Petr Svoboda

The Montreal Canadiens pulled off one of the biggest surprises in draft history when they announced their 5th overall selection in 1984 would be Petr Svoboda.

Svoboda was the top ranked European player, and he could have be ranked as high as number two overall behind only Mario Lemieux. But living behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia made him an unlikely high pick, since it would likely be years before he would be allowed to play in the National Hockey League. Therefore it was expected Svoboda would be a middle round pick.

Expected to announce Shayne Corson as his pick, Montreal Canadiens general manager Serge Savard turned the draft on its head when he selected Svoboda. He shocked the league even more when the prized prodigy walked on stage in person to accept the Montreal Canadiens jersey.

The savvy Savard left all other GMs jaw-dropped. Savard was the only general manager to know that Svoboda had defected from his communist country, leaving the Czechoslovakian national team at the 1984 European championships in West Germany. As Svoboda hid in his aunt's house in Munich, the Habs arranged to have him flown to Montreal in time for the draft. Svoboda, who hid in a Montreal hotel until draft time, had defected on his own merit, but had already negotiated a 5 year, $750,000 contract with the Habs, who promised to take him number 5 overall.

Unable to speak any English or French upon his arrival, Svoboda made a smooth transition to life in North America, thanks in large part to the veteran presence of the likes of Larry Robinson and Rick Green. He developed into a dependable two-way defenseman who was far more aggressive than his frail frame should have allowed. The strength of his game was always his skating as his great quickness, agility and balance gave him outstanding mobility and lateral movement. A good puck rusher, Svoboda displayed the soft hands of a born passer, though he never had a great shot.

Injury problems would hinder his development into an elite NHL defenseman. Still, in the end he was the first Czech hockey player to reach the 1,000 NHL games mark. Svoboda would have a special career that included over 1028 games played 58 goals and 399 points. In 1986 he was part of the Stanley Cup championship team in Montreal.

By the end of the 1980s injuries decimated Svoboda and he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres. He would also play with the Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the 1990s, and was universally applauded for his tutoring of many young defensemen, most notably fellow countrymen Richard Smehlik and Pavel Kubina.

Although he defected from his country to pursue hockey dreams, perhaps his greatest achievement came back at home some 14 years after he defected. Political reform allowed for Svoboda to return home and compete for his country. When the NHL agreed to allow its players to appear in the 1998 Olympic Games, the Czech Republic asked the veteran Svoboda to play. Play he did, and he scored perhaps the most famous goal in Czech hockey history. Svoboda scored the only goal, with just 11 minutes left to play, in the gold medal game against the Russians.

Svoboda would become a player agent after retiring from the game, notably representing Pavel Kubina and Robert Lang.

Did You Know? Petr's younger brother Karel also defected, in 1986. Montreal quickly drafted him too, and allowed him to develop in their farm system. However this Svoboda would never play in the National Hockey League, and returned to Europe after just one season.


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