Artifacts from the Archives: Petr Buzek and the 2000 All-Star Game

Every January without fail, there will be a retrospective of sorts on the NHL All-Star Game that recalls the great moments: Ace Bailey and Eddie Shore shaking hands, Wayne Gretzky’s four 3rd-period goals, Ray Bourque’s late game heroics, Owen Nolan’s called shot, and most recently John Scott’s MVP performance.

And on the flip side is a list or a mention of the worst All-Stars in NHL history, or at least the greatest controversies: Mike Milbury finishing his roster in 1991 with Chris Nilan, varying suspensions for players who sit out the game, and of course the times that your favorite player got screwed out of the MVP award.

And there’s usually a list of “the worst All-Stars ever”, which will ordinarily have the name of one Petr Buzek right near the top.  But who is Petr Buzek, and what makes/made his selection in 2000 so controversial?

First, let’s back up.

Buzek was born in April 1977, thus making him draft eligible in 1995.  He played a handful of games with Dukla Jihlava of the Czech League in 1993-94 as a 16-year-old, in addition to playing with the national team in the European Junior Championships.  The next year – his draft year – he moved up full-time the next year and suited up in the EJC again, where he was a tournament all-star.  He also played in the WJC, earning glowing reviews for his skating, poise, and decision-making.  He also put up more points in that tournament than teammates Marek Zidlicky and Petr Sykora (the good one), and tied with Milan Hejduk.

His strong play as a 17-year-old in both a major tournament and during the season in the top league propelled him into the discussion as not just a 1st-round pick in the 1995 NHL Draft, but more likely a top-15 and probable top-10 selection.  The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau had him ranked as the #5 overall European prospect going into the (lockout-delayed) draft.

The Crash

For most prospects, the additional couple weeks before the draft gave an additional week or two to work out as part of their draft prep, or for injured players to continue to heal and recover.  For Buzek though, there was much more on the line.

One player NHL teams won’t be interviewing is Czech defenseman Petr Buzek, who is in a hospital in his homeland with serious injuries from a recent car accident.

“He is supposed to be in the hospital until at least the draft,” said (Anaheim scout David) McNab. “Now everyone will do the same thing – all 26 teams will be saying what a great sixth-rounder he has become.”

Associated Press. “Defensemen big in NHL draft.” Times, The (Trenton, NJ) 14 Jun. 1995, Sports: B7.

Anaheim wasn’t the only team openly backing away.

Director of player personnel Chuck Grillo has narrowed the vast field of prospects the Sharks might draft. Scratch the name Petr Buzek, a defenseman from the Czech Republic, off the board.

“The young man had the misfortune of having what may be a career-ending car accident in the last couple weeks,” Grillo said.

Except for it not being Buzek, the Sharks’ first-round pick (12th overall) is anybody’s guess.

Chi, Victor. “SHARKS WON’T REVEAL DRAFT STRATEGY.” San Jose Mercury News (CA) 28 Jun. 1995, Sports: 1E

However, even after having suffered serious career-threatening injuries with both an unknown recovery timetable and unknown impact, Buzek’s upside was still regarded as extremely high.

TOP PROSPECTS

Leading prospects for next week’s NHL draft:

Petr Buzek D 6-0 183 (Czech.) Excelled vs. older competition.

Cummings, Roy. “High draft picks form nucleus for Lightning.” The Tampa Tribune 2 Jul. 1995, METROPOLITAN, SPORTS: 6

And from an actual GM, specifically Jim Rutherford of the Hartford Whalers:

“We’ll take the best player regardless of position, even it means another young D,” Rutherford said. “Where do [Russian linemates] Dimitri Nabokov and Alexei Morozov fall? We might take a goalie [Beauport’s Martin Biron or Halifax’s Jean Sebastien Giguere]. Or [Kamloops center] Jarome Iginla. It’s not cut-and-dried.”

Besides the Russians, the Whalers also have been interested in Czech defenseman Petr Buzek. “Unfortunately, he got into a car accident. It doesn’t sound good. It’s his legs. We’ll get a doctor’s report in Edmonton from Central Scouting.”

Jacobs, Jeff. “RUTHERFORD GIVES IT TO YOU FROM THE TOP.” The Hartford Courant 2 Jul. 1995, STATEWIDE, SPORTS: D1

A later article would confirm that the Whalers had Buzek as one of the top five players in the draft, at least before the accident.

And on the day before the draft, with a still unknown recovery, he was still regarded as a top prospect:

Capsules of the top prospects for Saturday’s NHL draft:

Petr Buzek – A Czech defenseman who can skate and handle the puck. Scouts are also impressed with his strength and intelligence.

“TOP NHL PROSPECTS.” Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ) 7 Jul. 1995, NEWS

Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune had Buzek 17th in his mock draft to Washington, three spots behind The Hockey News who had him 14th.  Cammy Clark of the St. Petersburg Times had Buzek going 21st to Boston, describing him as a “strong, intelligent player who makes good decisions. Good two-way player who can carry puck up ice.”  Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described him as a player with “great offensive potential, but could plunge through ratings after breaking ankle and injuring both knees in car accident last month.”

Draft Day 1995 would carry its usual amount of intrigue, answering questions of which prospects would go where and which current players would be traded elsewhere.  But for one player, bruised and battered, whether he would fall completely out of the draft was the only question on his mind.

With their third pick, the Stars chose Czechoslovakia’s Petr Buzek, a defenseman who had been regarded as a first-round pick before suffering major leg injuries and a hairline fracture in his forehead in an auto accident. He is unlikely to be able to skate before December.

Buzek broke his leg in three places and had his right kneecap sheared off in the wreck. He attended Saturday’s draft in a wheelchair but said, through an interpreter, he was thrilled to be chosen by Dallas. on the 18-year-old to recover.

“If he comes back, then we got two first-rounders today,” (director of amateur scouting Craig) Button said.

Immediately after selecting Buzek with the 63rd overall pick, the Stars worked the phones and traded their second-round pick in 1996 to Winnipeg for its third-round choice (69th) and drafted Sergei Gusev, a defenseman from Russia.

“We don’t feel like next year’s draft is deep,” Button said. The Stars had intended to use their third-round pick on Gusev before rolling the dice on Buzek.

“We really feel we traded next year’s second-round pick to take a chance on Buzek this year,” Button said.

Cowlishaw, Tim. “STARS MAKE HISTORY IN NHL DRAFT – No. 11 pick is earliest black skater ever taken.” The Dallas Morning News 9 Jul. 1995, SPORTS DAY: 1B

The “black skater” referenced in the headline was Kamloops forward Jarome Iginla, who would be traded to Calgary for Joe Nieuwendyk before ever suiting up in Dallas.  And the 2nd-rounder that Dallas traded would be traded twice more before Chicago used it to pick Remi Royer from Saint Hyacinthe of the QMJHL.  (Side note: does anyone else remember the Blackhawks draft that year, of which Royer/Peters/Paul was supposed to be the backbone?)

More from Dallas:

With the 63rd pick, the Stars chose defenseman Petr Buzek. The 18-year-old Czechoslovakian was ranked as high as the 14th-best player available by one scouting publication. But three weeks ago, Buzek was in an automobile accident and suffered a crushed kneecap and broken femur. He is not expected to play before January.

“He was a risk, but the upside is so big with him,” Stars assistant general manager Les Jackson said. “At that point, he was worth the risk.”

Heika, Mike. “Stars’ NHL picks involve `some risk’.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 9 Jul. 1995, SPORTS: 3.

The Long Road to Recovery

Buzek would have surgery the day after the draft to attempt to fix his leg, which resulted in being patched together with titanium plates and screws.  He would continue to recover and rehabilitate, and made an appearance at a Stars game in Dallas during the 1995 preseason.

Petr Buzek, the Stars’ third-round pick from the Czech Republic who was in a serious car accident shortly before the draft, attended the game and is off crutches. He shattered a kneecap in the wreck but said, through an interpreter, he hopes to be skating in a month and playing next season. He was considered a top-10 pick.

Cowlishaw, Tim. “Stars flash bright spots in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis.” The Dallas Morning News 23 Sep. 1995, SPORTS DAY: 6B.

Stars third-round draft pick Petr Buzek, who suffered numerous injuries in a car crash this summer, watched last night’s game. He said he has been riding a stationary bike and hopes to start skating in a month.

Heika, Mike. “Stars’ rookie goaltender shines in 3-1 exhibition loss to Blues.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 23 Sep. 1995, SPORTS: 10.

The original timetable had Buzek being able to start skating and on-ice drills by the end of 1995, but he suffered a major setback.

Third-round pick Petr Buzek was a gamble because he had been involved in a major auto accident that left him with a shattered kneecap.

