I figure on the occasion of Petr Sykora announcing his retirement today I’d take a break from lamenting the current state of the team to look back at happier times. While the Czech sniper who scored over 300 goals in the NHL seemed to be out of the league for good after not catching on with a team last season or this, he only officially announced his retirement from the game today. Perhaps Sykora’s most impressive stat is the fact he went to six Stanley Cup Finals in his fifteen-year career, and did it with three different teams – us three times, the Penguins twice and with the Ducks once.
It doesn’t seem like it was nearly two decades since Sykora burst onto the scene in the ’95-96 season as a first-round pick (18th overall) and actually put up 42 points in 63 games that season. However, he spent most of the following season getting further seasoning in Albany and only joined the Devils for good in the latter part of the ’97-98 season when both he and Czech-mate Patrik Elias became regulars in the Devil lineup. Soon after that with the arrival of big centerman Jason Arnott from Edmonton, the threesome formed the A-line – one of the most successful and revered lines in Devil history. On that line, Sykora had his three best seasons in terms of point total from 1999-2001 (getting 72, 68 and 81 points respectively) and also set a career high in goals with 35 in 2000-01. With individual success came team success as the Devils won a division title in ’98-99, the Stanley Cup in ’99-00 and the Prince of Wales trophy in ’00-01.
Somewhat memorably, Sykora cut an inspirational figure in Game 6 of the 2000 Finals when Derian Hatcher knocked him out of the game with a first-period cheap shot. Even though he wouldn’t be able to celebrate his first Stanley Cup on the ice with his teammates after Arnott’s OT winner, good buddy Elias made sure his presence wasn’t forgotten – bringing his jersey onto the ice and wearing it during the celebration (before coach Larry Robinson put it on himself). In many ways, the following season was Sykora’s best in the league, with 35 goals, 81 points and a +36 in the regular season as both he and the A-line were in top form. Although the Devils ultimately dissapointed in the Finals against the Avalanche, Sykora did all he could to try to secure a repeat with ten goals and twenty-two points in 25 playoff games – including the late, dramatic winner in Game 4 that briefly turned the series and is shown on the video above.
Of course things went downhill after that for both Sykora and the team in 2001-02, as he slumped to 48 points during a season where Arnott was traded, Robinson fired and Sykora himself contreversially sat out a crucial first-round game against the Hurricanes with a bruised foot in a series the Devils eventually went down to defeat in six games. Clearly that stain was a factor in the big offseason trade that summer which sent Sykora to the Ducks for forward Jeff Friesen and defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky. As if Hollywood was scripting it, next year’s Finals were the Cinderella Ducks going up against the Devils. Sykora did not have a big playoffs that year as the Ducks eventually lost to the Devils in Game 7 (with ironically Friesen being one of the big heroes of the Devils’ run), but he did score arguably the most memorable goal of his career in Game 1 of the Ducks’ second round series with the top-seeded Stars, sending everyone mercifully home with a goal in the fifth OT of a marathon that eventually helped propel the Ducks past Dallas in six games.
Sykora played another season and a half in Anaheim sandwiched around the lockout of 2004-05, before moving onto the Rangers for the latter half of the ’05-06 season. Ironically Sykora found himself against his former mates again in the playoffs, but despite some first-rate scoring chances he was held off the scoresheet in a four-game sweep by the Devils. After a season in Edmonton, Sykora went to Pittsburgh for two seasons and had a final top-shelf offensive season in 2007-08 with 63 points though he’d have to wait one more season before finally winning the Cup again and getting to celebrate on the ice this time as the Penguins beat Detroit in a memorable Game 7 in Hockeytown. It seemed as if Sykora’s NHL career was over after a forgettable 14-game stint in Minnesota during the 2009-10 season as the little Czech winger eventually went back home to play in the Czech league before a stint in the KHL.
However, Sykora eventually found a happy ending to his career where it all began – back in New Jersey as he parlayed a training camp invite into a roster spot, and for only the third time in his career managed to play all 82 regular season games (as well as 18 of the Devils’ 25 playoff games), putting up a very respectable 21 goals and 23 assists in a complementary role on a team that eventually would go all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Although he wasn’t an every-game player during the playoff run, the shot never deserted him even at the end, as goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov could attest to after Sykora scored on one of his classic wristshots in Game 1 of the Devils’ second round series against the Flyers. Perhaps the Devils could have used one more season from Sykora last year when they were busy running out the likes of Bobby Butler and Matt D’Agostini trying in vein to pump life into an offense that would finish 29th in the shortened season. Alas, it wasn’t to be and Sykora quietly retired today after only playing a handful of games in Switzerland last season.
At least he was able to finish his career in style with us two years ago, recapturing some of the good times with Devil fans. Sykora finished up with 323 goals, 398 assists and 721 points in 1017 regular-season games and 34-33-67 in 133 NHL playoff games, along with two Stanley Cup wins (’99-00 with us and ’08-09 with the Penguins).