Hours before the gold-medal game, with national pride and locker room bragging rights hanging in the balance, the tension was thick inside the Team USA locker room.
It was a one-game, winner-take-all affair for all the marbles at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and Paul Stastny and his American teammates were laser focused on the task at hand, wanting to bring home the country’s first gold in hockey in 30 years.
“When the Olympics came around you’re so focused you don’t get a grasp at how big it was or how fortunate you are to play and represent your country,” says Stastny, who was counted on to provide some scoring punch to the American lineup.
There was someone more nervous and more excited about this game – Stastny’s father. Peter Stastny knew what it meant to represent his homeland, first out of passion for the game and later love for country and sport.
So, while he watched his son help the United States battle Canada in a game they would eventually lose in overtime, he was overcome with pride and joy, and he knew his decision 30 years earlier had been worth it.
“This was by far my best Olympics, and I’ve been to five Olympics,” Peter says from his home in Slovakia, where he represents his country in the European Parliament.
“Two as a player and two as a general manager, but being there as a father and watching my son was great. It was a million times better than any other Olympic Games.”
Paul’s journey to become a member of the U.S. Team began with a daring act by Peter on Aug. 26, 1980. Paul’s father was born and raised in communist Czechoslovakia and became one of the best hockey players in the country. He played for the Czech national team in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, and in several international tournaments, including the Canada Cup.
While playing for Czechoslovakia at the 1980 European Cup tournament in Innsbruck, Austria, Peter, his pregnant wife, Darina, and his younger brother, Anton, took a huge risk and defected to Canada. With the help of the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL, the three fled to the airport in the cover of night and flew to Quebec and freedom.
“It was very difficult for me because it was clear to me I may never see my family, I may never see my homeland again,” Peter recalls. “It was by far one of my toughest decisions, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.”
At the time, the league was dominated by North American players, but the Stastnys, the first communist defectors to play in the NHL, brought a different style when they suited up for the Nordiques. A year later, Peter and Anton pooled their money and bought freedom for their older brother, Marian, who had stayed behind in Czechoslovakia.
Reunited again, the three were stars for Quebec for a better part of the 1980s. Peter was the Rookie of the Year in 1980-81, and he became the first European player to amass 1,000 points in the NHL. The three even skated on the same line while with the Nordiques.
“I realized the blessing in my career was playing with my brothers,” Peter says. “It’s very unique, playing at this level, in the Olympics, in the NHL, playing on one line, Anton at left, Marian on the right and I was the center. I have in my office a big picture of the three of us, almost 30 years old.”
Peter was traded to New Jersey in 1990 and finished his career with St. Louis in 1995.
Despite the success he had during his 15-year NHL career, his defection in 1980 wasn’t about hockey. It was about family.
“The kids ended up growing up in a non-communist area,” Paul, 24, says of himself, his brother Yan and his sisters Katarina and Kristina. “For him it was more about letting us grow up in North America than him blossoming as a player. In the end it turned out well for him and all
For Paul and Yan, it also meant an opportunity to develop as hockey players in the United States. Yan was the first to break into the NHL, with Edmonton during the 2005-06 season. A year later, Paul was playing for his father’s former organization, the Nordiques, which became the Colorado Avalanche when the franchise moved to Denver in 1995.
Both Stastny boys acknowledge their natural hockey talents are due to genetics.
“Some of the traits you have you can’t really teach, they’re passed down through the genes. That’s why I’m fortunate to have him as a dad,” Paul says. “That vision on the ice and the ability to read plays on the ice, I get that from him.”
It didn’t hurt to have a Hall of Fame father teach them the game, either.
“His knowledge and awareness of the game are beyond extraordinary, and I believe that has been passed on to us,” says Yan, who is playing for CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.
“Whenever he could he would come to practices or games and explain specific situations, which otherwise we could not see or understand.”
Even with their father’s passion for hockey, Paul and Yan say he let them choose their own path.
“He never pushed us, but he knew at a certain age we were going to play hockey for the rest of our lives,” Paul says. “Whether it was professional or not, we just wanted to keep playing.”
While some players might try to distance themselves from a famous lineage, Paul embraces his legacies. Playing first for the River City Lancers of the United States Hockey League and then the University of Denver Pioneers, where he was part of the 2005 NCAA championship team, Stastny talks proudly of what his father and uncles accomplished before him.
“I don’t play down that stuff where I get compared to them or get out of their shadows. I’m just fortunate to have them as mentors, and more important as role models,” says Paul, who is entering his fifth season with the Avalanche.
“Anybody in my position would be lucky to have somebody who cares so much what I do on and off the ice and tries to help you as a player and a person."
“Whether I want to play like him or play like myself I’m always going to have part of me be like him because I’m so influenced by him.”
After the fall of communism in the early 1990s and the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Peter and his brothers were able to return home. Peter became intimately involved with the Slovakian national team. He carried the nation’s flag during the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and he led the Slovakian team to a surprising sixth-place finish in the Games, scoring five goals and four assists in eight games.
The fall of communism also gave Peter a chance to bring his children to their native land and meet family. In Slovakia, the hockey lessons continued.
“There was a time we would go back to Slovakia and my dad and his two uncles and his other brothers would get on the ice and have a big Stastny family game,” Paul says.
That’s when things really got intense.
“They laugh at me even now because when I step on the ice I’m very competitive,” Peter says with a chuckle. “There are a lot of stories about how competitive we get, but hockey, we always play on the same side.”
Peter doesn’t have as much time for hockey now with his second career as a member of the European Parliament representing Slovakia. When he’s with his sons, however, he finds the time to lace up the skates.
“There’s no better feeling than when I’m on the ice with my sons. I feel like Gordie Howe with Marty and Mark,” Peter says. “They enjoy it, but nobody enjoys it more than me. Sometimes I don’t skate for six months, but when my sons were here I was skating three times a week.”
As they make their way through this season – Paul in the NHL and Yan in the Russian league – they will take with them the lessons taught to them by Peter, Anton and Marian.
“I’m not going to be exactly like my dad or my uncles, but there’s something from every one of them that I have in me,” Paul says. “It’s a passion they have for the game carried over to us.”