Saturday, July 2, 2011

Versatile athlete could have had an NHL career, but stayed home because of his family

by Petr Polák

When Jiří Lála was 20 years old, he was in his second full season in the Czechoslovakian 1. liga, one of the top hockey leagues in the world at the time, and scored 40 points in 44 games. The next season, 1980-81, he broke the point-a-game barrier for the first time in the jersey of Dukla Jihlava, the Czechoslovakian army team where the best Czechoslovak athletes spent a mandatory two-year term in the army.

Because Jiří was a great hockey player, he earned a place on the roster of the club composed of the best young Czechoslovak players; the team that won the league championship 11 times between 1968 and 1985.

 Lála played right wing on a line with his good friend Jindřich Kokrment, and their playing styles complemented each other well. Lála scored 62 points (40+22) in 44 games to give him 1.4 points per game, the highest average of his career.

That year was a breakthrough season. 1980-81 was the first of 21 consecutive seasons in which he scored at least a point a game. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Lála’s name was called during the NHL Entry Draft.

He had to wait until the fourth round (76th, Québec) of the 1982 draft to be picked because of the world’s political situation. Czechoslovakia fell in the sphere of the Soviet Union’s influence and talented young athletes weren’t able to get approval to leave the country for prestigious contracts in the West. NHL clubs didn’t want to waste a draft pick on a player whose arrival was very uncertain.

But Lála would get lots of chances to play in the NHL and the scouts were really interested in bringing him over, but his road across the Atlantic Ocean never came because of the conditions of emigration from Czechoslovakia. The decision was less difficult to make it for young boys without family. But when the chance to leave Czechoslovakia finally came to Lála, he was already married and had a child.

Even in the mid 80s, when the Velvet Revolution and democracy were just around the corner, Lála couldn’t have known that the political regime would change in his home country soon.  If he left his country for the NHL, it was possible that he might never see his family again.

North America’s loss was a blessing to Czechoslovak hockey fans, who were dazzled for years by Lála’s amazing skills.

In 1989, the revolution in Czechoslovakia (and the whole Eastern Bloc) came true and a new chance for to play abroad came to Jiří, but he was already 30 years old and the NHL door stayed closed.

Lála took a chance in Germany and for eight years played top-level German hockey, first in the Bundesliga and later the DEL. He also tried the Ice Hockey Superleague in Great Britain and the Swiss Nationalliga A. The last years of his career he spent in lower-level leagues in Germany. All along he continued to average at least 1 point per game.

During his career he won lots of team and individual awards. He is a holder of one gold, two silver and one bronze medal from the World Championships, one silver from the Olympic Games (1984, Sarajevo) and the Czechoslovakian league title (1982 with Jihlava). Individually, he was named the best Bundesliga import player and IIHF Directorate Best Forward of the World Championships in 1983. Twice he claimed the Gustav Jaenecke Trophy as the leading scorer in the Bundesliga and three times the Fritz Poitsch Trophy for the league’s top goal scorer. As well, he played in the Bundesliga All-Star Game three times, among other accolades (see player profile at

Overall he scored 760 goals and 839 assists for an amazing total of 1599 points in 1165 games.

A multi-talented athlete who also played football for the Czechoslovakian Youth National Team, his career came to a close on August 23, 2002 in an exhibition game in Regensburg. Lála’s name would probably be more famous if he had played in the NHL, but he says that he doesn’t regret anything.

Currently, Jiří Lála is married for the second time and has two more children. He manages a commercial studio in České Budějovice and says that he’s not thinking about returning to hockey as a manager or coach right now.

That’s the story of Jiří Lála, whom Dominik Hašek once called: "One of the best forwards (he has) ever played against".

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