Buzek was rehabilitating here until recently but now will need additional surgery. “He’s gone home to Czechoslovakia and will have the surgery after Christmas,” said assistant general manager Les Jackson. Screws in his kneecap loosened, making another surgery necessary.

Jackson said Buzek’s target is to be skating by training camp in September.

Cowlishaw, Tim. “STARS UPDATE.” The Dallas Morning News 22 Dec. 1995, SPORTS DAY: 6B

The surgery went well, and Buzek continued to rehab in Dallas.  In March 1996, he signed a three-year contract with the Stars.

One of the more encouraging signs at the Dr Pepper StarCenter is the sight of defenseman Petr Buzek skating on his own and, occasionally, with the team.

Buzek was the Stars’ third-round pick (63rd overall) in last year’s draft, but he would have gone in the top 15 if not for a major car wreck that shattered his wrist and broke his leg.

He has had two operations on the leg and was scheduled for a third, but now it appears it won’t be necessary. If he’s playing hockey this fall – he turns 19 next month – the Stars will have stolen him in the draft.

“Right now he’s just doing his conditioning to get his wrist and his knee stronger,” said trainer Dave Surprenant. “He’s coming along.”

Cowlishaw, Tim. “Absence of late-season trades is sign of stability.” The Dallas Morning News 21 Mar. 1996, SPORTS DAY: 16B

Better news was on the horizon.

The Stars last year also traded their second pick in this year’s draft to pick up Czech defenseman Petr Buzek, a highly rated player who slipped to the 63rd pick because of injuries sustained from an automobile accident. Buzek is recovered and skating with the Stars.

“That’s looking like a good gamble right now,” Button said. “So in some ways, this draft already is successful.”

Heika, Mike. “Draft’s 5th pick gives Stars case of high anxiety.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 22 Jun. 1996, SPORTS: 1

The 5th overall pick mentioned in the headline there was over several teams’ consternation with the superlatively-talented Alexandre Volchkov, and whether to take him in that spot if he was available.  As it turned out, Washington took him 4th, and Dallas took Soo Greyhounds’ defenseman Ric Jackman with the 5th pick.

Back Onto The Ice

Buzek continued to rehab and work out during the summer, and was on the ice for the beginning of training camp in September.  Coach Ken Hitchcock, entering his first preseason with the team, was effusive with praise.

Buzek – The Stars got him in the third round last year but he was projected as a first-round pick before shattering his knee in a serious car accident. Two surgeries later, he’s back on skates and Hitchcock said Buzek had an outstanding summer. This will be his first real work of any kind with the Stars. Buzek is 6-0, 183.

“I don’t really know where he would have been drafted without the injury,” said Hitchcock. “All I know is that when I watched him in B.C. this summer against players his age, he was dominant.”

Cowlishaw, Tim. “Stars’ focus is on defense at six-day rookie camp.” The Dallas Morning News 31 Aug. 1996, SPORTS DAY: 4B.

Defenseman Petr Buzek, who 14 months ago broke his right wrist, right ankle and left femur in a car accident, is back on the ice and practicing.

Buzek, 19, is targeted as a player who will likely be sent to the Stars’ International Hockey League affiliate in Kalamazoo, Mich., for a year of seasoning. But Hitchcock said he expects to give Buzek every chance to make the Stars’ roster.

“He sure doesn’t look like a player who has missed a year of hockey,” Hitchcock said.

Heika, Mike. “Hitchcock looking forward to full season as the Stars’ coach.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 9 Sep. 1996, SPORTS: 17.

Throughout these articles, the way that Buzek’s injuries have been described usually refers to his broken ankle or broken femur.  I believe the reason is that a broken ankle can hamper mobility, and a broken femur has an extremely long timetable for recovery.  But the badly broken patella (kneecap) that Buzek suffered in the accident is arguably the most serious injury.

With most bones, and with most fractures, it’s pretty basic: here is the fracture, here is the way these pieces fit back together.  The patella is fairly small and is in what can be described as tense suspension in relation to the surrounding tissue.  This is part of why a knee replacement even today is extremely tricky, compared to shoulder or hip replacements.  A simple fracture may be a simple matter, and a simple dislocation may be as well.  Buzek shattered his patella and dislocated it, which by itself would be a career-threatening injury even without all the other injuries he suffered.

I’m not blaming anyone for the way this was reported or suggesting that it was subpar reporting at all; few newspapers would allow the column space to articulate mostly-banal medical matters.  This is still done today, with complex injuries to athletes normally pared down to a sentence or less.  I’m just mentioning that he’d suffered a devastating injury even outside of what else had been reported.

In any case, Buzek’s almost miraculous rehab was the subject of a lengthy write-up just two days later in training camp.  This is also the first time that the actual extent of his injuries was reported.

VAIL, Colo. – Petr Buzek has become comfortable enough with the May night in 1995 when he almost lost his life that he is able to joke about it.

“It was a blur; I don’t know,” the 19-year-old Stars defenseman prospect said. “I know I was sleepy and I just open my eyes and all I see was a tree, boom.”

Buzek, a native of the Czech Republic, ran his car into that tree at 80 mph, crushing the car and all but shattering his body. He has since had surgeries that have left him with seven screws and a plate in his right ankle, two screws in his right wrist and 20 screws and a plate in the femur in his left leg. In addition, his right kneecap was broken in several places, was set wrong during surgery and had to be broken and reset again.

“That was worst,” Buzek said, rolling his eyes. “They told me they had to break it again and I said, `What?’ ”

The reason Buzek can laugh now is that 14 months after the accident, he feels great. He is participating in the Stars’ training camp and “sure doesn’t look like someone who missed a year of hockey,” Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said.

At age 19, Buzek is a long enough shot to make the Stars’ roster. When you consider his injuries and the recovery time, there’s no way the defenseman should be able to fight his way into a veteran lineup.

But here he is.

“Logically, you’d say he has to spend a year at Kalamazoo Mich.,” Hitchcock said of the Stars’ minor-league affiliate. “But he’s making us look at him in a different way,”

For his part, Buzek said he wouldn’t hate a season in the International Hockey League, but that’s not his goal.

“I want to make team; that’s what I am here for,” he said. “I feel inside I am good enough.”

Buzek has never lacked confidence, and that might be one reason the Stars took a chance on him in the 1995 entry draft. The 6-foot, 205-pounder was ranked among the top 10 prospects in the draft before the car accident. But everybody passed on him until the Stars decided to risk the 63rd overall pick on a player who accepted his first Stars jersey while sitting in a wheelchair.

“Guys like that who make it to that level, they have a certain mind-set,” Hitchcock said. “And while Buzek’s body was beat up, his mind has always told him that he’s one of the best.”

Buzek came to the Stars last season using crutches and speaking no English. Now, his English is impressive and he’s not only driving to the net, he’s negotiating traffic on LBJ Freeway in Dallas.

“It might sound crazy, but I think it was harder for him to go driving again than it was to play hockey,” said Stars center Bob Bassen, who went through rehabilitation with Buzek last year and helped him get his driver’s license. “He’s always known he can play hockey.”

Bassen attributes Buzek’s quick recovery and his even quicker adaptation to the United States to an optimistic outlook.

“He’s just always smiling; he doesn’t let things get him down,” Bassen said.

Buzek laughs when he talks about his English skills, saying he learned a good deal from movies and television.

“Sometimes now when I understand better, I know how much I missed,” he said of the television shows he blindly trudged through. “It’s good teacher.”

Heika, Mike. “Defenseman’s recovery from accident amazes Stars.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 11 Sep. 1996, SPORTS: 2

The next part of that article referred to Sergei Zubov’s apparent reluctance to come to Dallas.  In fact, Zubov would eventually leave the Stars to play in Russia…in 2009.

Buzek made his preseason debut on September 15 against St. Louis, earning an assist on a power play goal by Benoit Hogue.  Three days later, he served as a post-game interpreter for goalie Roman Turek, who had just made his own North American debut.

As the rosters were trimmed in preparation for the regular season, both Buzek and Turek were sent to the IHL.

Rookie defenseman Petr Buzek also was sent down yesterday, and he and Turek were scheduled to drive to Kalamazoo today. Buzek also is from the Czech Republic and speaks better English than Turek.

“It is a good thing for us,” Buzek said. “We will go and get plenty of playing time in Kalamazoo and maybe then come back.”

Turek plans to move his wife and son into an apartment in Kalamazoo, he said.

“It’s not just about playing, but about them adapting to this country,” Hitchcock said. “We want them to have plenty of time to get up there and feel comfortable, and then they can focus on their playing.”

Wire Services. “DALLAS SENDS GOALIE TO IHL TEAM.” Stuart News, The (FL) 28 Sep. 1996, Sports: B3

The move was also mentioned in an article that had an interesting headline.

