Arguably the most important figure in Czech hockey, and undoubtedly one of the best players in his country’s history, Ivan Hlinka was a teenage hockey star, making his debut in the Czechoslovak league at the tender age of 16.
By 20 he was the captain of his Litvinov team and a member of the Czechoslovak national team, for whom he played 256 games with, scoring 132 goals. Hlinka won IIHF World Championship gold medals in 1972, 19, and was runner-up at the inaugural Canada Cup tournament in 1976, where he was named Top Forward. He also won a pair of Olympic medals, in 1972 (bronze) and 1976 (silver). Hlinka was captain of the national team from 1977-80
In his Czechoslovak league career he scored 347 goals in 544 games, and was named the league’s top player for the 1977-78 season. Following the 1980-81 season, Hlinka and fellow Czech Jiri Bubla joined the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, where, in 1982, the pair became the first Czech players to play in a Stanley Cup Final, losing in four straight to the New York Islanders. They also became the first Czech citizens to play in the NHL with the permission of the Czech authorities. To this day Hlinka co-holds the Canucks’ franchise record for points in a season by a rookie, with 60.
After two seasons in the NHL, Hlinka returned to Europe to finish his playing career, retiring following the 1984-85 season with EV Zug in Switzerland.
With his playing days over, Hlinka returned to Litvinov as head coach, where he actually made an on-ice comeback during the 1986-87 season with his team languishing at the bottom on the Czechoslovak league standings. He played 19 games and racked up 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists), impressive numbers for a 37-year-old who hadn’t played competitively in almost two years.
In the early 1990s Hlinka joined the Czechoslovak, and later Czech, national team as head coach, leading them to a bronze medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics, and bronze at the 19 IIHF World Championships.
After a three-year hiatus in the mid-90s, Hlinka returned to the national team in 1997 and became a national hero by leading the Czech Republic to a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first involving NHL players. He cemented his reputation in 1999 when his team took home gold from the 1999 IIHF World Championship.
After spending a year-and-a-half in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, leading them to a surprising berth in the Eastern Conference Final in 2001, Hlinka returned to the Czech Republic to spend one year as general manager of the national team and one as head coach of Avangard Omsk of the Russian Superleague. He was also inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2002.
Tragically, Hlinka died in a car accident on near Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic at the age of 54 when his car collided with a truck driving on the wrong side of the road.
In his memory, the Under-18 Junior World Cup – held annually in the Czech Republic and Slovakia since 1997 – was re-named the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka.
The eight-team tournament brings together national under-18 teams from around the world for a summer tournament. Unlike the IIHF World Under-18 Championship held every April, the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka is not an official IIHF event.