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Zdeno Cíger: The Sports Star

When travel restrictions on citizens of the former Czechoslovakia were lifted following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, few were quicker to take advantage than Slovak hockey talent Zdeno Cíger.
Cíger signed on with the NHL's New Jersey Devils in 1990, beginning a five-year NHL career that took him from New Jersey (1990 - 1992) to the Edmonton Oilers (1992-1995) - and then home again.
Despite apparently bright prospects in North America, Cíger spurned the NHL after the 1995 season to return to his native Slovakia and play for the Bratislava Slovan squad. His decision raised many an eyebrow in Slovak hockey circles at the time, but was deeply respected by the country's proud and hockey-mad sports fans.


photo:Spectator archives

When travel restrictions on citizens of the former Czechoslovakia were lifted following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, few were quicker to take advantage than Slovak hockey talent Zdeno Cíger.

Cíger signed on with the NHL's New Jersey Devils in 1990, beginning a five-year NHL career that took him from New Jersey (1990 - 1992) to the Edmonton Oilers (1992-1995) - and then home again.

Despite apparently bright prospects in North America, Cíger spurned the NHL after the 1995 season to return to his native Slovakia and play for the Bratislava Slovan squad. His decision raised many an eyebrow in Slovak hockey circles at the time, but was deeply respected by the country's proud and hockey-mad sports fans.

"Maybe I'm a little different from other Slovak hockey players, but my dream was always to stay home," Cíger said while taking a break from Slovan practice at Bratislava's Zimný Štadion on November 10. "I like it here in Slovakia. I'm surrounded by a lot of good people."

Slovakia is hockey country - and with its struggling economy and polarizing politics, the importance of hockey as a unifier, a diversion from everyday struggles, and a source of national pride cannot be understated.

"Hockey is very important for Slovakia," said Ľubomír Lenár, the Slovan coach. "When a player like Cíger comes back to Slovakia, it's beautiful, it makes the whole country very proud."

Lenár said that when Slovakia excels at international hockey, the whole country feels the excitement. The national hockey team is in first place in the European Hockey League with three wins and one loss, he said, thanks largely to Cíger. Slovakia also recently defeated Canada in two 'friendlies' by a combined score of seven to three.

Despite his role in the national squad's recent successes, however, Cíger said that he is disappointed with the level of hockey in Slovakia. "When I came back from the NHL, I expected that hockey would really improve in Slovakia," he said. "But the situation has stayed at the same level."

To improve Slovak hockey, Cíger said, the country's tempestuous politics and lagging economy has to be improved. Young and talented players also have to be convinced to stay home rather than seek contracts abroad - a difficult task given the powerful appeal of the NHL and its multimillion dollar salaries.

"I still have the option to play in the NHL, and sometimes people tell me I'm stupid for not going back," he continued. "But I want to show them that they should stay home and play for Slovakia. Of course, I understand the guys who go to the NHL when they have the chance, because they don't make much money here. But I need other things from life, like being with people I know and am comfortable with."

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