Stars assign two – The Dallas Stars have assigned defenseman Petr Buzek and goaltender Roman Turek to the Michigan K-Wings of the International Hockey League.

Buzek, 19, played in four preseason exhibitions for the Stars, scoring one assist.

Turek, 26, was 1-2-0 in three preseason games with a 2.82 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.

Houston Chronicle News Services. “Turner enters Atlanta in NHL expansion race.” Houston Chronicle 28 Sep. 1996, SPORTS: 3.

Buzek showed plenty during the early part of the season in the IHL.  And then he got a phone call in February.

Buzek called up: In need of a spare defenseman, the Stars called up 19-year-old Petr Buzek from the Michigan K-Wings, Dallas’ top minor-league affiliate. Buzek’s call-up is his first to the NHL, and, though he didn’t play, he said he is excited to be traveling with the Stars.

“It is good; it is great for me,” said the native of the Czech Republic. “This is what I have always wanted. It is best players in the world.”

Buzek sustained a broken femur, broken wrist and shattered kneecap in a car accident two years ago and missed all of last season. “The knee still gets sore sometimes,” he said.

“The recovery is amazing in itself, but when you think that he’s performing on a steady level in the IHL International Hockey League at the age of 19, that’s pretty impressive, too,” Hitchcock said. “He’s really done a great job of working hard.”

Heika, Mike. “STARS NOTES.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 28 Feb. 1997, SPORTS: 5

Buzek again didn’t make the Stars out of training camp in 1997, but continued to develop his offensive game in the IHL while waiting for a chance.

In early March 1998:.

Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov, the top two for the Stars in minutes played, are expected to be out of the lineup for at least a week, covering three games, and possibly longer.
…The Stars yesterday recalled defensemen Petr Buzek and Brad Lukowich from their International Hockey League affiliate in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Hitchcock said he expects Lukowich to be in the lineup tonight.
…”These are two young players who have been playing well, so we’re going to reward them,” Hitchcock said of Lukowich and Buzek. “This is a good time for us to see more from them. ” Buzek and Lukowich played as a pair with the Michigan K-Wings, but likely will be split in their time with the Stars, each matching up with veteran players.

Heika, Mike. “Ouch! Stars are struck Injuries stop Hatcher, – Zubov for week or more.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 4 Mar. 1998, SPORTS: 1.

Lukowich made his debut that night while Buzek was a healthy scratch.  In fact, he was a healthy scratch three times.

All The Way Back

Finally, on March 12, 1998, less than three years after the accident that threatened to leave him as just another “what-if” prospect, Buzek made his debut against the Phoenix Coyotes, where he had no goals and no assists but was a +1 in a 5-4 loss.

Actually, he had one assist:

Center Mike Modano suffered a separated right shoulder early in the second period and was in great pain as he was helped from the ice by teammates Petr Buzek and Darryl Sydor.

Cowlishaw, Tim. “MODANO INJURES SHOULDER Stars center helped off in 5-4 loss.” The Dallas Morning News 13 Mar. 1998, SPORTS DAY: 1B

Buzek was among several players sent down the day after that game and then recalled again.  He played again with the Stars against San Jose on March 18, where he took his first NHL penalty (interference at 5:56 of the 2nd period).  He was again sent down afterward, then among several players recalled to practice with the team once Michigan’s IHL season ended.

The biggest change for the Stars was the staggering improvement on the ice in just two seasons, going from 66 points in 1995-96 to 109 and the Presidents Trophy in 1997-98.  And they’d proven their mettle in the playoffs, setting aside the previous year’s crushing first-round defeat by making it to the conference finals and going six games against defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit.

With the team emerging as a contender, competition was high entering the 1998-99 season.

Who’s Not (hot) – Defenseman Petr Buzek is being paired with captain Derian Hatcher for a great deal of his shifts during training camp and will apparently get a chance to fill in for the injured Richard Matvichuk during the regular season. But Buzek shows flashes of being 21.

Yesterday, he gave up a breakaway goal to Marty Flichel and was on the ice when Gavey slipped through the slot to score.

Heika, Mike. “Stars Report.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 16 Sep. 1998, SPORTS: 7.

Among the prospects who shined were forwards Jamie Wright, Jason Botterill, Jon Sim, Aaron Gavey, David Roberts and Ryan Christie, and defensemen Richard Jackman, Petr Buzek, Sergey Gusev and Brad Lukowich.

“The challenge is to see if they can play at the level of the league,” Hitchcock said. “Down the line, you don’t know where you’re going to be injury-wise or energy-wise. We want to be a top team in this league, and we want to be the top team at the end. And if we don’t reach it, it isn’t going to be without all of the effort and all the blood and the sweat that goes into it.”

Nichols, Bill. “Stars work together, play together at camp.” The Dallas Morning News 19 Sep. 1998, SPORTS DAY: 3B

As it turned out, Brad Lukowich outplayed Buzek in the IHL that year, earning call-ups and ice time with the Stars.  Buzek played well after some early-season inconsistency, and would get the call in April.

Petr Buzek, promoted from Michigan of the International Hockey League to add depth to the corps of defensemen, showed well in Friday’s workout.

“He looked like a mature player,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He’s eliminated the flightiness that comes with being young.”

Fraley, Gerry. “STARS UPDATE.” The Dallas Morning News 17 Apr. 1999, SPORTS DAY: 6B

Like the previous year, Buzek was sent down after playing two games, then recalled after the IHL season ended.  Although he played in no playoff games that year with the Stars, he practiced with the team during their run to the 1999 Stanley Cup.

But decisions were looming, with the Atlanta Thrashers entering the NHL in time for the 1999-00 season and thus needing stocked with an expansion draft.

A New Chance

The Stars submitted their protected list to the NHL yesterday for Friday’s expansion draft to stock the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Stars are allowed to protect one goalie, five defensemen and nine forwards. They also do not have to expose players who have fewer than three years of pro hockey experience (minors included). The Thrashers then are allowed to select one player.

That means among the unprotected players are: defensemen Shawn Chambers, Matt Martin and Petr Buzek; forwards Dave Roberts, Kelly Fairchild, Marty Flichel and Jeff Mitchell; and goalies Manny Fernandez and Mike Bales.

The most desired player on the list probably is Buzek, a defensive defenseman who had 19 points in 74 games last season for the Michigan K-Wings. Fernandez, who won the International Hockey League championship with the Houston Aeros, also could be taken.

Wire Reports and Staff. “Stars likely to lose defenseman or goalie in expansion draft.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 22 Jun. 1999, SPORTS: 6

And a few days later, Buzek was on his way to Atlanta.

Considering the players available in the NHL expansion draft, the Atlanta Thrashers decided to build their franchise with defensemen.

So the Stars lost prospect Petr Buzek in Friday’s expansion draft at the FleetCenter. Dallas’ third-round selection in the 1995 entry draft was one of 10 defensemen Atlanta selected among their 26 picks.

Atlanta picked one player from each NHL team except Nashville, which played its inaugural season this year.

Buzek, 22, was one of three prospects the Stars targeted before this past season as being close to making the jump from their minor league affliate, the Michigan K-Wings. But they traded Sergey Gusev to Tampa Bay for Benoit Hogue, then Brad Lukowich got the nod over Buzek to add depth before the playoffs. Buzek would have competed for a depth spot, at best, next season had he remained with Dallas.

“In one sense, I’m happy for him because he will get an opportunity that he would not have gotten on our team,” Stars general manager Bob Gainey said. “We would liked to have kept him, but this is a league that’s expanding and everybody has to lose a player.”

The Stars, knowing before the expansion draft that the Thrashers would pick goalie Roman Turek, had tried to work a deal to keep them from taking him. But the Thrashers wanted prospects the Stars weren’t willing to part with, including one deal that involved defenseive prospect Richard Jackman, another with Botterill and Lukowich, then finally Buzek and a draft pick.

The Stars, who also tried to work a trade with Tampa Bay that the Lightning backed out of because of ownership turmoil, ended up getting only a third-round pick for Turek in a trade with St. Louis.

The Thrashers had all the information they needed on Buzek because assistant GM Les Jackson used to be with the Stars. Buzek was involved in a serious car wreck, and was in a wheelchair when Dallas drafted him. He played in only four games with the Stars during his four seasons in Michigan.

