First Czech NHLer dies at 71

Jaroslav Jirik crashed his plane near town where he was a legend

11.07.2011
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Jaroslav Jirik, fierce and helmetless. Dead at 71. Photo: Björn Lindström.

BRNO – Former Czechoslovak national team star Jaroslav Jirik, 71, died in a sport aircraft accident on Monday, reports Czech media. Jirik was the first Czechoslovak trained player in the NHL, in 1969-70.

Czech police confirmed on Monday that Jirik, a licensed pilot, had crushed his sport aircraft in the vicinity of his home town Brno, where he was a hockey legend.

Jaroslav Jirik flew airplanes as he played the game, without fear and with considerable risk. Some years ago, Jirik survived a plane crash in his own craft. Although aged 71, he had no thoughts about quitting his hobby. His death was confirmed by the Czech news agency CTK on Monday afternoon. 

Jaroslav Jirik was one of greatest heroes for us who started watching international ice hockey in the late 60s. Always playing without helmet, Jirik was one of the fiercest competitors, especially in the classic match-ups against the Soviet Union during that era.

Jirik, a left winger, played in seven IIHF World Championships (1958-1969) and in three Olympic Winter Games (-60, -64 and -68), collecting two Worlds’ silver and three bronze medals, one Olympic silver medal and one bronze.

He scored 83 goals in 134 games for the Czechoslovak national team and in domestic league competition Jirik played in 450 games for ZKL Brno, scoring 300 goals while winning six national titles in 17 years. Jirik was member of the ZKL Brno team which captured the three first IIHF European Cup titles.

He was the left winger on the famous Brno line with Zdenek Kepak, center and Frantisek Sevcik, right-wing. On the national team, Jirik was teamed up with Sevcik and Jozef Golonka.

Jirik was at his best in the mid-60s. He recorded 12 points (eight goals, four assists) while leading the Czechoslovak team to a silver medal at the 1965 IIHF World Championships in Tampere, Finland. At the same event, he was named to the championship All-Star Team as the lone Czechoslovak forward, with Soviets Alexander Almetov and Konstantin Loktev.

He had eight points in six games at the 1967 Worlds in Vienna and was a dominating player at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, scoring three goals and three assists in four games.

The most memorable 1968 Olympic game was the classic 5-4 win against the Soviet Union – arguably one of the best Olympic games ever played – where Jirik gave Czechoslovakia a 5-2 lead before the Soviet rallied. Always sporting his trade mark jersey number 16, Jaroslav Jirik never won gold in major international competition.

His last World Championship was 1969 in Stockholm where the Czechoslovaks, only seven months after the Soviet invasion of his home country, defeated the Soviet Union twice (2-0, 4-3), but still couldn’t win gold after losing both their games to Sweden.

But it was Jirik who, to a large extent, personified the Czechoslovak resilience and fighting-spirit, especially in this heated 1969 event. It was Jirik who, together with teammate Jaroslav Holik, led the player protest by covering up the red star on the Czechoslovak crest on the jerseys with a piece of tape.  

For the next season, Jirik was allowed to leave his country because at that time he was 30 years old and considered expendable to the national program. Jaroslav was signed by the NHL expansion team St. Louis Blues, but he spent most of the time with the Blues’ farm club in Kansas City in the Central Hockey League, where he recorded a very respectable 35 points (19+16) in 53 games.

Jirik became the first Czechoslovak trained player in the NHL when coach Scotty Bowman called him up for three games. Jirik acquitted himself well in those games, although he didn’t collect any points.

At season’s end he returned home and played for another five major league seasons with ZKL Brno before retiring in 1975 and embarking on a 21-year coaching career with first Brno, and which later took him to Switzerland (Swiss national team coach in IIHF Worlds 1978 and 1979) Austria and Germany before finally ending in 1997 when he led the Kometa Brno junior team.

Jirik also worked as a player agent in the 90s.

International and European ice hockey has lost one of its most legendary figures.

SZYMON SZEMBERG

- With files from lidovky.cz, eliteprospects.com and the book “Players” (Andrew Podnieks).        

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