The National Hockey League is the premier hockey league of the world. A height that almost all hockey players strive to reach, with the hope of playing at least one NHL game. The Polska Hokej Liga is far far away from the NHL. They are at two opposite ends of the hockey spectrum. Only three players have appeared in Poland and then made it to the NHL. For them, it is an honor and a massive sign of their career reaching a possible peak. On the opposite end, there are quite a few more players that soaked in the NHL life before having to ride the bus across Poland in the twilight of their career. Today we take a look at the NHL players who played in Poland.
Mariusz Czerkawski and Krzysztof Oliwa
The Polish prince Mariusz Czerkawski was the first ever to have the honor of playing in both leagues. As a junior, he played with GKS Tychy in the PHL. His junior career in Poland included a 24 game 40 point season that resulted in the Boston Bruins drafting him in the fifth round of the 1991 NHL entry draft. He would spend the next three years in Sweden before making the jump to North America at the end of 1994, making an immediate impact by posting three points in the first four games. The playmaking winger then added six more points in thirteen playoff games. Czerkawski would play 787 NHL games recording 223 goals and 227 assists for the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, and Toronto Maples Leafs. After leaving the NHL, he would spend two years in Switzerland’s National League with the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers. The Polish prince would play one last game in Poland for GKS Tychy during the 2008 season before retiring. Since then, he has served as a team manager for the Polish national team while also working as a TVP Sports commentator.
In 1990 Poland had their only two NHL players, both playing in the PHL. Both Oliwa and Czerkawski suited up in that year. After Czerkawski left for the NHL, Krzysztof Oliwa filled the NHL prospect sized whole in the GKS Tychy lineup. The 6’5 physical forward left Poland the following year to play for the Welland Cougars in Canada. His performance got him quite a bit of attention, and he was drafted in the third round of the 1993 draft by the New Jersey Devils. Following the draft, he would jump straight to the professional ranks. Oliwa would fight his way around the minors until 1996 when he made his NHL debut. He became a full-time NHL player the following year. He would win a Stanley Cup in 2000 with the Devils, being the only Polish player to win a cup. During the 2005 NHL lockout, Oliwa returned to Poland, playing in two playoff games for Nowy Targ. He returned to the Devils following the lockout, playing three games before being sent down to the minors, where he chose not to report and retired instead. In total, the Polish Hammer played in 442 NHL games, recording 19 goals, 28 assists, 1,494 penalty minutes, and 180 fights. Since retiring, he has coached both in Poland and junior hockey in the United States.
Tomáš Jelínek was a pretty distinguished player in the Czech Republic. He played most of his career in the Tipsport Extraliga and made sporadic appearances for the Czechoslovakia national team. In 1991, he went to Finland and recorded above a point per game season, later heading to Switzerland’s second league playoffs to double his game total in points for HC Sierre. This got him noticed by the Ottawa Senators, who would draft him in the 11th round of the 1992 draft. The Czech winger would head right over and appear in 49 games, putting up thirteen points (7G-6A-13PTS) as a 30-year-old NHL rookie. He would return to the Senator’s system the following year, playing for their AHL affiliate in a couple of games but return to Europe shortly afterward. After a couple more years in the Czech Republic, he found himself on the SMS I Warszawa roster for a pre-season tournament. His only hockey action in Poland. Following the tournament, he played in the Czech third league for what would be his final season. He was the first to go all the way from the NHL’s bright lights to Poland. Since retiring, he has worked behind the scenes, including as a scout for the Calgary Flames.
Tomáš Jelínek’s Upper Deck card from his lone NHL in 1992-1993
SMS I Warszawa was just looking for all the big-name talent they could get for a preseason tournament in the late 1990s, and in net was Milan Hnilička. Hnilička was already a solid starting goalie in the Czech Republic at 17 years-old. This led to the New York Islanders taking him in the fourth round of the 1991 NHL draft. The young goalie went over to America for a couple of years in the Western Hockey League and minors but would return to the Czech Republic in 1996. Once again, he established himself as one of the best goalies in the league. The Litomerice native led the league for save percentage in 1998, the same year he won an Olympic gold medal. His success made the NHL come calling, and in 1999 he signed with the New York Rangers. Before he could do that, he had to do something more meaningful. Play a PHL pre-season qualification tournament for SMS I Warszawa. Cracovia Krakow qualified over them. Despite his failure to help Warszawa advance, the New York Rangers still brought him to the big leagues. His success came with him as he won a Calder Cup for their AHL franchise in year one. Hnilička would play 121 NHL games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Los Angeles Kings, and New York Rangers. He would return to dominating the Czech League in 2004 and did so until he retired in 2010. His trophy case was pretty full with one Olympic gold, three World Championship golds, one world silver, one Olympic bronze, and three world bronze medals at the end of his career. He also won champions in the AHL, Russia, and the Western Hockey League. He has worked behind the hockey scenes as the general manager for various Czech national teams after retiring.
It wouldn’t be till four years later when the next former NHLer appeared. This happened when Podhale added Jason Lafrenière for a short cup of kawa plujka. Lafrenière was a second-round draft pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1985. A standout in the Ontario Hockey League, he had made the NHL jump after one more season the juniors. He recorded 29 points in 40 points. Despite strong offensive production, he would mostly spend a lot of time in the International Hockey League. After 1994, Lafrenière would start to become a journeyman player with multiple stops in Germany and the United Kingdom. He had one-offs or even just a couple of games in Austria, Central Hockey League, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and the West Coast Hockey League. That would lead to him signing in Poland with Podhale Nowy Targ for the 2004 season. He would play two games, recording one assist and one penalty, then promptly retire.
Lafrenière would be the last time a former NHL player would step foot in the PHL until Czerkawski and Oliwa came to play their final PHL games before retiring. It is a weird group of former NHL players compared to the next decade. Two of them are the most influential and prominent players in Polish hockey history. While the other three combined for at most eight games. The next five years would bring more former NHL players into Poland, some fresh out of the NHL even.