In the 43-year history of the Capitals, the team has had a number of talented, playmaking forwards. While current first-line center Nicklas Backstrom is the team’s all-time assists leader, the record was formerly held by one of the other great offensive players to ever don a Caps sweater, Michal Pivonka. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a look back at his career with the Capitals.
Michal Pivonka was born in Kladno, Czech Republic on January 28, 1966, back when it was still Czechoslovakia and under Communist rule. He was the son of a track-and-field coach and had established himself as a competitive javelin thrower, but his on-ice skills eventually landed him on the Czechoslovakian hockey fast track.
He was a standout for his country in international competition and was on the Czechoslovakian Under-18 team in 1982-83, for whom he scored four goals and added five assists in five games in the European Under-18 Championships.
In 1983-1984, he played on both the European Under-18 Championship and the World Junior Under-20 Championships. in which he scored three goals and four assists in five games played for the former, and one goal and two assists in seven games for the latter. His team earned the Bronze medal for the World Junior Under-20 Championships that year.
In 1984-1985, he scored nine goals and had four assists in seven games in the World Junior Under-20 Championships. He was tied for fifth in overall points and was named one of the best forwards of the tournament in the Media All-Star Team voting. He helped the Czechoslovakians earn the Silver Medal that year, and also earned the IIHC Directorate Award as the Most Valuable Forward.
In 1985-1986, he scored five goals and added five assists in seven games in the World Junior Under-20 Championships. This time, he was tied for eighth in points and once again, was named one of the best forwards in the tournament in the Media All Star Team. Unfortunately, his country did not qualify for the medal that year, finishing fourth. They tied the United States in points but lost in tie breakers. Pivonka was named to the tournament All-Star team, the only non-Canadian and non-Soviet selected.
His international performance earned the attention of scouts from the NHL. The Washington Capitals drafted him in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft in 1984 (59th overall). After drafting Pivonka, then-Caps General Manager, David Poile, enlisted the help of Jiri Crha, a former Czechoslovakian goaltender who had defected to the Toronto Maple Leafs and who was also Pivonka’s agent.
Pivonka was interested in playing in the NHL, but insisted on finishing his required military service before coming over to America. At the time of the 1986 World Junior Championships, Pivonka was planning his defection, while staying in touch with Capitals officials through Crha. He ended up boarding a bus to Yugoslavia with his then-girlfriend, Renata Nekvindova and arrived at Terst, a resort town not far from Italy. There they met with Poile and Capitals scout Jack Button at a hotel. A Czech expat escorted Pivonka and Renata through a wooded area that turned from Yugoslavia into Italy and they eventually rendezvoused with Poile and Button. After checking into an Italian hotel, Pivonka and Renata called their parents and told them they were not returning home. The Capitals worked to get Pivonka and Renata the paperwork to come to America. In the meantime, Poile and Button sent them to a beach resort and on a tour of Rome. The idea was to keep them moving until they were cleared to immigrate to America on the theory that they would be captured more easily if stationary than on the move. It was also more complicated for Pivonka to come to America with Renata since they were not yet married. Eventually, they flew to America and spent the first few weeks in America living with Poile at his house.
Pivonka joined the Capitals for the start of the 1986-1987 season. He filled an important void in the lineup, given that center Bengt Gustafsson had retired. He centered a line that consisted of wingers Bobby Gould and Gatean Duchesne. Pivonka impressed the team with his strong skating, excellent passing, and willingness to play physical. Playing 73 games his rookie year, he scored 18 goals and added 25 assists for 43 points. He got off to a hot start, during which he tallied seven goals and eight assists in his first 15 games but then slumped. He notched just three goals between November 1 and December 22.
As a result of his struggles, he was moved from center to wing to lessen the pressure on him. In the playoffs, he scored one goal and had one assist in seven games played. His second year, 1987-1988, was tougher, as he had only 11 goals and 23 assists in 71 games played. He rebounded in the playoffs with four goals and nine assists in 14 games played. Once again, he suffered a poor start to the 1988-1989 season, scoring just five goals in his first 47 games; as a result, the Capitals assigned him to their AHL affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks. He played 31 games for the Skipjacks before returning to the Caps to finish out the season.
He then hit his stride during the 1989-1990 season, during which he scored 25 goals and added 39 assists for 64 points. During that time, he scored 10 goals in a 17-game stretch, but only five goals in the last 20 regular season games. This was the year the Caps advanced to the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before falling to the Boston Bruins. During the playoffs, he missed four playoff games due to kidney stones and ended up registering just two assists in 11 playoff games. In each of his next three seasons with the Capitals, he topped 20 goals and 50 assists; in 1990-1991, he had 20 goals and 50 assists; in 1991-1992, he had 23 goals and 57 assists; and in 1992-1993, he had 21 goals and 53 assists. 1990-1991 was also the year that Slovakian winger Peter Bondra, joined the Capitals. Bondra and Pivonka had great chemistry on the ice together and were a very productive combination.
Pivonka remained with the Caps through the 1998-1999 season. Many of his later years with the team were plagued by injury. In 1996-1997, he suffered a knee injury In October 1996 and missed over a month. He missed over half the 1997-1998 with a wrist injury that he sustained against the Pittsburgh Penguins in November 1997. He missed much of the 1998-1999 season due to a groin injury. At the end of his career with the team, he had played in a total of 825 games, scoring 181 goals and and adding 418 assists for 599 points. His total of 418 assists was a team record which stood until he was passed by Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Currently, Pivonka stands third on the Caps’ All-Time List for assists.
His NHL career contained two interruptions: One came during the NHL Lockout of 1994-1995, which followed a season in which the players played without a Collective Bargaining Agreement. During the lockout, Pivonka played seven games with Klagenfurter in the Austrian League, for whom he scored two goals and four assists. His other interruption was during the 1996-1997 season, when he played with the Detroit Vipers in the International Hockey League (IHL) while engaged in a contract dispute with the Caps.
When his career with the Caps was over, he played a season, 1999-2000, with the Kansas City Blades in the IHL and retired after that. One of his post-retirement activities was helping in player development for the Hockey Simulation Lab, Bridgedale Academy, CCM Selects and the CCM Summer Skills Camp. He ended up retiring in Sarasota, Florida since two of his children played tennis there. but ended moving to Chicago so that his youngest child, Jake, could play in more competitive hockey programs. Jake was selected for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and has represented the USA internationally.
Check out some of NoVa Caps’ other Capitals Alumni Profiles:
Capitals Alumni Profile: Gaétan Duchesne
Capitals Alumni Profile – Brendan Witt
Washington Capitals Alumni Profile – Alan Hangsleben
Capitals Alumni Profile: Mike Green
Capitals Alumni Profile: Rick Green
by Diane Doyle