Nichols, Bill. “Stars lose defensive prospect to Atlanta in expansion draft.” The Dallas Morning News 26 Jun. 1999, SPORTS DAY: 5B

And as confirmation on who made the pick for the Thrashers:

Few players have overcome more than defenseman Petr Buzek, the Thrashers’ expansion pick from Dallas. Buzek was expected to be a top-15 pick in 1995 but suffered serious injuries, including his knee, in a car accident in his native Czech Republic just prior to the draft. The Stars selected him in the third round. Buzek did not play for a year but has stood out for the last three on the Stars’ top minor-league affiliate in Kalamazoo, Mich. Thrashers assistant GM Les Jackson suggested to Waddell that the team take Buzek, who is ready to make the jump to the NHL. “Les and I had a little deal before the year that I wouldn’t worry about Dallas and he wouldn’t worry about Detroit,” Waddell said. “When Les said he’s the guy on their list, there was no discussion.”

Schultz, Jeff. “THRASHERS NOTEBOOK – Hay no longer candidate for head coach job.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 26 Jun. 1999, Sports: E6

Buzek earned rave reviews in at least one major test in the preseason.

Thrashers coach Curt Fraser began to get some idea what kind of talent was assembled at training camp Saturday — and his players never hit the ice.

About 60 players went through physicals and conditioning drills at the RDV Sportsplex, and Fraser seemed to take delight in watching otherwise well-conditioned athletes exhausting themselves during drills.

“These guys have been going to camps all their life,” Fraser said. “We wanted to do something different to kind of get their attention. When all this is over, I’ll be able to tell one through 65, who are the best athletes here.”

The 10 fitness tests ranged from the basic — sit-ups, push-ups, vertical leap — to the unique. The most difficult for most players was the “beep” test, in which they ran back and forth between cones set about 50 yards apart. The beeps set the pace and quickened with each stage. One by one, players, who wore heart-rate monitors, would wilt and drop out, leaving the heat winner.

Age did not determine conditioning. Kelly Buchberger, a favorite to be chosen team captain and one of the oldest in camp at 32, outlasted everybody else in his group, making it to level 13. “He also did 125 sit-ups,” Fraser said.

Bryan Adams, 22, a rookie from Michigan State, said he had not done the beep drill before, adding, “I thought it only went to level 10, since I really pushed. I thought it was over and then I hear (a programmed voice saying), ‘Level 10 1/2.’ ”

Other top testers included defenseman Petr Buzek (200 sit-ups) and forwards Per Svartvadet (15 stages in the beep test) and Johan Garpenlov (29 feet, 1 inch in the three-hop test)

Schultz, Jeff. “THRASHERS NOTEBOOK: Buchberger among the fittest.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 5 Sep. 1999, Sports: E13.

As training camp began, a new audience became familiar with Buzek’s story.

These can’t be the X-rays of a hockey player. So much metal, it has to be from some kind of mechanism. A small plane’s landing gear maybe. Or the insides of a riding mower. Surely not a professional athlete.

One by one, Thrashers team doctor Scott Gillogly holds the films up to the light and reveals a human hardware store. A long plate extending down the left thigh, with 10 screws fastened deep into bone. A couple more screws at odd angles holding together the right knee. Two others connecting the wrist bone to the arm bone. We do not even get to the fused big toe or the erector-set ankle.

They show Petr Buzek’s insides. Amazing snapshots, really, when you consider that he very well might have to lug all that metal through airport detectors from Calgary to Miami as a Thrashers defenseman. He has a fighting chance at making it back all the way to the NHL.

”I’m a bionic man,” Buzek — pronounced BOO-zehk — says with a small smile.

Such are the tokens of a careless moment on a winding road back in his native Czech Republic. A month before Buzek was to be taken high in the 1995 draft, he was driving too fast in the countryside near his hometown of Jihlava. ”I was 18 years old,” he said, ”I thought I owned the whole road.

”I think I fell asleep, didn’t make the turn, and I hit the tree. I go pretty fast — 75-80 mph. We don’t care about the speed limit much. They said I had been sitting in the car like two hours, they had to cut me out. I don’t remember much. I woke up three days later in a hospital. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t move. My left leg was sticking up. I was swollen up, stitches everywhere.”

Draft day is the highlight of most young players’ lives. Buzek remembers his differently. He had come to North America for more skilled medical help on his crushed legs, and appeared at the draft in a wheelchair. The Dallas Stars still thought enough of him to take him in the third round.

”I go down in a wheelchair and everybody was laughing. They’re saying, ‘Hey, that’s a good pick.’ I think I’m the first guy drafted in a wheelchair,” Buzek said.

Imagine being 18, in pain, coming to a foreign country for several rounds of surgery and rehabilitation. Buzek threw himself into all these tasks. He taught himself English so well that within two years he was helping the Stars as an interpreter. It was almost that long before he could attempt hockey. They kept finding broken parts. Five months after the crash, doctors discovered the broken wrist and went back in with their pins.

A year after the accident, Buzek was back on skates. ”The first time, it was hard just to lift my legs up,” he said. ”I wouldn’t say I was skating, it was more like walking.” He was further slowed when his knee was re-broken during a skating drill.

Initially, the doctors back home had told him that he’d never play hockey again, that he was lucky just to be breathing. The ones here were more confident in their work. By the 1996 season, he was playing with the Stars’ IHL team in Michigan. Both in ’97 and ’98, he was doing well enough to get a couple of brief call-ups to Dallas.

”He was punished a lot of times in terms of being pushed. He’s responsible for all of it; he pushed himself,” said Les Jackson, Thrashers assistant general manager and the assistant GM in Dallas during Buzek’s time there. ”He struggled a little bit, but last year he really came on.

”He’s really a tough kid. Even for a guy who has been through all those injuries and all those pins, he plays the game recklessly. He’s not afraid to get involved. He’s a smart player, really is good with the puck and knows how to play without it.”

Out from under the tyranny of too much talent in Dallas, Buzek could make the Thrashers roster at age 22. He says he feels all the hardware in him when the weather changes. Gillogly tells him that of all the injuries, it’s the knee, which already shows traces of arthritis, that bears the most watching.

”I was 4 years old when I started playing hockey. I play all my life. Then I have that car accident, and the doctor told me I was never going to play again. I was like ‘What! I cannot quit.’ That was like a motivation to get back and play hockey again. I guess it’s inside me.”

There’s all kinds of stuff inside him. And on the outside is one more reminder of the day he drove into a tree. A tattoo etched into his back shortly after the ’95 draft.

”It’s a small sun,” he said, “like the sun shining on my life after I almost died.”

Hummer, Steve. “Buzek full of metal — and courage.” The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution 10 Sep. 1999, Sports: D4.

Making History

Buzek made it through training camp and the preseason, and was on the team’s opening night roster.  In fact:

The Thrashers sent the following players out for the team’s first shift: Rhodes in goal, forwards Johan Garpenlov, Ferraro and Emerson, defensemen Darryl Shannon and Petr Buzek.

Chere, Rich. “Devils burn Atlanta.” Times, The (Trenton, NJ) 3 Oct. 1999, Sports: c1

And then in their second NHL game:

Defenseman Petr Buzek kept Atlanta from being shut out, blasting in a slap shot from the left side early in the third period. The goal briefly cut the Detroit lead to 3-1. Kelly Buchberger and Nelson Emerson got the assists on Buzek’s first NHL goal. Left wing Denny Lambert, a healthy scratch in the opener, played well, including a big hit on Chris Chelios in the first period.

Curtright, Guy. “THRASHERS GAME REPORT.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 8 Oct. 1999, Sports: D8

The goal was also the first goal scored in Thrashers team history by a  defenseman.

Buzek would add a power play goal in the team’s fifth game, then another one two games later.  In the meantime, he was racking up assists as well.  Eight games into the season, Buzek had three goals and four assists, good for second on the team in points while tying for the lead in goals.

The Next Setback

One of the realities of expansion teams is that they’re bound to have wild ups and downs during the season.  The team was 3-8-2 and playing in Montreal when Buzek went down with a concussion, which knocked him out of the lineup for a few days.

Petr Buzek has made significant progress since suffering a concussion Saturday against Montreal:

He now realizes he is 22 years old, not 21 as he answered that night.

He now realizes he played the night before in New Jersey and didn’t have the day off.

And he now realizes he was in Montreal.

But the fact that those nuggets had been knocked out of his cranium momentarily means the rookie defenseman will be out for a while.

Buzek is scheduled to be re-examined today. But doctors have told him he needs to sit out at least a week from the time he suffered the grade two concussion. He probably will miss not only tonight’s game against Tampa Bay at Philips Arena but home-and-home meetings with Buffalo on Friday and Saturday.

“I don’t want to say how many games I will miss until I talk to the doctors again,” Buzek said. “But I don’t want to come back too early and then take another hit.”

Buzek was checked from behind by Montreal’s Dainius Zubrus in the third period and smashed face-first into the glass. The defenseman had been leaning over to reach the puck and was unable to raise his hands during the check to protect his head. He suffered several facial cuts and required six stitches on his lower lip. He said he still feels “a little dizziness, a little headache.”

