Reaching the National Hockey League is the peak of many players’ careers, while the PHL is usually at the end of their long journey for most top imports. In the late 1990s, the eleven round draft saw many teams taking plenty of chances on European talent late. Quite a few teams took chances on older European talent, like Tomáš Jelínek, who performed well in top European leagues. There were also many junior players selected, but European scouting was still very raw for most teams. The poor scouting resulted in many players going to North America for a single year before returning to Europe. The amount of failed picks resulted in plenty of European NHL draft picks playing in smaller leagues across Europe, quite a few of them playing in Poland.
It had been six years after the last former non-Polish NHL player set foot in Poland. The next player would be one of the most impactful as Roman Šimíček came for one of the longest PHL careers among former players to reach the hockey world’s peak. Šimíček established himself as one of the top power forwards in the Czech Republic before signing in the Liiga. After two successful years in the Liiga, he was drafted in the 9th round of the 2000 draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins at 29-years-old. He would debut for the Penguins straight away in the 2001 NHL season. He would get traded to the Minnesota Wild, for Steve McKenna, halfway through the year. He would spend the next year with the Wild and their AHL affiliate. In total, he played 63 NHL games, recording seven goals and ten assists.
In 2002, he returned to Europe, mainly playing in the Czech Republic, until 2010, when he signed with GKS Tychy. He would play with GKS Tychy until 2013, winning bronze and silver. He played in 117 PHL games, scoring 44 goals and 69 assists. His 117 games are the second most among former NHL players in Poland. In his final season with Tychy, he served as a player-coach. A role he has continued working in, as he has been a head and assistant coach across the Czech Republica and Slovakia. He currently serves as the sports manager for HC Vitkovice.
Roman Šimíček’s rookie card for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
One of Šimíček’s teammates with the Wild in 2001 would join him in signing in the PHL. Peter Bartoš was one of the top Slovakian forwards in hockey early in his career. He would move to the Czech Republic to advance his career. After succeeding in Czechia, he was selected in the 7th round of the 2000 NHL draft by the Minnesota Wild. He would make his NHL debut as a 27-year-old. His NHL stint was pretty brief as he mainly played in the AHL but did record two goals and four assists in thirteen NHL games.
He left the Wild after one year, returning to the Czech Republic for the next four years. After another stint in Czechia, he played the next six years in Slovakia with HC Kosice. During the 2012 season, he signed with KH Sanok for one year, recording 52 points in 47 games. He returned to HC Kosice for another four years in the top Slovak league before settling into the Slovak third league. In 2018, he would return to Sanok, who was now playing in Slovakia’s third league. Bartoš retired in 2020, playing in over 1,000 Tipsport Liga games and winning five championships. He currently works as an assistant coach and has since 2017.
In 2012-13 the NHL was in the third lockout of the past 20 years. With half of the season gone, plenty of players took a chance to get a decent payday and training in Europe, mostly in the KHL, NL, and SHL. Some players took smaller opportunities, while Wojtek Wolski returned to his first home. Wolski was born in Zabrze, Poland, but his family moved abroad when he was two. He was a standout in junior hockey, leading to a successful OHL career. In the 2004 NHL draft, the Colorado Avalanche drafted him with the 24th overall pick.
At the end of his OHL season in 2006, he immediately jumped to the NHL with the Avalanche. The 6’3 winger started his career off blazing, posting above 40 points in his first four seasons. The Avalanche would trade him to the Coyotes 2010, for Kevin Porter and Peter Mueller. Despite a point-per-game start with the Yotes, concussions would start to derail his NHL career. After disappointing production, Wolski found himself traded to the Rangers, for Michal Rozsival. The Rangers chose not to re-sign him, and then later signed for the minimum with the Capitals in free agency. During the 2012 lockout, Wolski signed with KH Sanok scoring three goals and seven assists in nine games. He returned to the Capitals after the lockout ended. In total, he put up 107 goals and 177 assists in 480 NHL games, making him one of the most accomplished NHL players to appear in Poland.
He would spend the next six and a half years in the KHL. His KHL career almost matching his NHL career in length. This includes being out eight months after suffering a broken neck during a KHL game. Wolski would battle back and represent Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Halfway through the 2020 season, he would sign with HC Ocelari Trinec in Czechia, where he teamed up with Polish national team star Aron Chmielewski. The 34-year-old winger has yet to sign anywhere for the 2021 season. The talented Wolski is currently on the Canadian figure skating competition show Battle of the Blades. He has also continued a relationship with Polish hockey as a trainer and special guest at the World Championships and other events.
This last one doesn’t count, but I am going to mention it. Zane Kalemba was a talented goalie at Princeton. During his senior season, his save percentage drop below .900. His first professional year would be spent playing for six clubs across the AHL, CHL, and ECHL, trying to find a fit. The New Jersey native would settle as the starting goalie for the Bloomington Blaze in the CHL. The following year, he jumped to Poland, serving as the starter for GKS Katowice in 2013. His .919 SV% was tied for second among all PHL goalies. He would spend the next three years starting in various leagues, including a final year in the EIHL with the Manchester Storm. He would make one comeback serving as an emergency backup goalie for the Winnipeg Jets on March 8th, 2018. He has quickly worked his way off the ice in the hockey world and currently serves as the Direction of Hockey Operations for Princeton University.
This group of players was one who made more of an impact on Polish hockey. Two of them played for more than one year in Poland. At the same time, Wolski is one of the best players to be born in Poland. Every single player here single handily played more games than the imports in part 1. The next group of former NHL players coming in would leave an impact and come with a fair bit of controversy.