Holik giving back in Israel
by Ivan Tchechankov|29 MAR 2019
Bobby Holik talks with Israeli U18 national team player Itay Mostovoy.
photo: Kostadin Andonov
40 years ago Robert Holik was a little boy and he had a summer vacation with his parents on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. His father Jaroslav was a famous hockey player, a world champion with Czechoslovakia in 1972. These days Bobby Holik, as he is better known in the hockey world, is back in Bulgaria as he is the head coach of the Israeli U18 national team for the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A in Sofia.    

Holik is a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the New Jersey Devils (1995, 2000) and had 18 seasons in the NHL with 326 goals, 421 assists and 1421 penalty minutes in 1314 games played. With Czechoslovakia he won bronze at the 1990 World Championship and two World Juniors.

This is his first season as a head coach and second international tournament as he made his debut on 15th January in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championships Division II Group B in Zagreb, Croatia.

“I played in New Jersey and New York for a long time and I met this gentleman Stan Fischler, a world-famous broadcaster and writer. We had a good relationship during my NHL career and we stayed in touch after that. His interests outside of hockey are similar to mine – history, politics and all that. His son lives in the Golan Heights and his grandchildren are skating in the only regulation size rink in all of Israel. I was doing different things after the end of my career and had just started to work with kids and youth players. And Stan e-mailed me and asked if I want to do a hockey school in Israel. My response was: Absolutely!” explains Bobby Holik about how he became a coach in Israel.

“I’m a big supporter of Israel. There are reasons for that – I’m coming from a small country and always there was a bigger empire controlling us. Israel has found a way to defend itself and to stay free and democratic. And I admire that. When you study the history of the Jewish people, it’s quite a journey. What brought me to Israel actually, was not exactly hockey, but everything else, the people, the history, the current situation.”

It’s not an ordinary path for an ex-NHL star player to the coaching position, especially when you consider the thoughts behind the decision, but Holik is not an ordinary athlete in many ways.
For me it is far beyond hockey.
Bobby Holik
U18 national team coach of Israel
“My hobbies are history and geopolitics, languages and just reading. In that kind I was connected with Israel, because I was studying the way Israel became what it is today. So when I went there and had the chance to work with the youth players I had also the opportunity to go to places and to get to know the people. And with every visit it’s getting better and better. Countries are all about the people. I absolutely fell in love with the people there, with their desire for life, joy and for peace. From the outside it seems strange. Hockey is not that good, so what I’ll do there? But for me it is far beyond hockey,” he continued the story. After doing summer camps for two years (2017-2018), Holik was approached with the idea of working with the U18 and U20 teams.

“My goal was never to coach. I like to teach, to be on the ice and work with the kids. But the honour was such that for me it was not only coaching, but also representing and helping the country of Israel to show the people that this is not the enemy everybody thinks it is. My interests have always been far deeper than hockey. I like the challenge to be successful with the team, because I need to prove that it’s not about me, it’s about the players. Hockey has been very good to me, so I want to give back – in Wyoming, where I live, or anywhere in the USA, or in Israel. I have been there, I have done it, I don’t need a title, an office, don’t need to stroke my ego, I need the kids to do well. As a role model if you stop doing that – giving back – then you are breaking that cycle. Whatever you do, when you are successful you probably will end up mentoring some people. That’s the ultimate success, when you actually get somewhere and you have something to share with those who come after you,” Holik said.

His father was his role model in many ways, not only in hockey, and Holik wants to keep doing the right things in life. “For a world-class athlete my father was very educated. Education was very important in my family. Nowadays you are coaching kids in U.S. and the parents are saying ‘skip school to be a successful athlete.’ No, you can be a world-class athlete and be educated. It can be done. It’s a matter of parents emphasizing on education. My father had a college degree, he was a smart person. My grandfather on the mother side, he was an orphan, we are talking about early 20th century, he never had a chance to go to school, he had to work to support himself. But he desired to be educated and he always read books, always tried to better himself. When you grow in this environment, around people who no matter what they do, they want to better themselves, you accept this as a normal, as everybody does it. So as far as I can remember I was following the news, I was interested in geopolitics, loved history, Greek mythology, middle ages, 20th-centuries wars, whatever. You learn about people, so that makes your life fuller, you know why these people get here, why this country is so far behind and this one is advanced,” Holik explained.
Bobby Holik coaching during the game between his team Israel and host Bulgaria at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A.
photo: Kostadin Andonov
Nowadays it’s not quite common to have such a perspective from a successful athlete, but one of the toughest NHL players of his time, Holik is convinced that was and still is the only way for him: “I didn’t have to do that. I could have a good life, just going through life, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to better myself. I want to know and I love learning, because my dad did, my grandfather did. When I travelled with the team in the NHL, at that time when the schedule was not so condensed, I would go to every museum when we had a time. As I did here, I walked through Sofia the last few days and I’m hoping to go to the Museum of Socialist art. For me it’s going to be kind of a comical experience, but I want to see it because you can reflect 30 years later how silly this idea of communism was. That’s who I am. For me the most important thing is the freedom of thought. Once they break your spirit, once you start to think like them, like the group, that’s the end of it. You can be physically strong, you can have nice jeans, sneakers, but once that spirit leaves you and you don’t want to resist this group thing, the cult, the following, then you lose yourself. My father never gave in and he paid the price for it, but that makes you a better man, a stronger man. Both my grandparents sacrificed so much that I cannot let them down. That’s how I feel and live my life.”

