Forever a Devil

Feb 23 2018
Photo by
Julio Cortez/AP Images
Feb 23 2018

W hen I was growing up in Czechoslovakia, we had two TV channels. This was in the early ’80s, and the Soviets were still in charge. So it was either cartoons or some boring news show, and our TV was still in black-and-white, so the cartoons weren’t even very fun to watch.

So what are you going to do? You’re going to go play outside. That’s step 1 of how I got from Třebíč to New Jersey, and why I have the honor of seeing number 26 go up into the rafters this weekend. Thank you, Soviet TV. You got me outside.

In the winter, we used to make “skates” by putting on our slipperiest shoes, and then spraying the bottoms with some cooking oil or something, then we’d go slide around on the icy sidewalks. Honestly, I had no idea what the NHL was at all. My goal was to play hockey for the military team outside our town. See, back then, you had to go into the army when you turned 18. You didn’t have a choice. But the one military academy close to us had an ice rink, and a pretty good team, so that was my plan. If I could get good enough for them to take me, I wouldn’t be in the regular army.

My hero was my middle brother Radek. He was friggin’ sick. Everything came to him easy on the ice. When I was 10 years old, he was 15 and playing for one of the best teams in our county. One night, my whole family was at the rink watching him play, and there was a huge snowstorm outside. I remember I was running around the rink with the other younger kids when I heard everything go really quiet. Everything stopped, but the period wasn’t over. It was weird. Then I heard my mom screaming for help. The medics were running out onto the ice, and I saw a kid laying there by the net, and he wasn’t moving at all.

It was my brother.

He had gotten cross-checked from behind on a breakaway, and he went sliding right into the post. Nowadays, the post spikes are magnetic, and they break off when there’s any pressure. But these were the old, heavy spikes. They drilled way down into the ice. He went straight into the metal pipe, and it didn’t move. It was bad. They put my brother on a stretcher and got him to the little medical center that was attached to the rink, and they opened him up right there. His kidney was crushed, and he needed emergency surgery at a real hospital. The nearest one was just 20 minutes away on a normal night, but the snowstorm was so bad that it took the ambulance three hours to get there. He was opened up the whole ride. My family and I were there with him, holding him still and trying to keep him calm. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. The doctors saved his life that night, but he was never able to play hockey again.

From that moment, my goal was to be as good as he was, and to play for him and for my family. It wasn’t to make the NHL or even the Olympics. It was just to be as good as I could be. I never dreamed — seriously, I couldn’t even think to dream it — where hockey would take me. When the Devils drafted me, I was 18 years old, 160 pounds and spoke almost no English. I remember that I actually had to go to the police station in our town and tell them that I couldn’t do my army service because I had been drafted in the NHL. I took the contract to prove it, and they said, “O.K., you’re good for four years. But if you’re not playing in America in four years, you have to do it then.”

I remember right before I left, the last thing the GM of my Czech team said to me was, “Look at yourself. You’re 160 pounds. What do you think you’re going to do over there? You’re going to be back here next week, looking for a job again.”

So I got on a plane to New Jersey to prove him wrong. I had no idea about American culture. I had no idea who anyone on the team was, honestly. I just knew that they had won the Stanley Cup, and all the players seemed huge to me. The first time I saw Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens at training camp, I thought, These guys look like … actual vikings? They were freaking enormous. Dano would come down for a slapshot on Marty Brodeur, and he’d be screaming out, with his booming viking voice, “Innnnnccccoooooommmmiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnggggg!”

I was like, What is going on? Where am I?

I didn’t know Lou Lamoriello, and that was a good thing. Because after the first training camp, Lou told me that he didn’t have a spot for me, and he wanted me to go play junior hockey for a while. So I just said, “… No.”

He said, “What?”

I said, “No, I don’t want to do that. I want to play on the farm team.”

I think it was the first and last and only negotiation that anyone ever won with Lou. He sent me to play in Albany with the River Rats, and those two years were my introduction to American culture. I had a teammate named Bryan Helmer, and one day he said to me, “Patty, you want to go to a concert with me?”

I said, “Concert? Never been to a concert.”

He said, “You gotta come. It’s country music. You’ll love it.”

I said, “What’s country music?”

I was thinking we were gonna go to a bar, and there was gonna be an old guy with a guitar on his knee or something. He picks me up and we go to our hockey arena, which I thought was weird, and then we walk in and there’s thousands of people there going crazy, singing every word of the songs.

It was Garth Brooks. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I loved it. It was the first time that I was like, America! I get it!

I was still a kid, and everything was new to me. I remember when I got called up to the Devils for the first time, we were on a bus in the middle of nowhere, and they had to drop me off at some small airfield so I could get on this tiny plane to fly to New Jersey. I was terrified of flying. I was walked up to the runway, and it looked like a toy plane to me. I said to myself a new saying I’d just learned: Holy schnikes. I figured I was either going to die or play in my first NHL game, so I got on the plane and then I think I blacked out, because I can barely remember anything from Game No. 1.

More than 1,000 games later, I’m still a Devil. And I’m going up into the rafters as a Devil forever. How do I explain to people what it meant to be a part of those teams? Well, we can talk about the Stanley Cups. But that’s just a picture in my mind. That’s like asking someone what they remember about a book, and they say, “the cover.”

