Stastny brothers: Czechoslovakia to NHL
The first 30 seconds of the Quebec Nordiques' power play had been a study in inertia. As they worked the puck laboriously from man to man the Nordiques were, in effect, killing the opposition's penalty. But, when the puck skittered to the corner, Anton Stastny out-muscled a Boston Bruin defender for its possession and fired a cross-ice pass to Wilf Paiment. Paiment flicked the puck to Michel Goulet who drove a goal-scoring slapshot from 35 feet out.
In the third period, Peter and Marian Stastny combined to set up a similar power play score. The goal turned out to be the game and series winner in last year's Stanley Cup quarterfinal playoff with the Bruins. For the Nordiques, it was the culmination of an Adams Division coup d'etat which had begun with a stunning upset of the Montreal Canadiens in the preceding National Hockey League playoff series.
Although the Nordiques lost the next round to the defending champion New York Islanders, their triumphs over the Bruins and Canadiens established them for the first time as serious contenders. They've kept it up this season too, posting a winning record to date and aiming to be key factors in the playoffs once again.
Three years ago such a scenario seemed out of the question. The Nordiques had finished the 1979-1980 season in the league cellar. With the exception of Marc Tardif and Real Cloutier they had no consistent scorers. The goaltending and defense were equally ineffectual. During that hapless campaign the Nordiques were scored on 313 times, making them the NHL's third worst defensive team.
But over the next two years Quebec management came up with a ''hat trick'' by persuading the Stastny brothers to leave their native Czechoslovakia - and the result has been a complete turnaround in the club's status and identity.
The three brothers had played an integral part in the success of the Czech national team, which regularly finished second to the Soviet Union in the world championships throughout the late '70s and even won the title once in 1977.
Like other European players, the Stastnys were exposed to NHL play during that period in tournaments including teams from Canada. ''In 1977 we played against the best team that Canada had ever sent to Europe,'' Peter recalls. ''They had all of the stars like Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke, and Daryl Sittler. Although we were the world champions, we lost to them.''
Duly impressed, and eager to test their own skills in such company, the brothers were ripe for a move when things began to sour for them in their native land.
''In Czechoslovakia the problems centered around the team and money,'' Anton says. ''The main problem was with the coach who was indifferent. The team also made some trades that caused it to decline considerably in just one year. This factor and the money was what prompted us to leave.''
Anton and Peter defected prior to the 1980-81 season, slipping away from the Czech national team when it was in Austria, then obtaining visas and passports with the assistance of Nordique officials. The following season Marian followed suit. In their first season, Anton and Peter broke into the Quebec lineup with a flourish, rolling up nearly 200 points between them. Both players made the All-Star team and Peter's 39 goals and 109 points earned him Rookie of the Year honors. The Stastnys also contributed a team-oriented passing aspect to the Nordiques' attack. Anton says, ''In the European style, we like the direct pass. I like to work with open ice. If you use the boards as is done in the NHL, it is easy for the opposition to cut the pass off. In European style the boards are rarely used for that reason.''
The following year, when Marian joined the club, the Nordiques built an effective power play unit around the three brothers. With such deft playmakers and accurate shooters, the Nordiques sometimes only needed one lapse by the opposition's defense to score. When goaltender Dan Bouchard was asked what the Stastnys meant to his team, he replied, ''Look at the statistics. Every season they finish at the top of the NHL in scoring. On the power play they function like a machine because they have been playing together for over 10 years.''
As they have shown this year in 10-5 and 8-6 shootouts with the Bruins and Edmonton Oilers, the Nordiques can score goals guickly and in abundance. With other fleet forwards like Alain Cote, Tardif, and Goulet, the Nordiques can burn even the best defenses with the fast breakout.
However, the Nordiques' Achilles heel is still their defense - as shown by the fact that they allowed nearly 350 goals last season. In the playoffs, goalies Bouchard and John Garrett were outstanding, but the defense did little to clear rebounds or forwards away from the Nordique goal.
''We score as well as any team in this league, but we are not consistent,'' Anton says. ''We are outshot in many games, and often have to rely on our goaltender to keep us in the game until the forwards get going. If we are going to win when it counts, we must be able to put the puck in the net and keep it out as well.''