Eight years ago he did travel around the United States working with different junior teams and for two years he has been an assistant coach for a high school team in Wyoming, where he has a ranch for 25 years and lives with his wife and his daughter, who is competing in show jumping.

“The best part of it is practices. Being on the ice with the kids and trying to help them being better, to give more, to be their best every day. Every coach has a sweet spot, where you are at your best, for me it’s working with players from 15 to 18-19 years old. The most important thing for a coach is to look at each player as a unique individual. You have to nurture the strengths, but really work on the weaknesses. You have to respect their individuality. Nowadays there are so many coaches, academies, everything is well structured in the best hockey nations, there are many videos, drills, which is good. But at certain level you need to pull back and let the players be players. I come to Israel and work with these kids and they have the far better game sense than kids in U.S. because they literally don’t have coaches and are not so structured, so they just play. If you can combine the positives from both sides, then you’ll have a better balance,” he said.

Bobby Holik retired from NHL in 2009 after playing one more season in New Jersey, his 11th with the Devils. Before that he was three years with the Atlanta Thrashers (2005-08), two with the New York Rangers (2002-04) and two in Hartford Whalers (1990-92), the team that drafted him 10th overall in 1989. Back home he played for Dukla Jihlava and represented Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. He last played at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey but missed the golden 1998 Olympics.

”I don’t regret. Czech Republic or at that time Czechoslovakia was the best place where I grew up and learn how to play hockey, but my home is USA. It’s a country that fits me better. When I came to the USA I wanted to become a U.S. citizen as soon as I could. At the time I became American citizen, in 1996, nobody mentioned anything about NHL players competing in the Olympics. Shortly after that there was the decision about NHL participation in Nagano, but I was already an American.”
After such a successful NHL career, what is Bobby Holik most proud of? Don’t be surprised by the answer: “That people truly cannot say that I didn’t give my best. I think I gave my best every single time – practice, morning session, pre-season game or in the playoffs. I was not always good, but I gave my best that day. What kids don’t understand is that when you ask them to give their best, they think that they have to be the best player on the ice. No, you need to be your best and every day it’s going to be different, because we are people not machines. Some days you feel great, others not so good and it’s hard. What matters is your best at that day. And I did give my best every day. That was my dad’s legacy, my grandfather’s legacy and that’s all that matters. Good things will come if you do that every single day.”

During the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs the New Jersey Devils were down 1-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals, but came back and won the series 4-3. There was a moment that Bobby remembers very well: “After the fourth game, which we lost 1-3 at home against Philadelphia, Larry Robinson came to the locker room and I’ll use just part of the speech that he gave us. Larry Robinson was the head coach and Slava Fetisov was assistant coach. ‘You stupid [expletives]. If you only play the way we ask you to play, we are going to be just fine!’ And he had tears in his eyes, because that is Larry Robinson, the type of person he is. So, we played as we were asked to play and we won three straight and went to the Stanley Cup Final against Dallas. When I was growing up I believed what my parents were asking me to do is the best thing for me. When I played for coaches, they didn’t tell me what to do, they asked me to do it. And now I don’t tell players what to do. I asked them. Because if you tell somebody, when you are not there telling them, they will not do it. But if you asked them to do it and they believed is the best thing for them, they will do it. I was not a 40-goals scorer, I was a strong two-way centre and that’s what I needed to do. You have to understand what you are good at. And as my dad said when I was six years old: ‘When you do hockey, you give it everything you got, but it’s not everything.’”