Šťastný Brothers

The Šťastný brothers — Marián, Peter and Anton — were a trio of star hockey forwards from Czechoslovakia. In the early 1980s they defected to Canada to play with the Québec Nordiques, and became one of the most exciting and successful scoring lines in National Hockey League history.

The Šťastný brothers — Marián, Peter and Anton — were a trio of star hockey forwards from Czechoslovakia. In the early 1980s they defected to Canada to play with the Québec Nordiques, and became one of the most exciting and successful scoring lines in National Hockey League history. They blazed the trail to the NHL for many European hockey players, especially from the Eastern Bloc.

Early Life

Born to Stanislav and Franciska Šťastný, Marián (born 8 January 1953), Peter (born 18 September 1956) and Anton (born 5 August 1959) were part of a family of six children. Their other siblings are older brothers Bohumil and Vladimír — who became a noted hockey coach in Slovakia — and younger sister Eva. The family was raised in a small apartment in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (Bratislava is now the capital of the Slovak Republic, also known as Slovakia).

Stanislav, who worked on hydroelectric projects, was an academic and a free thinker, and raised his children to be the same. They were strongly opposed to the communist occupation of Czechoslovakia.

The Šťastnýs played hockey on a make-shift outdoor rink they built using garden hoses and used boards. Right winger Marián, centre Peter and left winger Anton all quickly rose up the junior ranks of Czechoslovakian hockey.

They grew up idolizing Václav Nedomanský, a star on the Czechoslovakian national team who in 1974 became the first player from a Communist country to defect to North America, where he played in the World Hockey Association and the National Hockey League.

Early Hockey Careers

By 1976, Marián and Peter were the heart of the Czechoslovakian national team that won the gold medal at the world championships. Both also played at the 1976 Canada Cup tournament, where the team finished second.

The younger Anton joined them in time to successfully defend the Czechoslovakian team’s world title in 1977. All three were part of the national team at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, where Czechoslovakia finished fifth.

As hockey stars, the brothers were afforded many luxuries not usually granted to citizens in communist Czechoslovakia — this included cars and nice apartments, as well as cash bonuses for hockey victories. They were also allowed to travel abroad, though usually only for hockey trips.

Peter and Anton Defect to Canada

A number of NHL teams were interested in the Šťastný brothers. The Québec Nordiques, who drafted Anton in 1979, were the most persistent and even planned to help the brothers defect at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York — however, Czechoslovakian security was too tight.

A better opportunity came later that year, in August 1980, when the Czechoslovakian team was playing a tournament in Austria. Long unhappy with life under Communist rule, the Šťastný brothers were also dissatisfied with their team’s fortunes, caused primarily by corrupt team management. While in Austria, Peter called the Nordiques, telling them that he and Anton wanted to defect.

The next day, Québec Nordiques president and CEO Marcel Aubut and director of personnel development Gilles Leger arrived in Innsbruck, Austria. They began planning immediately to get Anton, Peter and Peter’s wife, Darina, who was eight months pregnant, to the Canadian embassy in Vienna to apply for political asylum.

Faced with determined Czechoslovakian agents, who quickly realized what was happening, the group needed the help of not only the embassy, but also the Viennese police, Minister of Defence Gilles Lamontagne, Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy and Hockey Canada’s Douglas Fisher. After a tense dash to the airport, they boarded a flight to Amsterdam and freedom. A connecting flight brought them to Montréal. Peter’s daughter, Katarina, would be born in Canada.

Marián’s Defection

Marián did not know anything about Peter and Anton’s plans until a couple of hours before they left. The brothers knew Marián could not leave with them, as his wife and three children were back home in Bratislava.

Marián instead went home and applied for emigration to Canada through the proper channels; however, his application was denied. Communist authorities sought to punish the remaining Šťastný family, particularly Marián, who was not allowed to play for the national team or his club team. He was also followed by the authorities, had to report weekly to the police and was forbidden to practice as a lawyer. If not for the money smuggled into the country from his brothers in Québec, Marián’s family would have been destitute.

Isolated and unhappy that his hockey career was over, Marián planned his family’s escape. He completed a number of renovations to his home to convince authorities that he had no intention of leaving. He also travelled within the Eastern Bloc countries, as was permitted to most citizens of Czechoslovakia, but always returned. After a while he noticed that he was not being followed as closely as before.

In 1981, Marián and his family travelled to Hungary and then Yugoslavia. After securing a transit visa from the Austrian embassy in Zagreb, they crossed into Austria and contacted Québec Nordiques president Marcel Aubut. Thanks to Aubut’s government connections, they were soon on their way to Québec to be reunited with their family and return to the ice. All three brothers and their wives would become Canadian citizens in the 1980s.

