SKALICA, Slovakia – His biography is already quite packed, but last month Zigmund Palffy added yet another few chapters to it. The three-time NHL All-Star game player dominated the headlines in Slovakia when he stepped back on the ice in 2007. Fast forward to 2010, he still is keeping Slovak journalists busy.
Last season’s silver medalists HK 36 Skalica decided to part ways with successful coach Jan Faith. Ranked fourth in the Slovak Extraliga in December and being on a slide with just two wins from five games, the management felt it was time to act. Assistant coach Martin Pesout was promoted to function as interim-head coach, but under his command HK 36 Skalica found back its form and Pesout will lead the team for the remainder of the season.
The new head coach needed to fill the hole. Ambitious as he is, Pesout decided to ask his star player to become his assistant. Much to anyone’s surprise, “Ziga” immediately said yes, and with that opened up a new future career path for him. One behind the bench, as Palffy at the age of 37 also realizes his legs won’t last forever.
“We’re all very happy that he accepted the position,” General Manager Peter Srnec announced. “How he will execute his role as both player and coach will be defined by the new coaching staff.”
The new head coach has worked with Palffy on a daily basis and has already figured out how Palffy could be of value. “He will take care of our power plays. I know no one in Europe who is better with the man advantage. His experience will be beneficial to us.”
Skalica fans won’t have to be afraid to see less of Palffy on the ice. “My role won’t change much, I won’t be behind the bench a lot.” The fears are not unfounded. In his first season Palffy scored 75 points in just 46 games, in his second full season he shattered all Slovak league records with 99 points in just over 50 games and 27 more in the playoffs. Also this season, the former NHLer leads the league in points.
His scoring drift hasn’t gone unnoticed. After a four-year absence, national team coach Jan Filc lured Palffy to make a return in the dark blue jersey of Slovakia. He participated in an exhibition game against Switzerland and convinced Filc enough to be nominated for the Olympic team roster. In that game, Palffy, as throughout his career, managed to find the back of the net and with that moved up into sixth place of all-time goal scorers for the national team with 37 goals.
So what can be expected from the veteran in Vancouver? Sure, the legs are not fast anymore as a decade ago, but he still has a true sniper shot and a third eye to find open ice. Yet there is the question whether the speed and intensity of the game won’t be too much for him. In the Slovak Extraliga he’s got an unwritten protected rule where it’s hands off Ziga. It’s unlikely that for example the Canadian defencemen will give him the same treatment. Nevertheless he’s getting rave reviews from his team mates.
“He will be one of our best players at the Olympics,” Spartak Moscow forward Branko Radivojevic told Russian newspaper Sport-Express. “He can score but also his passing is excellent. His puck moving skills are incredible, a real treat for the eye.”
Palffy decided not to move to a higher calibre league in preparation for the Olympics and turned down several offers from abroad including the KHL. “I have enough experience to prepare for the tournament here in Skalica.” That comment is somewhat remarkable given earlier complaints about the quality level of the Extraliga.
Never tight-lipped nor afraid to take offence, Palffy on several occasions has blasted team mates for not being good enough and the Slovak young players to be unwilling to improve. “In 2003 we’ve won bronze during the World Championship after which two fairly successful seasons followed,” he remembers. “Since then nothing happened and we only went downhill. Our generation will have to take over and change things for the better of Slovak hockey,” said the veteran who has looked upon the decline with envy.
That generation definitely put Slovakia on the hockey map, climbing up from the D-pool to become world champions in 2002. Palffy admitted he decided to make a national team return after a plea from Jan Filc. The head coach offered this generation to make a final appearance at the highest level in Vancouver. The slick winger will most likely be paired with Jozef Stümpel with whom he created a good chemistry so far during his outings with the national team.
“For sure this will be my final appearance for the country,” Palffy reveals. “And not just mine. Several players of my generation will wave goodbye after the Olympics. It will be time for the youngsters to take over then.”
The ink of the news reports had hardly dried when he made the headlines again. Although just fitting in his new role as assistant coach, Palffy does not automatically mean he will be putting his skates to dust. “I expect to play two or three more years. I think that when I am in my 40s it is best not to play again.” But those last few seasons won’t be in the green jersey of HK 36 Skalica. “This will definitely be my last season in the Slovak Extraliga,” he said without mentioning where his future will be. For sure this will fuel speculations in the months after the Olympics and Palffy will once again dominate the headlines in the Slovak newspapers, just like the past three years.
It has become a second nature for Palffy. He has been going against the grain for the past two decades and sees no reason to change. “People often confuse self-confidence with arrogance,” he explained. “If I had always strictly followed the instructions of the coach, I would not have achieved what I did. My creativity has given me a career in the best league in the world. Some people like to slam players who have an own opinion, but they only make a fool of themselves.”
Not considered one of the medal contenders in Vancouver, the Slovak veterans will be trying to pull of an upset one more time for their country. The provisional roster contains 13 NHL players and seven players that won the World Championship in 2002. There is just a single player coming from the Slovak Extraliga. Once again Zigmund Palffy is the personification of the exception. Regardless of Slovakia’s fortune in Vancouver, his presence alone should provide enough sparkle. After all there’s never a dull moment when “Ziggy” is around.