BRATISLAVA – There was a palpable sense of relief for Slovan Bratislava. Right before the start of its first ever KHL season the Slovak team learned that Miroslav Satan, team captain and top scorer from last year, would return to play another year.
By retaining the services of Satan, the Slovak team was able to hang on to a bona fide Slovak hockey icon.
Although he does not hail from Bratislava nor did he spend his junior career at Slovan, there has been a special bond between the 37-year-old forward and the team. Since 2003 he has returned to the capital city to don the navy blue jersey several times.
“Before the NHL season began I always worked out here,” Satan explains. “We bought a house and built up a relationship. This team has the best professional conditions and the best arena of the country and has become the team to beat for opponents. I now realize how difficult that can be.”
Growing up Topolcany, 100 kilometres east of Bratislava, Satan was part of a unique generation of players. Often referred to as “zochari” (farmers) the Topolcany fans could witness the likes of Lubomir Visnovsky, Andrej Kollar, Lubomir Hurtaj and Peter Huzevka on the ice. All ended up representing the national team. But the most successful player of them period was a flashy winger called Miroslav Satan.
He still remembers the time he had in Topolcany. “We had a strong group of players playing together for 3 or 4 years. All credit for that should go to our coaches, especially Jozef Nemec.”
Playing against the big city teams was always something to look out for, but usually Topolcany was sent home with a clear loss. In the early ‘90s Satan and his team were determined to turn things around and started to play along with the Slovans and Kosices of the country, something that was unheard of at the time in Czechoslovakia.
One season after he made his senior league debut, Satan left for Dukla Trencin to serve his army duty. Satan has fond memories of his time in Trencin. “We all lived in the same place with not so fancy conditions. We did not have fancy cars or a lot of money, all we did was play hockey and have tons of fun.”
With fun also came success. Satan finished second in league scoring that season and despite representing his country in the C-pool, he made a name for himself at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway where he scored nine goals in eight games to finish as the tournament’s top scorer. It was Slovakia’s top-level first appearance as a separate country after the split of Czechoslovakia.
His name didn’t stand out during the NHL draft where the Edmonton Oilers drafted him in the fifth round, 111th overall in 1993. But things were different one year later. “I wasn’t present at the draft and just took it as a fact”, Satan remembers. “That following summer I left for training camp in North America to get a feel of the hockey over there.”
The culture shock for him was huge. Barely speaking English and experiencing a lot of new things both on and off the ice, Satan took one year to adjust himself while bouncing around three different minor league teams. “The following year I was much stronger mentally and physically on what I was going to face and performed much better.”
After being dealt to the Buffalo Sabres, Satan’s career skyrocketed and he ended up playing over 1,000 games for Edmonton, Buffalo, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins.
The Stanley Cup final loss against the Dallas Stars in 1999 (with the debatable Brett Hull goal) still hurts but Satan made up for it by raising the cup in Pittsburgh ten years later, a feat he ranks among the highlights of his career. “There are a lot of guys who have played in the NHL for 10-20 years and never won the Cup. I was lucky enough to be in a Stanley Cup final twice.”
But of equal importance to Satan is the gold medal won at the 2002 IIHF World Championship in Sweden. Against all odds Slovakia defeated Russia 4-3 en route to their first ever gold medal.
“That gold medal was not just won for ourselves. We achieved it with a group of guys who grew up together and made it to the national team. To become World Champions for such a small country was amazing. We did it for our nation, our hockey fans,” he said. “After Slovakia became independent we were demoted to the C-pool. I played C-Pool, B-Pool too, in the end, win the A-pool. It was a huge journey for our national team and makes me really proud of the achievement.”
The outburst of joy was also fuelled by the Olympic catastrophe earlier that year. Due to a scheduling conflict, Slovakia was not able to use its NHL players during the preliminary games. With the majority of the team playing in the NHL, Slovakia was hit overwhelmingly compared to other nations.
While choosing his words carefully Satan is still unhappy about the injustice that was done to the Slovakian team by then and remembers the madness that it caused.
“I think the system was not fair towards small countries. They did not think of these countries when creating this system. We still had players in NHL who couldn’t come and help us qualifying. I remember crazy things playing for Buffalo. After a certain game I chartered a plane to Salt Lake City, completely fatigued. After travelling all night I played with Slovakia and then had to fly back and play New Jersey with Buffalo again. Really crazy.”
But Satan and his teammates however were determined to make a point, and the world noticed at the 2002 World Championship.
“At the tournament we wanted to show that Slovakia was a better team than what we showed at the Olympics. With all the players healthy and available everyone was ready to go to play for national team. We went there and had strong team and we were able for once to win it and cause a small revolution back home in Slovakia.”
The players received a hero’s welcome back home and caused hockey to be even more popular in the country. On the opposite the players were proud to represent the nation and dressed up for any game when possible.
Having completed a full season with Slovan Bratislava, Satan realizes hockey in Slovakia has gone south in recent years but slowly some things are improving but not at the desired speed.
“We’re still lacking the economical resources to keep players here and build more high quality rinks that can attract more fans,” Satan knows. “There’s a lot of young players in the league that improve each year but we need some serious reforms in Slovak hockey nonetheless.”
With a pro-career of over 2 decades, Satan has the authority and experience to pinpoint the areas in which he thinks the biggest changes are required.
“We need to improve coaching and refereeing. When you give the best knowledge to a coach, he will be able to produce a lot of good players and that’s good for Slovak hockey and the national team in the end.”
Does he see himself fill that void and will make a transition from on the ice to behind the bench after his playing career is over?
“I doubt that I’ll end up in coaching myself. I don’t know my future yet. A lot of guys from my generation ended up in Slovak hockey because we were able to experience North America and we got some know-how there that could be beneficial to Slovak hockey but I don’t think that’s going to be the case in my situation.”
For now Miroslav Satan takes it year-by-year, a wily veteran who can still light up the scoreboard. In five KHL games for Slovan Bratislava, leads the team in points with a goal and three assists.
‘Miro the Hero’ remains modest and puts things in perspective. “Foremost I try to stay healthy and help out Slovan and the national team when possible. I might consider playing just part of the season which turned out ok for me in the past,” he confesses. “That would allow me to dedicate some more time for other things in life like my family. I’ve reached a point in life in which I value my spare time the most.”