With the Québec Nordiques

The Šťastný brothers dominated the National Hockey League immediately upon their arrival.

In his first season, Peter set NHL rookie records for assists (70) and points (109) while winning the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year (1980). Anton had an impressive 39 goals and 85 points that year as well. In one game against Washington, the two brothers scored eight points each, setting a new NHL road record.

Once Marián arrived and the three brothers were reunited on the same line, they really took the NHL by storm. In 1981–82, they scored a total of 300 points; Peter alone scored 139 points, the third highest total in the league.

They became the third group of three brothers to play on the same NHL team, after Max, Doug and Reg Bentley of the Chicago Blackhawks (1940s) and Barclay, Bob and Bill Plager of the St. Louis Blues (1970s). The next three-brother showing would come in the 2012–13 season, when Eric and Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes were joined by brother Jared for two games.

The Šťastný brothers played with the Nordiques until 1985, when Marián was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For all their scoring success, the only thing missing on the Šťastný brothers’ resume was a Stanley Cup championship. While the Québec Nordiques were one of the most exciting teams in the NHL to watch, it had trouble advancing in the playoffs, often losing to arch rivals, the Montréal Canadiens. Twice they made it to the Conference final, losing to the New York Islanders in 1982 and the Philadelphia Flyers in 1985.

Peter the Great (Hockey Career 1980–95)

Peter emerged as a true NHL superstar and was known by many as “Peter the Great” — only Wayne Gretzky scored more total points in the 1980s. He played for the Québec Nordiques from 1980 to 1990, and was the team’s leading scorer. In 1990, Peter was traded to the New Jersey Devils, and from 1993 to 1995 he played with the St. Louis Blues. He retired from the NHL in 1995 with 1,239 career points, at that time the most by any NHL player born and trained in Europe (surpassed by Finland’s Jari Kurri in 1996).

During the same period, Peter also competed on the international stage. After he became a Canadian citizen, he played for Team Canada at the 1984 Canada Cup. Ten years later — following the collapse of communism and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 — he was part of the Slovakian national team at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. He also represented his native Slovakia at the 1995 world championships.

Peter was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 and the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1997, Hockey News ranked him as No. 56 of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time.

Anton (Hockey Career 1980–94)

Anton played 650 games in the NHL from 1980 to 1989, all with the Québec Nordiques. He scored 252 goals and 636 points — the third-highest total in Nordiques history. He then moved to Switzerland, where he played with HC Fribourg-Gottéron (1989–90) and EHC Olten (1990–92), before returning to Slovakia to play with HC Slovan Bratislava in the 1993–94 season.

Marián (Hockey Career 1981–87)

Marián scored a fantastic 89 points in his first NHL season (1981–82). In the first half of his second season, he was one of the league’s top scorers. However, during his 60th game, he suffered a devastating shoulder injury that ended his season and hampered him for the rest of his career. He would play two more injury-plagued seasons in Québec before leaving for one more NHL season (1985–86) in Toronto. The following season he played in Switzerland for HC Sierre, before retiring from competitive hockey.

Post-Hockey Careers

Following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Peter and Anton returned to their homeland, Slovakia. Peter has been very active in the development of hockey in the country; and in 2004, became a member of the European Parliament, representing Slovakia. His two sons, Yan and Paul (both born in Québec City), are professional hockey players. Paul played with the Colorado Avalanche (formerly the Québec Nordiques) from 2006–07 to 2013–14, before signing with the St. Louis Blues as a free agent for the 2014–15 season.

Anton lives in Slovakia and Switzerland — where his son, Tomas, played professional hockey — and owns the Evergreen furniture company. Marián remained in Québec City, where he owns and operates a hotel and golf course.

Significance

The Šťastnýs’ success helped to fast-track the acceptance of European players in the NHL. Their offensive dominance paved the way for many European players from both sides of the Iron Curtain, including Jari Kurri, Mats Näslund and Thomas Steen in the 1980s.

In particular, the Šťastný brothers inspired a wave of young Czech and Slovak players to defect: Miroslav Fryčer, brothers Peter and Miroslav Ihnačák, Jan Ludvig, Petr Klíma, Petr Svoboda, František Musil, Petr Prajsler, Jiri Sevcik, David Volek and Petr Nedvěd. In fact, in an attempt to stop the exodus of young talent from the country, the Czechoslovakian hockey governing body began allowing veteran players to leave in exchange for large transfer payments from NHL teams.


Further Reading

  • Peter Gzowski, The Game of our Lives (2006); Tai Pinchevsky, Breakaway: From Behind The Iron Curtain To The NHL — The Untold Story Of Hockey’s Great Escapes (2012); Andrew Podnieks et al, Kings Of The Ice: A History of World Hockey (2002).