Here are some things I remember …

I remember that when Ken Daneyko would get a penalty, he would turn to the referee who was bringing him to the penalty box, and he would ask him, completely seriously, “What are you punishing me for, ref? BRUTE STRENGTH? That’s not a crime, sir!”

I remember that whenever Scott Stevens would defend me and Petr Sykora in practice, he would treat it like he was playing Peter Forsberg in the Stanley Cup Finals. He was the most intense practice player I’ve ever seen in my life. Petr and I used to drive him crazy by criss-crossing on 2-on-1s and doing these little drop passes, and he’d be yelling, “You’ll never have that much time in a game! That European stuff is gonna get you get killed! Killed!

I remember how many hours and hours that me, Petr and Jason Arnott used to mess around after practice, just floating into empty spaces at the back post and throwing blind passes to one another, in order to develop a sixth sense for where we’d be.

I remember in second overtime of Game 6 of the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals, I got the puck in the corner, and I threw a blind pass to the empty space where I figured, based on hours and hours of messing around, that Arnott might be waiting.

I remember turning around and just seeing Arny’s arms go up into the air, and realizing that we had won the Stanley Cup.

I remember feeling relieved, more than anything, that the grind was over.

I remember me, Arny and Bobby Holik going to visit Petr in the hospital after the game, where he was recovering from a really bad concussion that he got in the first period, and the first thing he said to us when we walked in the door was, “I know, I know. I watched it. We won the Cup.”

I remember taking the Stanley Cup back to Třebíč and taking a picture with it out in front of our house, where we used to play “hockey” by sliding around in our shoes.

I remember that the second Cup in 2003 felt even sweeter, because we won it with less talent, and we won it our way.

A lot of people, when they look up at number 26 in the rafters, they will probably think about the two Cups. But for me, my pride comes from what happened right afterward.

In 2005, I came very close to losing my hockey career, and maybe even my life. During the NHL lockout, I went to play for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Russia, and one day I became terribly sick. I thought I had the flu or something. I went to the doctors, and they thought the same thing. They sent me home to rest. But it just kept getting worse and worse. I had these horrible headaches, and I couldn’t even get out of bed.

The doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong, and so I made a decision that probably saved my life. I hired a private plane to take me back home to Czech to figure out what was really going on.

A few days later, a doctor was telling me that my liver was failing. I had contracted hepatitis A from some tainted food while I was in Russia, and it had gotten so bad that my liver wasn’t responding to the medication. The doctor told me that the last thing they had left to try was a steroid treatment, and that if it didn’t work, I was going to need a liver transplant.

It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. The headaches got so bad that I couldn’t even talk to anyone. My liver was so swollen that I felt like throwing up every minute. My wife, Petra, who was just my girlfriend at the time, was there by my side every day. I didn’t even know it at the time, but the doctors were telling her that I would never play hockey again, and that my life could be in danger. I felt my story being written for me, and it was a very scary feeling. Just like my brother had everything taken away from him, I felt it happening to me. It was his kidney, and now it was my liver.

The steroid treatment, thank God, worked well enough to keep me from needing a transplant. But I was in the hospital for three weeks, and when I finally got out, I couldn’t even walk up the stairs without my wife helping me with every step. For 10 months, I was in rehab, and they were the most difficult months of my life. Many, many times, I did not think I would ever step on the ice again for the New Jersey Devils.

Even when I was cleared to practice again, I had to be kept in my own room, away from everyone else, because my immune system was so weak. Those months trying to get back to playing again were much tougher than winning the Stanley Cup. I was so tired. It felt like I was skating in sand. But I made it back, and the feeling of getting to play hockey again, the feeling of pulling on my jersey again … it was so sweet. It’s like you see the end, and then you’re given a second chance.

A year later, I saw the end again. I was almost a former Devil. Heading into free agency, Lou Lamoriello called me into his office and said, “Listen, Patty, I know there’s a lot of teams that are going to be interested in giving you a big contract, and we can’t afford it, so thank you and all the best.” That was basically it. They were moving on. So I was about to agree to a deal with the Rangers on July 1, and it was basically done. But I guess I lied to you before when I said that I negotiated with Lou for the first and last and only time, because I actually did it again that day.

I called Lou. I just called his office. I don’t know if you’re even supposed to do that, but I did it. I said, “Are you sure we can’t work something out? We’ve done a lot of good things here.”

He said maybe three words and then hung up. Within 15 minutes, my agent called me and said that we had a seven-year deal in place with the Devils. I was going to retire in New Jersey, which is where I belonged. That phone call was the second-best decision I ever made, after getting that flight out of Russia.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When my jersey goes up into the rafters this weekend, most people will probably think about the two Stanley Cups and the 1,025 points, and that’s what they’ll remember about number 26. But that’s like reading a book and only remembering what was on the cover.

My story is about Soviet TV and sliding around on the sidewalks. It’s about my brother’s injury, and that ride through the snowstorm in the ambulance. It’s about moving to America and learning English. It’s about Garth Brooks and vikings and messing around after practice with Petr and Arny.

It’s about almost losing my career … and maybe even my life … in the blink of an eye.

It’s about re-learning to walk up the stairs.

It’s about a phone call to Lou.

That’s why I was able to stick around here for two decades and make so many great memories. That’s the story of number 26.

It was a pleasure being a Devil and driving other teams crazy for 20 years.