Today, we talk with former Penguins center Jiri Hrdina.
In addition to being a third or fourth-line center, Hrdina had one of the more unique roles in the history of the Penguins. He had to be a substitute big brother to a teenager named Jaromir Jagr.
As a rookie in 1990-91, Jagr made the jump from Czechoslovakia, still a communist country at the time, to the NHL and Pittsburgh. The combination of a wildly different culture off the ice and the adjustment to playing a North American style of game wore on Jagr. In order to help Jagr cope, general manager Craig Patrick acquired veteran center Jiri Hrdina, a fellow Czech, from the Flames.
Hrdina helped Jagr grow accustomed to life on and off the ice and played a role in the franchise's first two Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992.
As Jagr became more comfortable in his sophomore season, Hrdina contributed 16 points in 56 games during the 1992-92 campaign. During that postseason, he recorded two assists in 16 games.
Following the season, Hrdina retired as a player. He currently serves as a European scout for the Dallas Stars based out of Prauge.
How difficult was it dealing with "Badger" Bob Johnson's death and transitioning to Scotty Bowman as the interim head coach?
"It was a great shock for everybody when we got the news about Bob. So sad. But we got lucky to have Scotty on the bench. It was a little tough in the beginning. It was a little different style with Scotty Bowman practices and a little different style of coaching."
What was it like being a center on a team which had future hall-of-fame centers such as Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier?
"It always tough when you have such superstars. But I knew my role on the team. I also played on the wing. I had no problem to play on the wing. I didn’t get that much ice time like I was hoping for. But being almost 36 years old at the time, I accepted that role and it was good for me to be on that team."
What was different with Jagr from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign?
"When I got there to Pittsburgh in December the year before, he was pretty down mentally. He was homesick. He was missing a friend and a guy on the team he could to talk to. He didn’t know how to ask for things. I got there. He got more comfortable towards the end of the year. He was a like a different person the year after. He started doing the radio. He was feeling more comfortable with his English. I thought the second year, he was a different player and a different person off the ice too."
What was it like bringing in players such as Rich Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson and Ken Wregget from a rival team such as the Flyers through a trade?
"I think Craig knew we needed a little bit more toughness on the team and that’s why he got Rick Tocchet. He was a real competitor. We got really good players. The team got tougher. It really helped to win the Stanley Cup."
How do you compare your Staney Cup win with the Flames in 1989 to the two championships you won with the Penguins?
"The first one is always the one you remember the most. Calgary and Pittsburgh was totally different situations. I think Calgary, we had a really hard working team. In Pittsburgh, we had so many superstars on the team. So it like more individual efforts in each series, each game."
(Photo: Penguins Hockey Cards)