Buzek can’t recall all of the details of the play, although he was never knocked unconscious. “I just saw it on video — it doesn’t look very nice,” he said. “I remember being down, and I remember (trainer) Scotty (Green) putting a towel on my face. But when I was in the dressing room and they were asking me questions, I had no clue what had happened for the first 30 minutes. It’s scary stuff.”

Buzek, an expansion-draft pick from Dallas, also missed two games earlier this year with a respiratory infection. But he is second on the team with four goals, and coach Curt Fraser said, “he has been our best defenseman.”

Schultz, Jeff. “THRASHERS NOTEBOOK: Buzek’s head clearing slowly.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 17 Nov. 1999, Sports: D5

Buzek would, in fact, miss another two weeks, but would add two assists in his return to the lineup.

The come-from-ahead loss to the Dallas Stars didn’t sit well with any of the Thrashers. But it was especially grating to Petr Buzek.

After missing six games because of a concussion, the 22-year-old defenseman returned to the lineup against his old team and picked up assists on both Atlanta goals Sunday night.

“But we lost the game,” Buzek said after the 4-2 loss. “You always want to beat your old team. They never really gave me a chance to show what I could do.

“I really wanted to prove to them that they made a mistake and show that I could play in the NHL.”

Buzek, claimed by Atlanta in the expansion draft, had four goals and five assists in the Thrashers’ first 13 games. But he suffered a Grade 2 concussion and facial lacerations when he was slammed into the glass by Dainius Zubrus late in a game at Montreal on Nov. 13.

Buzek didn’t lose consciousness, but he has only partial memory of the play.

“I saw it on the video,” he said. “It didn’t look very nice. When they asked me questions in the dressing room, I had no clue. It was scary stuff.”

Buzek is used to overcoming injuries. A serious auto accident in his native Czech Republic when he was 18 almost ended his career before it started. In fact, he was drafted by the Stars while in a wheelchair.

But this was his first concussion.

After no activity for seven days, Buzek was allowed to ride a stationary bike. He couldn’t make it 5 minutes.

“I got headaches all the time,” he said. “It was very bad.”

But Buzek finally was cleared to play after pain-free skating sessions Friday and Saturday. The timing was perfect for Buzek, who admits he begged for the opportunity to play against the Stars.

“When we lost Buzek, it was a huge loss,” Thrashers coach Curt Fraser said. “We have to have him in the lineup. He gives us the grit and the offensive punch we need on defense.”

Buzek played nearly 23 minutes against Dallas.

Curtright, Guy. “Return tarnished – Buzek assists on two goals but still loses.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 29 Nov. 1999, Sports: G5

He would then miss a game with a partial shoulder dislocation before returning right back onto the first pairing.

The 2000 All-Star Game

As the world prepared for the calendars to change from 1999 to 2000, so too was the world of hockey preparing for the 50th NHL All-Star Game, to be played February 6, 2000 in Toronto.

And in mid-January, the roster announcements were made.

Last week, Petr Buzek was benched for two games. Wednesday, the rookie defenseman for the Atlanta Thrashers was named to the World team for the NHL All-Star Game.

“It’s unbelievable,” said the 22-year-old from the Czech Republic. “I’m still shaking. . . . It’s like a dream.”

When he takes the ice in Toronto on Feb. 6 as the Thrashers’ first All-Star, Buzek may well be the least-known player in the 50th anniversary game.

“It’s like (Jaromir) Jagr, (Paul) Kariya . . . those guys,” Buzek marveled. “And Petr Buzek. ‘Who’s Petr Buzek?’ ”

Buzek, who has four goals and nine assists, was one of the Thrashers’ top players through much of the first part of the season. But his play slipped, causing coach Curt Fraser to bench him for back-to-back games last week.

“I’m struggling a little bit now,” admitted Buzek, whose 13 points are second among rookie defensemen. “I’m hoping I can get back on track and play like I did early in the year.”

The reserves for the North American team won’t be announced until today, but they won’t include the Thrashers’ leading scorer, Andrew Brunette. With a career-high 16 goals and 33 points, the winger appeared to be the most-deserving Thrasher, but he faced stiffer all-star competition.

The NHL does not require that each team have a representative in the game. However, an attempt is made to do so.

“It’s the NHL’s intention to bring some young players into the game,” Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. “Buzek hasn’t been real good the last two weeks. But for the first 30 or 35 games, he was pretty darn good. With (an established team) he’d be even a better player.”

Curtright, Guy. “Buzek named to World All-Star team.” The Atlanta Journal -Constitution 13 Jan. 2000, Sports: E6

There are two crucial sentences above, one being the very first one and the other one in red.

Here’s why I don’t put much stock into that first part, the one about being a healthy scratch the week before: because that’s what first-year expansion teams do.  Most first-year teams follow a familiar pattern: assemble a weak roster, hire a fiery coach who’s convinced that he can win with a team barely above minor league caliber, and then preach patience and development but start making trades by mid-November.  One common thread is that the better players will usually be a healthy scratch at least once, not necessarily because their play dictates it but because the coach, convinced that he can win with a sadsack group, becomes obsessed with the idea of sending a message to underperforming players.  A common theme with a lot of these coaches is that poor play by a player isn’t regarded as the inevitable circumstance of putting a subpar player out there because he’s the best option out of a thin system, but a matter of heart and desire that’s lacking on the part of the player.

So the options are simple: if you have three underperforming defensemen on the roster at a time, do you scratch all of them and play with four defensemen in a game?  Or do you scratch a guy on the top pairing, hoping like hell that the lesser players will look in the mirror and go, “Whoa, if he’s willing to scratch that guy who hasn’t been bad at all, what’s that mean for me?  I need to start pulling my weight or I’ll be in the press box for good.”  Former Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower said that when he played, one of coach Punch Imlach’s favorite tactics was to tear into him after the first period even if the Leafs were being outshot 16-3 and Bower was standing on his head to keep the game scoreless; the idea was that the rest of the team would pick up their own effort.

Was Buzek’s play really that bad when he was a healthy scratch, or was it simply his turn to be the designated “message sender” on behalf of Curt Fraser?  Whatever is said in public or directly to the player, quite frankly, doesn’t matter.  A coach possessing his senses isn’t going to tell the player that he’s being scratched to send a message, meaning that there’s a small handful of people – all coaches – who know the motivation.

Notice that sentence right near the end in red: “The NHL does not require that each team have a representative in the game”.  It’s been said for years that Buzek was only selected because Atlanta had to have a player in the game, which undoubtedly would come as quite a shock and disappointment to both the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets; both entered the league just a year later and did not have a player in the All-Star Game that season.  Minnesota didn’t have one in 2001-02 either, and Columbus had one (Espen Knutsen) only go in as an injury replacement.

Anyway, the culmination of Buzek’s improbable comeback from near death in just five years was noted on the national stage as well.

Many thought it was possible that a rookie was going to be the expansion Atlanta Thrashers’ most indispensable player this season.

But the hockey world would have guessed it would be center Patrik Stefan, not defenseman Petr Buzek.

As much as the Thrashers know that Stefan, 19, is the key to their future, Buzek, 22, arguably has become their most crucial player. His surprisingly strong performance was honored Wednesday when he was named to play for the World team at the All-Star Game on Feb. 6 in Toronto.

”To get 23 or 24 minutes per night on an expansion team and be at minus 4 or minus 5 on a team that most guys are in double digits, you know he has been a bright spot for us,” Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said.

With four goals and nine assists, Buzek is among the top rookie defensemen in scoring. Buzek was plucked from the Dallas Stars in the expansion draft.

”We picked up some other good players, but at this point of the season he is no doubt the gem” of the expansion draft class, Waddell said.

Going into the season, Waddell wasn’t certain whether Buzek would even make the team.

”We had him penciled in to compete for the job,” he said. ”I can remember the first few days on the ice it was clear his mission wasn’t just to be on our team, but to be one of our go-to guys.”

Waddell said that even when Buzek makes mistakes, it’s from inexperience, not lack of effort.

”Nothing will get between him and what his mission is, whether it’s to move someone out of the front of the net or move the puck,” Waddell said.

Allen, Kevin. “Rookie Buzek surprise star for Thrashers.” USA TODAY 13 Jan. 2000, SPORTS: 14C

Naturally, this led to backlash in the form of the usual bitching about the All-Star Game that takes place…well, every single year.  Although I believe in presenting both sides of an argument to the greatest extent possible, I’m not doing so here for one simple reason: this happens every single year.  We get the usual blathering about “Here’s what the All-Star Game is REALLY supposed to be about!”, complaints about someone who may have been spurned and who shouldn’t be there, and some inane rambling yahoo going on at great lengths about the boogeymen American hockey fans and Gary Bettman.  It’s been this way for 25 years, and if you remove Bettman’s name it goes back another 50 years before that.

