Alumni Spotlight: Michal Pivonka
[WashingtonCaps.com continues the summer series "Alumni Spotlight," where WashingtonCaps.com interviews former Washington Capitals players. Previous Alumni Spotlights include Kevin Kaminski, Dennis Maruk, Scott Walker, Brian Pothier, Chris Clark, Ken Klee, Matt Pettinger, Ben Clymer, Bryan Muir, Jamie Heward, Brendan Witt and Anson Carter.]
WashingtonCaps.com (WC.com): You played your entire career with the Caps, what was it like being part of an organization that was growing and changing so much during those years?
Michal Pivonka (MP): Well, under the circumstances the way I came to play for the Caps I was very grateful to the people in charge, to Mr. [David] Poile. He was the GM at that time, they went through a lot. I think to bring us from Eastern Europe, which in the ‘80s was still illegal, was not an easy task. To come in, I didn’t know much about the NHL. There was not enough information, it wasn’t even allowed for us to try to acquire some of the information about the NHL. So never seeing a NHL game in my life prior to the time I came, you heard the names Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and all that and I remember seeing some of the 1976 Canada Cup and some of the games from the ’72 series against the Russians, when Canada played, and so that’s about as much as I knew about the NHL.
The expectations were really unknown. Washington, after being there for 13 years or so, it was a growing process. The hockey, even before I came in the mid ‘80s, the team in Washington was struggling. They didn’t make the playoffs for a lot of years. And then when Rod Langway came in, which I learned from history because I wasn’t there at the time, but when Rod Langway came in with Craig Laughlin, a big trade with Montreal, David [Poile] came in as a GM and Bryan Murray was the coach, and the team started to play better. We made the playoffs for a lot of years in a row.
I thought the team that we had in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s was probably the best team that the Caps ever had; with Dale Hunter, Peter Bondra, Mike Ridley, Kelly Miller, Dino Ciccarelli, and myself.
The bad luck for us is that there was one team or possibly two teams in our division or conference that were as good as we were or better. You know, with the Pittsburgh Penguins with Mario [Lemieux] and all the other Hall-of-Famers on his team and the Flyers were a great team at that time as well.
It was tough for us. But I was gone by the time when the Russians came in and Ovechkin came in and a couple other guys. The growth of hockey obviously took off in the Washington area. With the new building, I mean I did play in the new building at the MCI Center, but not the new practice facilities that you guys have now in Virginia. It’s amazing to see the interest of the fans in Washington towards the Caps.
WC.com: You said that you didn’t really know much about the NHL before you came over. What really motivated you to come over here?
MP: Well I knew that the best league is the NHL. Part of it was also that the players from Eastern Europe they were allowed to go, and actually from Czech Republic, I’m sure not Russians – they were never allowed to do that. The rule that we had there was that you had to be, I could be wrong on this but, I think you had to be 30 years old or 32 years old and you had to play so many games for the national team and then they would let you go at the end of your career kind of. You could go to Western Europe or you could go to the NHL, if you were still good enough. But you didn’t hear about 18, 20-year-old kids, which was illegal in ’85, ’86, if you left from Czech Republic. I guess our thing was, you’re going to sit around for 10 years and if somebody is interested. We did it, all us of us; it was myself, Petr Svoboda who went to Montreal, Petr Klima who went to Detroit and Frankie Musil who played for the North Stars in Minnesota the first year.
It was only four of us within two years and we were obviously pretty good in juniors, otherwise nobody would draft us coming out of Eastern Europe. The whole thing was, okay, if I’m pretty good in juniors and playing for the senior team already, actually I played in Eastern Europe – the Czech National Team – in the ’85 and ’86 World Cup, it was the next step. The bad thing was that it was illegal and you heard all kinds of different stories about “you cannot do this”, “this is what will happen to your family,” and all that crazy stuff. But when you are 20 years old you decide quickly. I thought it was a great opportunity and we were young enough, or dumb enough, to be able to do it.
WC.com: You still hold the record for career assists for the Caps, what does this record mean to you?
MP: Obviously it means that I played with some players that were able to put the puck in the net. Starting with Peter Bondra, also for the time that I played there for 13 years or so my ability was to look for the guys out there who were open. I’m sure if one of the guys stays with the team a little bit longer at some point, he is going to break it because it is not an unbelievable number. It just shows you that time on one team, you just don’t see that as often. You got guys who are being traded and signed as free agents and all that.
But I like young [Nicklas] Backstrom. He is obviously a great player, good play maker and having Ovechkin on his line, who is a good goal scorer, I’m sure he is going to break the assist record very soon. I don’t know how many he has, but I’m sure he is pretty close.
WC.com: Do you still keep in touch with any of your former teammates and coaches from the Caps?
MP: I talk to Peter [Bondra] on a regular basis. Outside of that you run into players at different events. My 12-year-old plays hockey so when we get to a tournament, I’m actually up in Chicago right now, you come across a lot of players that you played against. I don’t necessarily see everyone I played with but there are a lot of players that went through the league who are still around hockey. I run into a lot of guys. I would say Peter is the only guy I keep closer contact with. If you run into guys you say “What’s going on? What’s new?” and that’s about it.
WC.com: Can you talk about the tournament in Chicago?
MP: Yeah, I’m up in Chicago with my little guy. My family was actually down in Sarasota, Florida, when I retired because my two older kids play tennis. We went down south and I was out of hockey for a little bit, didn’t really follow it that much. I got involved in my kids’ tennis, did some of their coaching and all that, their training. Then my wife put my youngest one in hockey and at some point you reach a certain level in Florida when you have to decide and say, well, okay, he is pretty good and he loves to play. So let’s do the same thing we did for the two older ones, because we moved from the north to the south because that’s where tennis is. And now I had to go the other way, up north, to find the best place for him to play hockey. He is only a peewee, like I said he is a 12-year-old but he is a part of the Chicago Mission. In youth hockey it is a pretty good team, it has been in the top-3 in the country for the last few years.
That’s where I am right now. My oldest one, my daughter, she is in college so she’s out, and then my middle boy he is a junior in high school in Sarasota. We are just kind of commuting right now.
WC.com: Do you ever get out on the ice?
MP: Well, yeah, I help with a couple teams, with 12-year-olds and 11-year-old groups here at the Mission organization. So I’m on the ice in the afternoon just coaching kids which I love to do actually. That’s about it right now.