Petr Nedved never expected to be back at the Winter Olympics. Not 20 years after his first and only other Games, where he represented a different country no less. But then, Nedved hasn’t exactly lived a typical life. Perhaps he shouldn’t have counted it out.
“My life has been strange,” Nedved conceded, somewhat jokingly, on Friday. The 42-year-old, now with a graying beard, has traveled to Sochi to play for the Czech Republic, undoubtedly to the surprise of many North American hockey fans who thought he’d long since hung up the skates.
The last time Nedved appeared in an NHL uniform was 2007, as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Since then, he’s been playing – and playing rather well, mind you – in the top Czech league. The last six seasons he’s been piling up points for his hometown club in Liberec.
As for that “strange” life of his? Maybe a better for it is adventurous.
Let’s start in 1989, when it was still communist Czechoslovakia and Nedved was only 17. During a trip to Calgary for a midget tournament, he snuck away from his team, went to the police, and defected to Canada. His parents said they had no knowledge of his plans.
Following a prolific junior season with the Seattle Thunderbirds, he was drafted second overall by the Vancouver Canucks. He would go on to play 982 NHL games for seven different teams. He would win a silver medal representing Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics. He would even marry, and separate from, a supermodel, Veronika Varekova.
No wonder then that Nedved was in a reflective mood following practice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where he held court with a group of reporters, some of whom had covered him all the way throughout his NHL career.
“I knew that you guys didn’t think I was coming,” he joked. “Here I am.”
He recalled the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, where his Canadian team ended up eliminating the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. He remembered the “mixed feeling” he had while his teammates were celebrating the win over his former compatriots. He lamented losing the gold-medal game to Sweden in a shootout.
Two decades later – as if it wasn’t improbable enough that he’d be back at the Olympics – one of his teammates will be his old friend, Jaromir Jagr.
Jagr, 41, was drafted fifth overall, three spots after Nedved, also in 1990. The pair played together in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“We have the same sense of humor,” said Nedved, “so we don’t even have to say anything and we’re laughing.”
Perhaps they’ll share a laugh over the fact one of Nedved’s teammates back in Liberec is 16 years old.
Why is he still playing with kids less than half his age?
“I love the game,” he said. “I love the competition. I still have the drive.”
These Olympics will be his swansong, however.
“This is it for me,” he said. “This is the last season of my career. It’s time.”
How much of an impact Nedved will have against the top players in the world remains to be seen. He knows he’s not a young man anymore. Not young for Olympic hockey, anyway.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to play every game,” he said.
But former NHL defenseman and current teammate Tomas Kaberle thinks Nedved can still be a difference-maker.
“Sometimes he needs only one shot, and he’ll put it in,” said Kaberle. “Sometimes one chance in a hockey game makes a big difference.”
The Czech Republic opens its Olympic tournament Wednesday versus Sweden.