At the time that Buzek went down with the concussion against Montreal, he had 4 goals and 5 assists in the first 13 games while averaging around 21 minutes a night in ice time.  He struggled a bit after coming back, which is to be expected.

Buzek would also come to be looked at in hindsight as the harbinger of an even worse trend that old-timers complain about.

Rookie defenseman Petr Buzek, the Thrashers’ lone representative to the All-Star Game, also would rather be doing something else than working on his sticks.

That’s why he uses special composite sticks that come all in one piece and require almost no tinkering.

“I started using it three years ago because I was lazy and tired of changing blades all the time,” Buzek said. “I just tape it and go. I only need eight or 10 of these sticks in a season. Wood sticks always break. With wood, I would go through at least 20 sticks a month.

“The first time I tried (these new sticks), it was horrible,” Buzek said. “I had to get used to it. But I scored a couple of goals, so I liked it. Don’t change anything if you are going good. If you’re not, then try something else.”

Spoken like a true hockey handyman.

Curtright, Guy. “High-style sticking – Hockey players take tending to tools of trade seriously.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 30 Jan. 2000, Sports: G1

For Buzek though, there was still close to a month before the game would be played.  And in the meantime:

Petr Buzek said, “Even if I have only one leg, I’ll be in the All-Star Game.”

But the Thrashers’ rookie defenseman, the team’s lone representative in Toronto Feb. 6, will not suit up tonight when Atlanta plays host to the New York Rangers at Philips Arena. Buzek suffered a groin strain in the second period of Friday’s 3-3 tie with Florida. He was still feeling soreness the next day and the team will not rush his return.

“I started feeling it (Friday) at the morning skate,” Buzek said. “The ice (at Philips) is horrible and the weather is cold, so I guess something happened. As the game went on, it felt worse and worse. During the second period I went down to block a shot and I felt a click in my groin, and that was it. It was better to go in and get treatment than get seriously hurt and be out for a month.”

Schultz, Jeff. “THRASHERS NOTEBOOK: Groin strain to keep Buzek out of lineup.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 24 Jan. 2000, Sports: E5

Buzek would miss four games with that groin strain, then return to play against Dallas in the last game before the All-Star break.  Going into the break, Kevin Allen of the USA Today named him as one of three people to watch closely in hockey, referring to him as “often the Thrashers’ best player”.

Once in Toronto, Buzek was one of the media darlings as his story, previously relegated to a mere mention back in 1995 and largely forgotten in the rush to blast his All-Star selection, was now in front of the world.

TORONTO – The feel-good story of NHL All-Star weekend is Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Petr Buzek.

In 1995, projected as a top 10 pick in the NHL Entry Draft, Buzek was horribly injured in a car crash in his native Czech Republic. Driving alone, he lost control and went off a narrow road. His injuries included a shattered left knee, broken left hip, broken right ankle, broken right wrist and broken cheekbones.

He was barely alive, and doctors at first believed his left leg would have to be amputated.

“After the accident, I was basically fighting for my life,” said Buzek. “I couldn’t move. But I kept going, got a little better every week and now I’m here.”

Buzek managed to attend the 1995 draft sitting in a wheelchair. He was picked in the third round by Dallas, made it up for four NHL games last season and was picked by Atlanta in the expansion draft. He has 5-9-14 totals in 39 games, despite still feeling the effects of his injuries.

“When the weather changes, my knee swells up, I feel it big-time,” said Buzek. “I still have 21 screws in my leg. I don’t think they’ll ever come out. If they did, I’d probably fall apart.”

Buzek’s story amazes the other All-Star participants.

“When his accident first happens, I hear he’s not going to be able to play hockey again and he’ll be lucky to be able to lead a normal life,” said fellow Czech Martin Rucinsky of Montreal. “All of a sudden he’s playing in the All-Star Game. It’s unbelievable what he accomplished to be here.”

Harris, Stephen. “Hockey – NOTEBOOK – Buzek overcomes bad breaks.” Boston Herald (MA) 6 Feb. 2000, Sports: b19

He never quite drew the four- or five-deep hoard of notepads that circled Jaromir Jagr or the Canadian TV cameras that followed Mark Messier. But Petr Buzek did a nice, consistent business Saturday.

They walked up, Buzek told the story of his car accident, they left. Another wave came, leading to another story about the same accident. Occasionally, there would be new details. Sometimes he was changing a CD before he hit the tree. In most versions, he had just fallen asleep. Fortunately, in no version did he ever actually die.

“You have to change it up a little bit sometimes,” the Thrashers rookie, said smiling. “It would be boring if it was the same thing all the time.”

Nearly five years ago, he was in a wheelchair. Saturday, Buzek officially became the Thrashers’ first All-Star when he participated in the World team practice and mass interviews for today’s game at the Air Canada Centre. A red All-Star jersey with the No. 2 and Buzek’s name was hanging near an interview podium when he walked up.

“Hey look — Buzek,” he said in his heavy Czech accent. “Must be a good player.”

Buzek’s talent, however, had little to do with the constant flow of reporters to his area. The subject was the car crash in the Czech Republic on June 3, 1995, a month before the NHL draft, that nearly took his life; that nearly resulted in him having his right leg amputated, and that nearly ended his dream of playing in the NHL.

“Nearly” went 0-for-3.

He retold the tale so many times Saturday that it was suggested he have his X-rays hanging by his jersey.

“No, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said. “It wouldn’t be pretty.”

This is what they would show: 21 screws and two metal plates holding Buzek together. The box score: 10 screws and a plate in his left leg, seven screws and a plate in his right ankle, two screws in his right knee cap, two screws in his right wrist. That doesn’t take into account the facial fractures, the concussion, the broken left leg, the fused big toe, the busted nose, the cuts and the bruises that also came with smashing into “the big tree.” That’s how the accident story always ends. “I hit the big tree.”

It was late at night after a party. Buzek was driving home in Jihlava, a small town about 45 miles outside of Prague. A friend was with him. Buzek was speeding at about 80 mph on a windy road. Then came the CD change or the unscheduled nap. Can’t be sure. Concussion, you know.

The friend suffered a broken nose. Buzek was a mess. The car was a mess. He was unconscious in there for more than two hours while a crew worked to cut him out. Buzek woke up in the hospital — three days later. Seemingly every part of his body was in a cast, stitched, bruised or all of the above.

A month later, he went to the draft in Edmonton, where most had projected him to be a top-10 pick. Dallas took him 63rd. Not bad, considering he was in a wheelchair at the time.

Another series of operations followed. Dr. David Reid, Edmonton’s team physician, rebroke Buzek’s right knee — the bone wasn’t set properly by doctors in Czech. “I was healing, and then they say we want to break it again,” Buzek said. “But they said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be asleep.’ ”

It was another six months before Buzek made it back on skates. After a year out of uniform, Buzek played 67 games with the Stars’ top minor-league affiliate in Michigan (IHL). He had 10 points in 1996-97, 25 the following year. There were cameo appearances for three season in Dallas. But when it came time for the expansion draft, the Stars felt they couldn’t afford to protect Buzek and leave a top veteran defensemen available for the Thrashers. Assistant general manager Les Jackson, formerly of Dallas, advised GM Don Waddell to grab Buzek.

Which led to Saturday. Buzek was the Thrashers’ best player for the first two months of the season, then he started incurring some of the ups-and-downs associated with young players. Coach Curt Fraser even sat him for two games — ironically, just prior to him being named to the All-Star Game. There also have been some injuries — a concussion knocked him out for six games, a bruised shoulder for one, a strained groin for four, a virus for two.

But Saturday, he looked around the room and felt fine. He planned to get autographs later. “Here I am, in the same room with Jagr and (Pavel) Bure. It’s like a dream. The whole thing is unbelievable.”

His parents are back in Czech. They will visit Atlanta later this season but Buzek didn’t think they should come to Toronto.

“My father has never even been on an airplane,” he said. “Seeing all this would give him a heart attack.”

Schultz, Jeff. “Drive, determination fuel Buzek’s success.” The Atlanta Journal -Constitution 6 Feb. 2000, Sports: G9.

 

Not long after paramedics pulled Petr Buzek from his twisted automobile wreckage in 1995, he came straight to the point with the attending physician.

As the doctor was pondering how to deal with Buzek’s multiple fractures of the nose, ankle and cheekbones, plus a mangled kneecap, Buzek asked when he might play hockey again.

”He said, ‘Kid, you are going to be lucky to walk again,’ ” Buzek recalls. ”That was the first thing I heard.”

