Like father, like son

Jacob Pivonka aims at gold for Team USA

21.02.2016
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Jacob Pivonka celebrates a goal in Team USA’s win against Russia. Photo: Fredrik Olastuen

LILLEHAMMER – Team USA forward Jacob Pivonka seeks revenge against Canada and wants to win gold at the Youth Olympics for the United States. 31 years after his father has become world champion – with Czechoslovakia.

No team has more offspring of international stars on its roster here than the United States’. Seven out of the 17 players on the team are sons of fathers who either played or coached in the NHL and the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship: Jack Deboer (son of Peter), Jonathan Gruden (John), Christian Krygier (Todd), Jacob Pivonka (Michal), Adam Samuelsson (Ulf), Mattias Samuelsson (Kjell) and Ryan Savage (Brian).

The father of three players represented their native countries from Europe back in their days. One of the more dramatic stories is the one behind the Pivonka family.

Michal Pivonka defected in July 1986 from Czechoslovakia, at that time still locked behind the Iron Curtain. When he was 20 he allegedly left for vacation to Yugoslavia with Renata, who would later become his wife, but that was not the real reason.

After the bus trip to Yugoslavia they took a ferry to Italy where he went to the U.S. embassy in Rome to make his dream of playing in the NHL come true and follow other players who have left for the NHL before. Most young players had no other choice than leaving illegally if they wanted to make money as hockey players while some older players were allowed to go to the NHL legally as a reward.

He remained faithful to the Washington Capitals, who had secretly offered him a five-year contract and spent all his NHL career spanning 13 seasons in Washington. It was a good deal for Washington. They had two years earlier drafted the player, who in his best season had 81 points, in the third round.

Before defecting he was playing for his hometown team Poldi Kladno, where a few years later a certain Jaromir Jagr would have his debut at a professional level, and later for army team Dukla Jihlava in the Czechoslovak league. He won World Championship gold in 1985 contributing nine goals and 13 points. After defecting he only represented his country in one major tournament, the 1991 Canada Cup.

“He’s obviously my biggest role model. Growing up I just wanted to be like him. That would be amazing. He’s been my biggest supporter and role model for my entire live ever since I started hockey,” said Jacob Pivonka.

31 years later it’s the son who could win a gold medal in an international event at the 2016 Youth Olympic Winter Games for the United States.

Jacob Pivonka didn’t experience his father’s adventurous trip to the states. He was born in 2000 in Olathe, Kansas, when his father added a one last pro season after his NHL career with the IHL’s Kansas City Blades but is living in Woodridge near Chicago where he’s playing for the Chicago Mission U16 team. In 22 games Pivonka, who will turn 16 next Sunday, has contributed 10 goals and 22 points to lead his team in scoring.

“I go to a hockey school, the Bridgedale Academy. We skate in the morning and then we have school the rest of the day. That helps me a lot working on my skills in the morning and getting to use it here in Lillehammer,” Pivonka said about his daily routine while enjoying his time at the festival of winter sports in Norway.

“I like it in Lillehammer, there’s nothing like that. The atmosphere is just amazing, everybody is cheering on you.”

Although Pivonka speaks Czech and has Czech parents, going to the native country of his parents for hockey hasn’t been an option to him. His home is the United States and he will stick playing in North America and for Team USA whenever he can.

“I really hope to play college hockey and go from there to the NHL. My favourite NHL team would be the Blackhawks. Since I moved to Chicago it kind of has to be,” said Pivonka, who committed to the University of Notre Dame in the state of Indiana where he’ll play NCAA hockey for the Fighting Irish as of 2018, the same year he’s eligible to be drafted by an NHL team.

In the probably biggest game of his young career he will face Team Canada in the gold medal game of the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games’ men’s ice hockey tournament.

In the preliminary round the Canadians won the rivalry 4-2 but Team USA has been in good shape since beating Russia 4-2 in the last preliminary-round game and 3-0 in the semi-final with Pivonka scoring the game-winner on both occasions.

“It’s the biggest rivalry in history I guess, right? USA vs. Canada. It’s definitely going to be something special, I’m looking forward to it,” Pivonka says.

The game starts at 15:00 local time (9am ET) and will be streamed live here.

MARTIN MERK

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