Saturday, January 28, 2012

1992-93 Washington Capitals Michal Pivoňka Jersey

Having come up through the Dukla Jihlava junior program, Michal Pivoňka, born on this date in 1966, first caught the attention of NHL scouts at the 1983 European Junior Championships, when he scored 4 goals and 9 points in 5 games for Czechoslovakia at the age of 16. The following season he took part in both the European Juniors (7 points in 5 games) and the World Juniors (3 points in 7 games), winning a bronze medal, which led to his being drafted by the Washington Capitals 59th overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft later that spring despite being located behind the Iron Curtain.

The season following his being drafted, he moved up to the Dukla Jihlava senior team, where the playmaking center scored 19 points in 33 games as an 18 year old rookie. Still eligible, he again competed in the World Juniors, with a standout 9 goals and 13 points in 7 games on his way to a silver medal, as well as making his World Championship debut later that spring as the Czechs captured the gold medal.

He returned to Jihlava for one more season in 1985-86 as well as making his final World Junior appearance, scoring 10 points in 7 games, plus competing in his second World Championships.

Now eager to play in the NHL, enticed by a five-year, $1 million contract, during the summer of 1986, Pivoňka made the life-changing decision to defect to the United States at just 20 years of age. After supposedly leaving for Yugoslavia to take a vacation, he and fiancee snuck into Italy, eventually making their way to Rome where they walked into the United States Embassy, where the staff had been told to expect their arrival. There, the pair declared their intention to come to the United States, and after being granted refugee status, two days later they hurriedly arrived in New York.

"There I was," he recalled. "I showed up here, an illegal defector. For me, the biggest worry was leaving my family behind and all the questions about the future. What if I'm not good enough to make it here? What then? Am I stuck in a strange place knowing no one and knowing nothing else to do? What else can I do?"

The planning for his defection took two years of secret meetings with the Capitals Director of Player Personnel Jack Button, with clandestine meetings in Canada, Austria, the Soviet Union, West Germany, Finland and Sweden as well as two other European countries.

"Pivoňka has always indicated from our very first discussion that he would like to play in the best league in the world, and he felt that was the National Hockey League," said Button. Asked how Czechoslovakia reacted to the defection, Button said: "We haven't talked to them, and they haven't talked to us - and I don't expect them to, either."

ow a member of the Capitals, Pivoňka joined a roster completely devoid of any other Europeans whatsoever. While getting used to an entirely new culture, language, style of play, freedom and cash in pocket, he had a fine rookie season, scoring 18 goals and 43 points playing a longer season than he had ever been subjected to before. The Capitals then qualified for the playoffs, adding another 7 games to Pivoňka's tally for the season.

Pivonka Capitals, Pivonka Capitals

He regressed during his second season, with just 11 goals and 34 points, but improved on his overall game with a +1 rating, 20 points better than his -19 as a rookie. During the playoffs, Pivoňka found his game with 13 points in 14 games.

His offensive struggles returned in 1988-89, which earned him a trip down to the AHL for 31 games with the Baltimore Skipjacks, where he regained his confidence with 36 points in 31 games. Back with Washington, he finished the season with just 8 goals and 27 points in 52 games.

One aspect of the NHL style he had to become accustomed to was the fighting. "When the fight starts, you have to be there," Pivoňka said. "You don't have time to think whether this is the kind of hockey you're used to. You have to show up. But you don't have to fight. Just be there to hold your guy." Told that his wife Renata worries he'll get hurt, Pivoňka smiled. "She's my wife," he says. "I'm not a fighter, but I'm learning to play the hockey that's here. You say it's not my style? Why not? I'm here now. It should be my style. It's the hockey you play here."

Not wanting a repeat of his previous season, he established a career high with 25 goals and added 39 assists for 64 points.

It had now been four years since his defection, but the political landscape changed enough to allow Pivoňka an opportunity to return home. "Sure I'm excited," he said. "I want to see my family. I want to go and visit some friends from school, places I haven't seen in four years."

A second 20 goal season followed in 1990-91 while his assist total rose to 50 for a new career best 70 points. The change in the politics of Eastern Europe saw new teammates arrive in the form of Peter Bondra of Czechoslovakia, Dimitri Khristich and Mikhail Tatarinov of the Soviet Union, who benefitted from Pivoňka's experience in adapting to life in the United States.

For the first time since his secret departure from Czechoslovakia, he once again had the chance to don the sweater of his national team for the first time in over five years when he was chosen to play in the final Canada Cup tournament in 1991.

Pivoňka then recorded the finest season of his career to date in 1991-92 when he scored 23 goals and set up 57 more for an 80 point season to lead the Capitals in scoring for the first time.

His fourth consecutive 20 goal season followed with 21 goals and 74 points in only 69 games. While he played all 82 games in 1993-94, he was limited to 50 points, but responded with his best postseason, scoring career bests with 4 goals and 8 points in 7 games.

Pivonka Capitals, Pivonka Capitals

After playing in Austria at the beginning of the strike shortened 1994-95 season, both Pivoňka and Bondra, who shared the same agent, held out at the start of the 1995-96 season in hopes of a raise in pay. When negotiations look longer than hoped, both players signed with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL for seven games until coming to terms with the Capitals. Pivoňka justified his pay raise with a career best 81 points to lead the team in scoring for the second time while playing on a line with Bondra.

Pivonka Vipers, Pivonka Vipers
Pivonka with the Vipers during his holdout

Injuries began to take their toll on Pivoňka, as he was limited to 54 games in 1996-97 and 33 the following season due to a broken wrist, which delayed the start of his season until mid-December and then missed nearly three months will a pulled groin. Then, shortly after returning, he suffered a shoulder injury which ended his playoffs and required off-season shoulder surgery which delayed the start of his 1998-99 season again until December.

Pivonka Capitals, Pivonka Capitals

His contract had now expired and, after averaging 41 games and 14 points in his previous three seasons, he was not resigned and, in an effort to continue his career signed a free agent contract with the Kansas City Blades of the IHL, where in 52 games, he scored 50 points before retiring as a player.

At the time of his leaving the Capitals, Pivoňka was second on the Capitals all-time scoring list with 599 points, which he amassed through 181 goals and 418 assists, which is still first all-time in franchise history over a decade later.

Today's featured jersey is a 1992-93 Washington Capitals Michal Pivoňka jersey. While many may assume the Capitals jerseys remained the same during he era of their first jerseys, there were subtle detail changes, which included adding names to the back of the red road jerseys in 1977, changing to single color names beginning in 1979-80, dropping the number of stars on the arms to just four for 1983-84 and 1984-85, adding the fifth star on the arms back in 1985-86 and making the names two colors again in 1987-88 through the end of the lifespan of this classic jersey style until it was replaced with an entirely new identity package consisting of a new logo and all new team colors in 1995-96.

Patches worn on the original Capitals jerseys were the Capital Centre 10th Anniversary patch (home jerseys only) in 1983-84, the NHL 75th Anniversary patch in 1991-92, the Stanley Cup Centennial patch, as worn on today's featured jersey in 1992-93 and the Capitals 20th Anniversary patch worn in 1993-94.

Washington Capitals 92-93 jersey, Washington Capitals 92-93 jersey
Washington Capitals 92-93 jersey, Washington Capitals 92-93 jersey

In today's video section, Pivoňka discusses hockey sticks and how players personalize them. Dale Hunter and Keith Jones also share their thoughts.

Sometimes as a professional athlete you are forced to participate in things you would never, ever do willingly on your own in a million years. This is one of those times.

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