It’s nice to see that the Hockey Hall of Fame is finally inducting Vaclav Nedomansky as an honored member today.
Big Ned was Czechoslovakia’s star center on the international hockey stage in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He paved the way for the likes of the Stastny brothers to slip past the Iron Curtain when he defected from the Eastern European communist country to come play professional hockey in North America in 1974.
There is a reason Jaromir Jagr wore No. 68 everywhere he played, and there is an echo of Nedomansky in it. Jagr’s jersey number referenced 1968, one of the most turbulent years of the 20th century. And it resonates with all Czechs, and all Slovaks, who are united in their recollections of what happened that fateful year in Czechoslovakia.
The year began with the election of a political reformist as head of the country’s ruling communist party, and bloomed into the Prague Spring, a time of mass protests and liberalization. That hope-filled time behind the Iron Curtain lasted until Aug. 21, the day Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into the capital and the Soviet Union cracked down and put an end to the burgeoning revolution.
To say there were hard feelings is beyond an understatement. With few outlets to vent their frustrations, Czechoslovakians found common purpose in cheering on their national teams in any field of competition that offered an opportunity to do battle with the U.S.S.R.
Czechoslovakia’s national hockey team won the silver medal at the 1968 Winter Olympics and Nedomansky was its star player. At 6-2, 210-pounds, the high-scoring center stood out for his size during that era.
The Soviet crackdown cost Czechoslovakia the opportunity to host the 1969 world championships, which relocated to Sweden. All the more fuel to the fire that burned in the bellies of its hockey players, who were scheduled to play the reigning Olympic and world champion U.S.S.R. twice in Stockholm.
Nedomansky provided an iconic moment to highlight the fierce competition when he shoved the U.S.S.R. net off its moorings after setting up teammate Jan Suchy’s power-play goal, Czechoslovakia’s opener in a 2-0 win in the first meeting on March 21.
Big Ned scored in the rematch one week later, a 4-3 win for Czechoslovakia. Those two precious victories made the bronze-medal victory more valuable to their countrymen than the gold claimed once again by the Soviets.
Nedomansky was an exceptional goal scorer. He averaged just under one goal per game in 12 seasons with Slovan Bratislava in the Czechoslovak Extraliga from 1962-74. During the same time period, he had 119 points in Olympic and world championship competition while playing for Czechoslovakia, including an astounding 80 goals in 93 games.
After winning a bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Nedomansky was ready for the biggest challenge of his career, escaping from communism to pursue a professional career.
The Atlanta Flames were in the running in the cloak and dagger bid to lure Big Ned to the NHL, but it was the World Hockey Association’s Toronto Toros that won out and brought him to North America.
Nedomansky, who was 30 when he made his WHA debut in 1974, had 41 goals and 81 points in his first pro season; then followed that up by leading Toronto with 56 goals and 98 points in 1975-76.
Big Ned had another productive season after the Toros moved to Birmingham and became the Bulls, but early in his second campaign in Alabama, he was part of a historic trade that saw him dealt from the WHA to the Detroit Red Wings.
Limited to 28 points in 63 games in his first NHL season, Nedomansky bounced back to lead Detroit with 38 goals and 73 points in 1978-79. He topped that with 74 points, including 35 goals, the following season.
His sixth and final NHL season was split between the New York Rangers and the St. Louis Blues.
Nedomansky had 277 points (121 goals, 156 assists) in 420 games in the NHL, after averaging just over a point a game in the WHA — 253 points (135 goals, 118 assists) in 252 games in just over four seasons.
But those numbers are only part of Big Ned’s story, and it’s clear that his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame rightfully honors him among the greatest players of his era.