Forgive Paul Stastny if he takes Wednesday’s Olympic showdown between Team USA and the Czech Republic [noon, NBCSN] a little more personally than the rest of his American teammates.
Born in Quebec to Slovak parents who defected from what was then a Communist Czechoslovakia, Stastny considers himself as American, if not more so, than anyone born in these United States.
And for that he thanks his father, former NHL great Peter Stastny, and mother, Darina, for having the courage to defect from their native country for a better life.
“He was 24 when he did it and he had to grow up really fast,” said Paul Stastny, a 28-year-old center born five years after his parents defected in 1980.
“It obviously takes a lot of guts and a lot of sacrificing. Maybe you never see your family again. For the betterment of his children, for us, he made that decision. It showed a lot of guts and showed what kind of role model and leader my Dad was.”
Peter Stastny was Czechoslovakia’s player of the year in 1980 when he and his brother, Anton, defected from their native country to pursue careers in the NHL. They fled to Austria, where, with the help of then-Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut, they were brought to Canada and signed to NHL contracts.
One year later, the Stastnys used $30,000 to secure the release of their brother, Marian, who joined them with the Nordiques.
Peter Stastny went on to enjoy a 15-year Hall of Fame career with the Nordiques, Devils and Blues, but it was those early sacrifices that his son appreciates most.
“I didn’t ask questions,” Paul Stastny said. “There’s so much history to it that I didn’t know about.
“When you defect your country in 1980 with your wife, who’s pregnant at the time, and you can’t tell anyone in the world … The only people who knew were his brother and sister-in-law because at that time they might have been, maybe killed.”
It was not until nine years later, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, that Peter Stastny saw his parents again.
“That was the first time they were allowed to come back and visit us,” Paul Stastny said.
“My dad always says the best thing we have here is we do what we want. No one tells us what to do. The government doesn’t rule us. It’s not until you actually talk to a parent or a grandfather who had to deal with that stuff and defect from a country under Communist rule that you appreciate it.
“People don’t realize how harsh it was, but if you ask him today he’ll tell you it was the best decision he ever made to defect overseas and in turn be able to raise us in a country where we had the freedom to have choices to do what we want and not be under Communist rule.”
Paul Stastny spent the first five years of his life in Quebec and moved to New Jersey when his father was traded to the Devils in 1990. The family moved to St. Louis when Paul was 8 and he played youth hockey there before attending high school in Iowa.
Stastny won an NCAA championship at the University of Denver and was taken in the second round of the 2005 NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche. He and his brother, Yan, have dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada.
“It was an easy decision,” Stastny said of playing for Team USA. “I’m raised American and everything I remember in my life, from playing hockey to starting school and the way I was raised, everything was American, a hundred percent. Me, my brother, my sister, we’re all American.”
In eight seasons with the Avs, Stastny has 152 goals and 287 assists for 439 points in 519 games. But what he values most in his career is the silver medal he won in the 2010 Vancouver Games and the opportunity to reach even higher in these Sochi Games.
“When you’re young you think about playing in the NHL,” he said, “but as you get older and wiser you realize there’s so much more to life than hockey. We’re so lucky and blessed to do what we want and have the choices we have.
“To be able to represent the red, white and blue and play in an international event that represents 300-plus million people really is an honor.”
Stastny also won a bronze medal with USA in the 2013 World Hockey Championships. With a win over the Czechs on Wednesday the Americans would earn a spot in the semifinals, where they are likely to face Canada for a chance to play for the gold on Sunday.
“There’s only one piece left to add to the collection,” Stastny said. “As I get older I realize not a lot of people get a chance to play in the Olympics, let alone win a medal at the Olympics.
“Our expectations are a lot higher than they were last time. We have one goal and that’s to play on that last day before the ceremonies and to win that game. We don’t expect anything less.”