10 greatest Slovak NHL players
Slovak hockey lost its transatlantic pioneer last week with the passing of Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita.
Mikita’s story of coming to North America from the present-day Slovak Republic does not get the same historic recognition as that of the Stastny brothers. At the peak of the Cold War, the Stastnys made bigger waves by defecting their side of the Iron Curtain.
To be fair, the risks they took by joining the NHL in 1980 set a precedent for a more massive Eastern-bloc exodus. The wave of moves over the ensuing decade and beyond was self-explanatory.
But 1980 also marked the final NHL season for Mikita, who had moved to Ontario at age eight. The Cold War was barely frosting at that point in the winter of 1949, and Mikita was subject nationalist bigotry.
Within another decade, though, his determination led him to his real adopted community: Chicago. There he played his entire Hall-of-Fame career, fittingly retiring when full-grown fellows from the old country started coming in droves.
Because he spent the majority of his upbringing in Canada, not every hockey archive recognizes Mikita among Slovak NHL players. But anyone born in that territory, whether it was before or after its union with the Czech Republic, counts here.
On that note, we honor Mikita’s life and legacy by ranking him and the past and present Slovak-born NHL legends who followed him. All statistics and award information are according to Hockey Reference.
10. Jaroslav Halak
Only four Slovak goalies have made the NHL. Two, Halak and Peter Budaj, have played more than six games in The Show.
Among that pair, Halak easily has the more impressive resume. In six of 11 seasons, he has played the majority of his team’s games. With Montreal in 2009-10 and St. Louis in 2011-12, he got his name on the Vezina ballot and finished among the top 10 vote-getters.
But his sample size is sparse, as he has only managed 50-plus starts in three campaigns. Entering 2018-19, his career stats are middling with a 2.50 goals against average and .916 save percentage.
9. Miroslav Satan
With 46 points in his first full season in Buffalo, Satan led a team that heavily relied on Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek. The next year, he raised his bar to 66 points and helped the Sabres reach the 1999 Stanley Cup Final.
Putting up similar numbers, Satan remained Buffalo’s scoring leader through 2002-03. After finishing second to Danny Briere in 2003-04, he moved across the state to the Islanders. His output and position on the team leaderboard remained the same for three years on Long Island as it had for seven in Buffalo.
By the end, though, he was a journeyman, providing depth for three teams in as many years. He would move back home at age 35 and spend four seasons in Slovakia and Russia.
8. Pavol Demitra
After paying his dues in the minors for four years, Demitra finally played the majority of an NHL schedule in 1997-98. The next year, he surged to St. Louis’ team lead with 89 points, and finished 12th in the Hart Trophy vote.
When the Blues won the 1999-000 Presidents’ Trophy, Demitra turned in 71 points and placed sixth on the Selke ballot. While he never came any closer to hardware, he remained a vital producer until 2008-09. He set himself a new career high of 93 points in 2002-03, and never averaged less than 0.57 per game after becoming an NHL regular.
Tragically, two years after joining the KHL, Demitra was among those killed in the 2011 Yaroslavl Lokomotiv plane crash. All five of his former NHL employers honored his memory.
7. Marian Gaborik
Twice with the Wild and twice with the Rangers, Gaborik crack the top 20 in the MVP vote four times in six years. The first of those seasons, 2006-07, was significantly shortened by injury, as were the two exceptions in that span.
At his peak, between 2001-02 and 2011-12, Gaborik cracked the 30-goal plateau seven times in 10 seasons. In each of those prolific runs, he led or co-led his team, and thrice finished among the league’s top 10.
To close that stretch, he landed on the league’s second postseason all-star team in 2012.
6. Peter Bondra
A two-time NHL goal-scoring leader (1994-95, 1997-98), Bondra also set a career high with 52 tallies in 1995-96. This despite missing 15 games that season.
Among other impressive rides, Bondra logged 46 goals in 1996-97 and 45 in 2000-01, both non-playoff years for Washington. The latter was enough to earn him a few Hart Trophy votes for the third and final time.
Dealt from one national capital to another in 2004, Bondra closed his career with brief stops in three cities. With the Blackhawks in 2006-07, he inched across the 500-goal threshold, finishing with 503 in 1,081 career games.
