As is traditional at IIHF Hall of Fame inductions, there was a strong local accent. Here in Bratislava, the focus was on Slovakia’s golden generation, with two players who lifted the newly-independent country from the lowest level of international hockey to World Championship gold: Miroslav Satan and Zigmund Palffy.
For Palffy, a Skalica native, the defining moment of his career came in that 2002 gold medal game: a pass for Peter Bondra with 100 seconds left on the clock set up the game-winning, title-winning goal against Russia and wrote an indelible chapter in Slovak sporting history. The three-time Olympian reflected on being part of his country’s first ever national team in hockey. “The biggest moment of my career was probably playing for the first ever Slovak national team in the Olympic qualifications, and the Winter Olympics,”. “Of course, I’d also played before that for Czechoslovakia. Then all the times representing Slovakia, winning medals, and of course the gold medal in 2002. My childhood dream came true and hockey was always a great pleasure for me.”
He was also delighted to be inducted at the same time as his fellow Slovak star Satan. “It’s good to be going in with him because I’ve known him from back in Trencin and of course all the times playing together for the national team,” he added.
Satan, whose long career saw him begin as a 19-year-old with Slovakia in Pool C in 1994 before winning the World Championship and a Stanley Cup, recalled his start in the small town of Topolcany.
“We had one chance to be a hockey player,” he recalled. “You had to make it at the age of six or seven, you had to get into that group of 25 boys who were allowed to play hockey because there wasn’t enough ice time for everybody else. That was the first time I was lucky to make it.”
He also paid tribute to the work of his first coach, Jozef Nemec, who helped establish a successful hockey program in Topolcany and instilled a never-say-die attitude that help Satan inspire Slovakia to international glory.
“We were always a small team that tried to beat the big teams and that was something I had to carry from this small town to the international level when we were playing against the big countries. For so long only six countries used to split the medals and Slovakia was the first to break into that. It meant a lot for our country and produced many more players in our country.”
Hayley Wickenheiser is perhaps the greatest woman to play the game. Her career has brought four Olympic golds and seven World Championship triumphs with Canada. She was the first woman to score in a pro men’s league, with HC Salamat in Finland, and she continues to be a great ambassador for women’s hockey in current role as assistant director of player development with the Maple Leafs, showing that woman can make a contribution at the highest levels of the men’s game.
At a time when the future of women’s hockey is subject to intense discussion, Wickenheiser talked of her hopes for the next generation of girls taking up the game.
“I grew up with a Mom and Dad who believed that a girl could do anything a boy could do,” she said. “When I asked to play hockey, the first thing my dad did was to flood the back yard and say ‘have at it!’. Because of that I’ve been able to live my dream. I hope that for many years to come many girls around the world will have the chance to put their skates on, lace up and maybe win a gold medal for their country.”
Another long-serving international star, Sweden’s Jorgen Jonsson, enjoyed a 15-year international career with the Tre Kronor, making 285 appearances in his country’s yellow jersey. His medal haul included two Olympic golds and two gold, three silver and four bronze in World Championship play. He and his brother Kenny were part of Sweden’s unique golden double of 2006 when it won both the Olympics and the Worlds in the same year.
The Angelholm native had some words of advice for young players hoping to follow him to the pinnacle of the game.
“Never stop dreaming, believe in yourself and your ability and have fun,” he said. “Work as hard as possible every day to become the best you. I would never have guessed that I would stand here proud and honoured today.
“When I was still a young kid someone asked my parents: ‘why are you spending so much time on Jorgen and Kenny’s hockey? They’re probably not going to be any good at all.’ Well, I proved them wrong. Working hard, believing in yourself and having fun can take you all the way to the IIHF Hall of Fame.”
His wife Abby and young daughter Ellie were present at the ceremony in Bratislava, and Abby paid tribute to her husband.
“JJ loved every aspect to the game, in particular the lifelong relationships he developed through hockey,” she said. JJ dedicated his life to hockey as a player, as a coach and as an administrator.
“JJ used to say that team USA’s first game [at the World Championship] was his favourite day of the year and I truly believe it was. He loved putting a team on the ice and every time he did, that was his favourite day of the year. In truth, every day was JJ’s favourite day.
“For anyone who knew JJ, you knew almost as soon as you met him what a wonderful and selfless man he was. He had an uncanny ability to identify the good in people and find the positive in almost any situation.”
Another nominee from the USA, Mike Modano, also passed on his tribute to Johannson. Unable to attend the ceremony as he prepares to move to a new role with Minnesota, he asked former USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean to speak on his behalf.
“We spoke just yesterday and, most appropriately, he wanted to especially acknowledge and thank Jim Johansson for everything that he did for Mike and all the American players,” Ogrean said.
Modano’s career brought him Olympic silver and Stanley Cup glory but was indelibly associated with his uniquely smooth-skating style. Ogrean noted: “His GM at Dallas, Doug Armstrong, said that he looked like he was hovering just above the ice. Words like ‘great’ or ‘amazing’ just don’t do him justice.”
Modano was also instrumental in expanding the game into the southern USA, playing a key role when the North Stars moved from Minnesota to Dallas. “Mike catalysed an interest in the game that resulted in tens of thousands of youngsters across the southern half of the United States getting involved. It was part of the NHL’s southern expansion that led to more and more rinks as the game got bigger and bigger.”
Kazakhstan, recently promoted back to the top division, gained its first representative in the Hall of Fame with the induction of the late Boris Alexandrov. The former Soviet international was a key figure in the development of Kazakh hockey following the break-up of the USSR, serving his homeland as player and coach. Behind the bench, he lifted Kazakhstan to the top level of the World Championship and took the team to its first ever Winter Olympic hockey tournament in 1998. Sadly, Alexandrov was killed in a car accident in 2002 aged just 46. His son, Viktor, spoke at the Hall of Fame ceremony and said: “This is a special moment for my family. We are pleased that the IIHF has recognized my father’s love and passion for the game.”
The Bibi Torriani award, presented annually to a player who offered great service to a lesser hockey nation went to Bulgaria’s legendary goalie Konstantin Mihaylov. Of 52 Bulgarian World Championship campaigns, Mihaylov stood between the piping for 28 in a goaltending career that began when he stitched together his first goalie gloves from an old pair of hockey pants and trained on an outdoor rink in his hometown, Sofia. His World Championship debut came in 1985 in Megeve, France, and his final game was in 2014 at the age of 49.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more than to receive an award for something I have done with love and passion throughout my life,” he said.