhere I’m playing now, I’m playing with [kids],” said Nedved, drawing a laugh. ‘There’s a 16 year old on my team in my hometown.”
But the Czech national team is primarily in his age bracket. It's like an AARP meeting on skates. Ten players who made the team are 30 years or older, including fellow (soon to be) 42-year-old graybeard Jaromir Jagr.
“We have the same sense of humor. We don’t even have to say anything to each other, and we laugh,” said Nedved of his former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate.
A sense of humor is healthy in situations like this: They face a daunting task at the Sochi Games. The Czechs are in the same group as the Swedes, the dangerous Swiss and Latvia.
“We’re not the favorites here. But we didn’t come here to watch it, either,” said Nedved.
That Nedved’s even in Sochi is accomplishment enough; to finally have the chance to represent his country on this stage, a career-capping honor.
“It’s a special meaning to me,” he said.
“Especially at my age.”