5. Ziggy Palffy
Of the teams Palffy played for in 12 full or partial NHL seasons, only three made the playoffs. If he had better supporting casts, his track record could have been more ornate. The Zambonis even referenced his team’s woes in their 1999 song, “The Wait.”
“When you’ve got a guy like Ziggy Palffy, your team should be playing hockey in June, not golf.”
With that said, he averaged a point per night or better in nine of the 10 years he played the majority of the schedule. Most notably, he led the Atlantic Division basement-ridden 1996-97 Islanders with 90 points, enough to earn him some Hart votes. He finished 12th, the only candidate among the top 16 on a non-postseason team that year.
Later, in Los Angeles, Palffy nearly matched his career high with 89 points while earning a few Selke votes in 2000-01. Two years later, while the Kings fell out of the playoff picture, he still mustered 85 points.
4. Marian Hossa
Though Hossa has never been a finalist for the NHL’s defensive-forward prize, Selke panelists have considered him 15 times in 18 seasons. That includes at least one vote at each of his first four stops and each of his last six campaigns.
At the other end, Hossa averaged 60 points or more on an 82-game pace every season between 2000-01 and 2014-15. Some of his most prolific runs, including a career-high 100 points in 2006-07, have put him on the Hart ballot.
He also made the second all-star team during his one year with Detroit, when the Red Wings fell one game short of defending a championship. The year prior, he finished one point behind playoff co-leaders Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg with 26.
Hossa has since won three Cups, and been to five Cup finals and seven conference finals. Among those deep runs, he has placed among the top five producers once and the top 10 two other times.
3. Zdeno Chara
Chara slogged and learned through an unremarkable start to his career on Palffy’s Islanders in 1997-98 and 1998-99. There was little to report on that besides his unprecedented physically towering presence.
By the time he moved to Ottawa at age 24, though, he started to figuratively grow into a legend. In the 15 NHL seasons between 2002-03 and 2017-18, Chara has appeared on 12 Norris Trophy ballots. He has finished fifth or higher six times, won the award in 2009 and was the first and second runner-up twice apiece.
In addition, Chara has earned three slots on the first postseason all-star team and four on the second team. He has also been among the top 10 leaders in defensive point sharing nine times.
2. Peter Stastny
The Hall of Fame admitted Stastny on his first ballot in 1998. It was a fitting fulfillment of delayed gratification after his career yielded no team or individual hardware beyond the 1981 Calder Trophy.
Throughout his peak, Stastny was a consistent force, leading the underdog Nordiques. He received votes for the Hart Trophy in five of his Quebec campaigns, though he was never a finalist. He was the Nordiques leading scorer each of his first three seasons, then again four more times through 1988-89.
On three occasions, he was the only member of his team to crack triple digits on the year. He also finished second on Quebec with 119 points in 1983-84, when he still led the team with 73 assists. He may have finished at the top once more had he not missed 16 games in 1986-87.
Stastny was averaging a point per game when the Nordiques dealt him to New Jersey in 1990. He would still finish second on his old team with 62 points that year, 17 ahead of third-leading producer Michel Goulet.
Playing for the defensive-minded Devils in his mid-30s, Stastny mustered two 60-point seasons. But he was not re-upped after 1992-93, and spent two abbreviated years in St. Louis while his second employer won the 1995 Stanley Cup. His first team, after moving to Colorado, won its first championship the year after he retired.
1. Stan Mikita
As his Legends of Hockey bio notes, Mikita “won awards in numbers not seen again until Wayne Gretzky arrived in the NHL.”
With and without Bobby Hull, Mikita left an unmistakable imprint on a consistently competitive Chicago franchise. For himself, he amassed four Art Ross Trophies plus back-to-back Hart Trophies.
That was all during the Hull era, as was each man’s only championship run. As a third-year pro, Mikita placed third on the Blackawks in both regular-season and playoff scoring en route to the 1961 Cup.
As he matured, Mikita would go on to lead his team in regular-season scoring seven times in 12 years. He led all of Chicago’s playoff point-getters four times, including the year after their title.
Seven more times, he was the team’s second-leading producer. That includes two occasions after Hull left, and when Mikita was in his own twilight, in 1978 and 1979. By 1983, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.