These days all Buzek will hear, if he is listening, is that he has probably been the Atlanta Thrashers’ most impressive player in their first NHL season. Given that the expansion draft traditionally yields primarily marginal players, Buzek’s ability to become the team’s top defenseman at 22 is like finding an ounce of gold in a pile of rocks.

His rise to become a NHL All-Star is even more remarkable, given the injuries he received when he crashed his small car into a tree in the Czech Republic. ”It was a very big-sized tree,” he says. Buzek doesn’t remember much about the accident, although his presumption is that he fell asleep at the wheel.

”I was 18 years old — that’s what happened,” he says.

To appreciate how horrific the nature of the crash, consider that it took two hours to extract him from the car. When he was first examined by physicians, amputation of his wrecked leg was considered.

”I was very lucky they didn’t cut it off,” Buzek says.

It wasn’t until he came to Canada that his medical outlook improved. Not pleased with how Buzek was healing, doctors re-broke his kneecap to position it better for long-term recovery. ”I said, ‘What?’ ” Buzek recalls. ”They said, ‘Don’t worry you will be asleep, and you need to do this to play hockey.’ ”

Despite his medical woes, the Dallas Stars drafted him in the third round, convinced he would recover. The Stars watched him develop in their system but had too much talent on defense to protect him.

Thrashers general manager Don Waddell believed Buzek had a chance to stick but didn’t foresee him being an impact player. ”But you could see early in training camp that he was going to do whatever he had to, not just to play, but to be one of our best players,” Waddell says.

Having survived that car crash, Buzek was probably happier than most to have his first major shot.

”The Stars had a great defense and I didn’t get a chance,” Buzek says. ”I just came here wanting to prove I was a good hockey player.”

Allen, Kevin. “Thrashers’ Buzek isn’t All-Star by accident.” USA TODAY 14 Feb. 2000, SPORTS: 14C.

As far as on-ice performances go, Petr Buzek probably shouldn’t be at the All-Star Game in Toronto on Sunday.

The Atlanta Thrashers’ rookie, who is going because the NHL wanted the expansion team to have at least one representative, doesn’t rank among the top 30 defensemen this season. If he were on the Stars, he’d probably not rank higher than fifth among the six regular defensemen.

But if you want to rank the NHL All-Stars on heart, Buzek should be a starter.

The former Stars prospect has come a long way in the past five years, fighting back from a 1995 car accident that left both his legs and one wrist broken. Buzek, 22, still carries with him screws in his ankle and wrist and a plate in one shin. He still feels pain when the humidity changes, when the weather turns cold, when he sleeps on his ankle wrong. Basically, all the time.

“He’s endured a lot,” said Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, who coached Buzek as an 18-year-old with the Michigan K-Wings. “I remember one time during a game he had metal sticking out of his skin. The guy played through quite a bit.”

And he has done it with a good attitude. Buzek quickly adapted to speaking English after coming over from the Czech Republic and helped former Stars goalie Roman Turek assimilate. While the language barrier stifled Turek’s outgoing personality at first, Buzek’s effervescence couldn’t be contained.

“He’s a great kid,” Hitchcock said. “I mean everyone liked Petr. You couldn’t help but like Petr.”

And yet, the affection for Buzek’s personality couldn’t cover the questions surrounding his ability to overcome the accident. While one of the K-Wings’ better defensemen last season, he was passed up for Brad Lukowich when it was time to call up defensive help for the playoffs. And while the Thrashers took Buzek in the expansion draft, even they had their doubts about his ability to perform at the NHL level this quickly.

“We had him penciled in to compete for a job,” Thrashers GM Don Waddell said. “I can remember the first few days on the ice, it was clear his mission wasn’t just to be on our team, but to be one of our go-to guys.”

Buzek has done that, averaging 23 minutes a game and posting a respectable minus-8 rating, best among Thrashers defensemen on a team that has given up the second most goals in the NHL.

“I really feel good, like I’m finally getting the chance,” he said. “The accident really changed who I was and how I played the game, but I always believed I could play if I got the chance. And here, finally, I’m getting the chance.”

So is he mad at the Stars for not creating an opportunity earlier, not trying harder to keep him?

“No, no, not at all,” he said. “These people, they drafted me when I was in a wheelchair, they paid my doctors bills, they worked with me and helped me get back into playing shape. I owe a lot to Dallas, I will always be thankful.”

In fact, Buzek said a part of him always will be a Star. Just a month after the car wreck in the Czech Republic, Buzek was determined to show teams he had the grit to overcome any obstacle. So he wheeled himself into the draft with legs in casts and promised to stay in North America and work until he was healthy. The Stars took him with the 63rd pick, and he said holding his Stars sweater that day was a dream come true.

Now, he’s ready for the next dream – wearing an All-Star sweater.

“Who would have ever thought?” Buzek said with a soft smile. “From wheelchair to All-Star, pretty good story, eh?”

Yes, Petr, pretty good story. And it’s only getting started.

Heika, Mike. “Breaks finally going right way for former Stars pick.” The Dallas Morning News 6 Feb. 2000, SPORTS DAY: 10B.

The problem is that the story wasn’t just getting started.  Although no one could have predicted it at the time, Buzek’s NHL story was closer to ending than beginning.

After Atlanta’s first season ended, Buzek got the call from the Czech Republic inviting him to play in the IIHF World Championships.  He accepted and played a big role in the Czechs’ surprising run to the gold medal, their third in five years.

Disaster Strikes (Again)

Early the next season, on October 11, 2000 in a game against Washington, Buzek was hit from behind into the boards by Steve Konowalchuk.  He played again on October 15, but what was initially reported as a neck strain or sprain* morphed into “concussion-like symptoms”.

*Quick note: despite the fact that the media usually uses them interchangeably, a sprain and a strain are not the same thing.  A strain is a muscle injury, specifically a partial tear, while a sprain is a partial tear to a ligament.  And while I’m at it, ligaments and tendons aren’t the same thing either; a ligament connects bone to bone, and a tendon connects muscle to bone.  And while I’m still on it, it annoys me when sports media (usually TV/radio) abbreviate a generally-located injury down to simply referring to that area.  If a guy has a knee injury, then say he has a knee injury; don’t say “so and so is out a couple weeks with a knee”.  Of course he’s got a knee; in fact he has two of them.  My personal favorite is saying that someone is questionable with “a hamstring”.  Unless one of those muscles has been used for ligament replacement, as could be the case with the semitendinosus, the average person has either six or eight hamstrings depending on your interpretation of the short head of the biceps femoris.

In the case of Buzek, it could have been either a sprain or strain.  Or it could have been neither, as it’s regrettably common for a concussed player to insist that he’s fine and that his issues around his head are just a neck injury.

For Buzek, days dragged into weeks, and weeks into months.  Finally in April:

You want to know about old-time hockey? Ask Curt Fraser about concussions, and you quickly will learn about old-time hockey.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” the Thrashers coach and 12-year NHL veteran said. “I’d wake up at 3 in the morning, and the room would be spinning. I’d grab the end of the bed. Then I’d get up in the morning and I’d feel OK. Right back in the lineup.”

Teams and medical staffs are more cautious today — partly because concussions are more prevalent and more serious. Ask Petr Buzek. After monitoring Buzek’s workouts and practices for the past five weeks, on Monday Fraser finally gave the go-ahead for Buzek to return from post-concussion syndrome.

Buzek will play in tonight’s home finale against the Ottawa Senators at Philips Arena. When he steps on the ice, it will be his fourth game of the season, his first since Oct. 15.

“It’s great news for me,” said the Czech defenseman, who made the All-Star team in his rookie season but has spent most of this year trying to avoid dizziness after exercise. “I’ve been working hard, and it’s starting to pay off for me. I feel like I can be a hockey player again.”

When he was hit from behind by Washington’s Steve Konowalchuk in the second game of the season, it was believed Buzek suffered only a sprained neck. Before the next game against Tampa Bay four days later, Fraser asked Buzek how he felt, and he responded, “I’m 100 percent.”

Turns out that wasn’t the complete truth. Buzek played awfully, and only then did he admit he was suffering from headaches, dizziness and nausea, symptoms typically associated with post-concussion syndrome. Buzek never was diagnosed with a concussion. But the fact he had two previously — last season against Montreal and in 1995 as the result of an car accident — may have played a role in his protracted recovery this season. Often this season, Buzek would ride an exercise bike or skate briefly but be forced to stop because of recurring symptoms when his heart rate increased. But he began improving significantly after visiting a Montreal concussion specialist, Dr. Karen Johnston, who laid out a program that slowly increased Buzek’s workouts.

