Petrovicky's challenge
by Andrew Podnieks|27 DEC 2020
Robert Petrovicky has played everywhere and won World Championship gold for Slovakia in 2002. Now he has a new challenge.
photo: Andre Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images
Robert Petrovicky knows more than a thing or two about hockey. He is one of the most respected men in his country, a respect he earned over a playing career that spanned nearly a quarter century. 

Drafted 9th overall by the Hartford Whalers in 1992, he played 208 games in the NHL. In addition, he played in the AHL and IHL in North America, and in Europe he played in several countries, notably Switzerland, before finishing his career in Trencin in 2015-16, returning to where he first turned pro in 1990.

Along the way, Petrovicky played at the 1992 World Juniors (for Czechoslovakia), three Olympic Winter Games, and four World Championships, including 2002 when Slovakia beat all comers. Like all players from that team, Petrovicky holds a “golden passport” that will never expire. He was a hero then, and a hero he remains.

After retiring at age 43, he was not idle long before embarking on a career in coaching, and he is now in his second season as head coach of Slovakia’s U20 team. He appreciates that privilege of the position and knows how important the tournament is for players and their careers.

“[1992] was a long time ago!” he reminisced during an off day yesterday. “Every tournament for a young player is important. It’s watched, you’re playing against future great hockey superstars. It’s your dream to play in the world juniors, and from there you go to the pros, and it’s a big change. It helps. I remember we had a slower start, but we got better as it went along. Lots of great memories. You meet a lot of players and see them down the road, as teammates or playing against them. It’s a great memory.”

The life of a hockey layer requires a single-minded focus, but at some point the reality that he must get a “real” job after retiring must be acknowledged. For Petrovicky, that transition was pretty organic.

“Towards the end of my career I started thinking about coaching, but then I decided to keep playing,” he explained. “I had a couple of offers, but then I felt pretty healthy, and I recall coaches telling me that you should keep playing until you can’t. When I stopped playing in Trencin, my hometown these days, I talked to a couple of people and they asked if I wanted to be an assistant coach. Milos Holan, the coach in Trencin, offered me a job, and I thought this is great. As it turned out, I didn’t really have a break between playing and coaching.”

Of course, having been a player for so long helped Petrovicky, but he couldn’t rely solely on muscle memory. “I remember my first day as a coach, and every day since, you learn different things. Every day. It never ends. You keep on learning until you stop coaching. It’s the same when you’re playing, but it’s also very different. 

Hockey has changed. It’s much faster. Then it was more side to side. Now, it’s speed. It’s very exciting, the level of skill now. It’s not easy to compare, though. Now I look at the game as a coach instead of playing in it.”

But being an assistant at the pro level in Trencin is much different from being the head man for players under 20. 

“Last year the national team GM, Miro Satan, asked me if I wanted to be the head coach of the junior team, and I was excited,” Petrovicky said of the offer that came from a teammate on the 2002 gold-medal World Championship roster. “It’s again very different. You have to be a coach, a teacher. They’re younger, so you have to talk to them more and spend as much time with them as you can. You have to get to know them. They’re at the age, 16 to 19, when they are influenced by what’s around them.”

Petrovicky is now part of something bigger than himself. It’s not just a job. Slovakia is a small hockey nation, but it has fallen on tougher times after the glory of the early 2000s. It hasn’t had much success at the World Championships, and it has had only a handful of players drafted into the NHL. At the World Juniors, the team has won only two bronze medals since 1996 and has finished between 6th and 8th some 21 times. The Slovak program needs a boost.

“Everything takes time,” he acknowledges. “We all have to be going in the right direction and working together within the structure of the national program. It’s not easy. We have lots of kids with talent. We have to point them in the right direction and help them together. We have to keep as many players in Slovakia and develop them together.”

For now, all Petrovicky can do is worry about his team here in Edmonton, and to that end he got a great performance from his team on Christmas Day, an inspired 1-0 win over Switzerland.

“We wanted to have a good start to the first game, and to the tournament. We have some younger players this year. They are talented, and they played well in that first game. We came together quickly in the last few weeks. They battled hard and showed lots of character. We can get better, of course, but they showed a lot, blocked shots, were patient, great goalie, played together for 60 minutes. That game was very important for their confidence. We showed everyone we’re ready to play.“