“Of course, the situation in the world and in society during the coronavirus period is complex,” Erat told the official website of Kometa Brno, the team he finished his career with. “But my decision was a bit easier because my son was born and I want to focus mainly on my family, my children and the kids on the ice.”
That last part is telling. For the past two seasons, back problems have severely limited the number of games Erat has played, but that has given him time to coach youth teams with older brother Roman in Vyskov, a town in South Moravia not far from Brno.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Erat played his last game on 1st March in Brno, a 2-1 home loss to Jaromir Jagr’s Rytiri Kladno. It was Kometa’s 50th game of the season, but only the 16th for Erat. He then sat out the team’s final two regular-season games, resting for the playoffs which never came.
“I’m glad I didn’t know that I was experiencing my last shift,” Erat continued. “I didn’t think that Kladno game would end up being the last of my career. Like all the players and fans, I was looking forward to the playoffs, but I guess in a way, a farewell would have hurt more, so this makes it much easier on me.”
That ended a career that began more than 20 years ago, when he was drafted in the seventh round by the Nashville Predators in 1999. After finishing his junior career with a bang – winning a World Junior Championship with the Czech Republic and a Memorial Cup with the Red Deer Rebels in 2001 – Erat began a 13-year NHL career in 2001/02.
Erat recorded at least 49 points in eight straight seasons with Nashville, and overall had 545 points in 881 regular-season NHL games. His best season came in 2011/12, when he recorded 58 points in 71 games.
After stints with the Washington Capitals and Arizona Coyotes, Erat played the 2015/16 season with the KHL’s Avangard Omsk and then spent the last four years of his career in Brno, where he led the team to back-to-back Czech titles in 2017 and 2018.
In addition to his World Junior gold, Erat won a pair of World Championship medals – a silver in 2006 and a bronze in 2012 – and an Olympic bronze medal in 2006 in Turin. Erat returned to play in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and was named captain of the Czech team ahead of the 2018 Games in PyeongChang.
It was a short time ahead of his last Winter Olympics that I attended a Czech Extraliga game at Prague’s O2 Arena on 30 January 2018, hoping to get a pre-Olympic interview with the captain – despite warnings that he doesn’t like speaking to the media. Kometa Brno was visiting Sparta Prague, which always means a large, energetic crowd – the rivalry between the country’s two largest cities transcends sports.
With hometown Sparta leading 3-2 in the last minute, I decided to try to beat the rush of fans on the concourse and make my way down the four flights of stairs to the bowels of the arena to try to get my interview. During my walk down I heard two bursts of cheers from the large contingent of travelling Kometa fans for two goals I’ve never seen to this day. The first was Erat scoring the tying goal with seven seconds remaining in regulation time. The second was Erat assisting on the winning goal by 18-year-old linemate Martin Necas just 15 seconds into overtime. By the time I arrived in the media centre, the game was over.
Downstairs, I saw the game’s hero, Erat, walk past the television reporter who wanted a live post-game interview. It was clear I wouldn’t be speaking to Erat tonight. I did get Necas, though – a player I’d written about before, and who’d had nothing but praise for the guidance his veteran linemate had given him.
“Martin is not only a great player but also a person with character,” the teenage Necas said. “He’s trying to help not only me, but all the young guys. He and the other leaders on the team advise us on how to play, how to behave. Not just about hockey, but personal life too.”
Necas, now a 21-year-old member of the Carolina Hurricanes, said that sitting next to Erat on the bench: “He usually says something to me, whether it’s giving me advice on something, or we discuss what we need to do better on the next shift. He’s not usually silent.”
It seems that coaching has been inside of Erat for a while, whether it be the youngest players just starting out or rookie pros looking to go to the next level. Now that he’s done playing, that is where he is turning his attention.
“I want to help Czech hockey and I want to work my way into being a coach that I will be proud of and be able to look at myself in the mirror,” Erat told the Kometa website.
So Erat isn’t saying good-bye to hockey, but perhaps the fans would like to say good-bye to him – as a player at least. That will surely happen eventually, but no one’s sure right now when that can happen under ideal conditions.
“I would like to,” said Erat. “I want to say goodbye, but in a way that everyone can be there and the house can be full.”