Fraser and general manager Don Waddell have been cautious about Buzek playing this season, largely because of the player’s conditioning. Buzek understands the concern, saying, “If you’re not 100 percent and you’re going to play the fastest game on earth, you can get hurt pretty easily. They were scared that if I wasn’t fast enough, somebody would run me over again.

“My agent said it would be good if I wait and take the summer off, then come back. But this is more of a mental thing. I want to go home and know I can play a game.”

Schultz, Jeff. “Buzek cleared for home finale.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 3 Apr. 2001, Home; The Atlanta Constitution, Sports: D8

He would play the final two games of the 2000-01 season.  Just one year after his All-Star appearance, the young defenseman played just five games.  One was cut short by the injury, one was while playing with a concussion, and the last two were after a six-month layoff.  In the one game that he was healthy, he played 21 minutes and put eight shots on goal.

He was fully healthy for the beginning of the 2001-02 season, but suffered a groin strain early on and missed several games.  A bizarre situation then developed between him and Atlanta’s front office, leading to him being traded to Calgary.  Buzek played the remainder of 2001-02 with the Flames, then part of the 2002-03 season before suffering another concussion (his third in three years, not including the one that accompanied a skull fracture in the car accident) that cost him the last three months of the season.

As it turned out, that was the last game of his career: January 29, 2003.  And it was in the city against the team that gave him his first (positive) break: the Dallas Stars.  In that game, he had 0 goals, 0 assists, and just 2:39 of ice time before suffering the injury that ended his NHL career at age 25.  Calgary left him exposed in the 2003 waiver draft, where he went unclaimed.  He returned back home and played five games in the Czech League, then 53 games spread over the next two seasons before hanging up the skates for good.  He was 28 years old, but played a lot more hockey than any doctor could have ever expected him to considering what happened right before his pro career was about to start.

End Of The Line

In the years since, Buzek’s name has become something of a punchline every January, as people sit and reminisce about a time when the All-Star game was real.  To me, this misses the point entirely for a couple of reasons.

First, and not to start getting into too much of a discussion, we as a collective can’t even agree on exactly what the All-Star Game is supposed to be, let alone who it’s supposed to be about.  Is it supposed to be for the guys who are the league’s biggest stars?  What about the guys who are off to a torrid first half of the season and are playing like All-Stars?  A youngster on the way to becoming a big star?  An aging veteran given one last hurrah in the spotlight in front of a world audience before he heads off into retirement?

What I think we can agree on is that it’s generally not regarded as a serious contest, but rather as a spotlight and an exhibition.  There’s no checking, no board battles, no blocked shots, and none of the things that can be found in the majority of even the most listlessly-played NHL games.  To look at the All-Star Game as a beacon of purity and righteousness is so far removed from the point that it’s foolish.

Second, what are the exact attributes that we all seek and praise in a hockey player?  Heart, determination, grit…all of that.  The PHWA gives out a trophy every year (the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy) “to the the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey”.  We see players of all types either elevated for these qualities or torn down for lacking them.

Who exemplifies these qualities more than a player like Petr Buzek?  Nearly killed in a car accident that left him looking first at being lucky to survive, then lucky to not have his leg amputated, then lucky to be able to be patched together with rods, plates, and screws…and he finally broke through in the first year of an expansion franchise.

If Atlanta wasn’t absolutely putrid in its first few seasons, then what?  If Buzek didn’t suffer a severe concussion early in the very next season when hit from behind into the boards, does he become a top-level player and all of this a very foolish discussion?  If he doesn’t end his career concussed in Calgary just a couple years later, is he still remembered the way that he largely is today?

Sure, he had a fairly thin NHL resume to that point.  Then again, so did Mattias Ohlund in 1998-99 when he played in the All-Star Game; if Ohlund had suffered a career-ending injury early the next year, would he be blasted as “undeserved All-Star”, or would he be remembered more for what might have been?  Ohlund had the advantage of playing in Vancouver, which helped both from a hockey media standpoint and also from the standpoint that he had something resembling a surrounding cast.  Ohlund’s fellow defensemen in Vancouver were Adrian Aucoin, Bryan McCabe, Bret Hedican, Murray Baron, and Jason Strudwick.  Buzek had Yannick Tremblay, Darryl Shannon, Gord Murphy, Chris Tamer, and Maxim Galanov.

We can look to Mattias Norstrom in that same year, who was also an All-Star despite his 1 goal and 3 assists in 44 games.  He had a surrounding core of Rob Blake, Steve Duchesne, Garry Galley, Sean O’Donnell, and Philippe Boucher.  But Norstrom broke in with the Rangers and was talked about for years as a top prospect, and then went to Los Angeles as part of a huge trade that involved Jari Kurri, Ray Ferraro, and Marty McSorley.  To that point in his career, Norstrom had 251 NHL games under his belt and just 5 career goals.  If Norstrom went down with a career-ending injury, how would he be remembered?  He wouldn’t have become captain of the Kings for six seasons, he wouldn’t have had Rob Blake publicly praise him, and he wouldn’t have had the chance to develop further.

“But”, you may say, “Both of those players were injury replacements!”  Yes, yes they were.  Then again, so was Espen Knutsen, and he’s still all over these “most undeserving All-Stars”.  From my standpoint, it’s a bit dishonest to put one injury replacement on these lists without considering others.  Knutsen’s career in the NHL faded out pretty quickly due to circumstances beyond his control, just like Buzek’s.  Norstrom and Ohlund didn’t have that; they both played for another decade in the NHL and had the chance to build a greater resume than they had at the time they suited up in the All-Star game.

I don’t think for a moment that it shows any type of knowledge or nuance to bring up his name as nothing more than “shouldn’t have been an All-Star”.  Frankly, I think it shows the opposite.  I think it ignores the staggering odds that he overcame in the first place that it took to get back into hockey at all, let alone into the NHL, let alone into an effective role as one of the few bright lights on a putrid first-year team.  It ignores the fact that this man had absolutely no business even contemplating playing hockey again, and was back on the ice full-time just a year after the crash.  I think it ignores the fact that he’s been held to a much different standard than other players; we bemoan the fact that players like Pat Lafontaine and Eric Lindros suffered concussions that ended their careers, and that guys like Dennis Vaske suffered ones that effectively ended their careers, while no such concession is made for someone for whom a career-ending concussion would be only about the fifth-most significant injury that he’d suffered.

Ultimately, Buzek’s NHL career proved to be too short a season and he suffered the fate that seemed to be inevitable: his body betrayed him, too battered to continue playing.  His All-Star Game selection should be remembered for a time when this looked like nothing more than a remote possibility of some far-off future, for the time when a player who was drafted while sitting in a wheelchair made it all the way back to the highest level of his sport less than five years later.  That the amazing journey didn’t continue much beyond that isn’t the point.

His original list of injuries included, but is not limited to:

  • A broken right ankle that was put back together in a manner described as looking like an erector set (seven screws and a plate)
  • A broken left femur that was reassembled using either 10 or 20 screws, plus a plate and possibly a titanium rod
  • A broken right wrist that needed two additional screws to repair
  • A shattered patella that was initially repaired with screws, then had to be re-broken to fix the original repair and re-assembled with different screws
  • A broken left hip, which was repaired naturally without plates or screws
  • A hairline fracture to his skull, specifically the frontal bone
  • At least one broken cheekbone, possibly two
  • A big toe that required a fusion procedure to repair
  • A broken nose
  • A lingering malady described by one reporter as “pain when the humidity changes, when the weather turns cold, when he sleeps on his ankle wrong. Basically, all the time”, five years after the crash.

Find me an NHL player today that’s suffered even a quarter of that number of injuries, particularly to the extent that he did.  No, Buzek shouldn’t have been an All-Star, because he shouldn’t have even been in the NHL at all, or in the World Championships playing a big part of a gold-winning team, or in the IHL, or even on a frozen pond somewhere in the Czech Republic.  That’s exactly the report that he was given when he woke up in the hospital a few days after the car crash that nearly killed him and was told he would be lucky to keep both of his legs attached to his body.  He refused to accept that.

This helmet, a size medium Itech HC85 (balanced skillfully on a MagLite), was worn by Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Petr Buzek in the 2000 NHL All-Star Game.  If it stands as an artifact of something that should not have been, it’s only to the extent that someone who’d suffered those injuries should not have been able to make his way to the NHL at all.  And yet he did.  If anything, it stands as a monument to the very embodiment of exactly what we desire from our heroes: tenacity, perseverance, dedication, and a refusal to quit.  Not many of them endure what Ken Hitchcock said: “I remember one time during a game he had metal sticking out of his skin.”  Or, maybe more succinctly and as Buzek himself put it: “From wheelchair to All-Star, pretty good story, eh?”

That’s how he, and his career, should be remembered.

buzek-helmet1

buzek-helmet2

Advertisements