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Thursday, October 5, 2000
Buzek's NHL success no accident




When he finally did awake, days following a car accident in 1995, Thrashers defenseman Petr Buzek wasn't quite certain whether or not he had gone to a better place.

"I remember seeing all these guys in white coats," he says, four-and-a-half years later. "I wondered 'Are they doctors? Am I in a hospital?' Or 'Did I die? Am I in paradise?'"

Petr Buzek
Buzek, right, has been steady for the shaky expansion Thrashers.

Paradise, he knew all too soon, could never be a party to such pain. An ankle was shattered. A knee broken. A hip broken. Many bones in his face were broken. His left lung had collapsed.

He underwent multiple surgeries. Couldn't walk for six months, spending two of those in a wheelchair.

"This guy," says Atlanta Thrashers coach Curt Fraser, "has more screws and plates holding him together than Frankenstein."

On that fateful night in June of '95, Buzek had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car driving home to Jihala, Czech Republic, and smashed into a tree.

"The people that found me and saved me told me they didn't know I could've survived," he said. "The doctors talked about cutting off my leg. It was pretty bad. But I got through it. Once I was able to walk again, and I was able to make some progress, I started feeling better about everything."

And now the rangy defenseman's off to the NHL All-Star Game in Toronto this weekend, as an addition to the World Team, one of only two rookies -- Jersey scoring whiz kid Scott Gomez being the other -- to pass muster.

Gomez, of course, playing in the media-saturated New York area and for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, is the rookie everyone knows about. Buzek, playing for the expansion Thrashers and whose only hope of the Stanley Cup final is buying a ticket, is the rookie virtually no one knows anything about. His numbers -- 35 games played, five goals, 14 points and a minus-8 -- certainly aren't overwhelming. But his level of play has been outstanding for a first-year blueliner.

And his story is just as compelling as Gomez's is. Gomez, who's come out of Anchorage, Alaska, has become the clear Calder Trophy frontrunner after a sparkling rookie season.

"I was so surprised to be picked," laughs Buzek delightedly. "I didn't have a clue. This is, after all, my first full year in the NHL. I walked into the dressing room one day and (Thrasher GM) Don Waddell said 'Congratulations! You're going to the All-Star Game!' I thought he was kidding. So, I said something like 'Yeah. Great. Whatever ...' Then, to convince me, they showed me on the NHL website, and I thought Wow!

"It's every hockey player's dream, right, the All-Star Game? You're playing with the best players in the world."

Know what I like most about the kid? He's always smiling. This is someone just happy to be playing in the NHL.
Atlanta coach Curt Fraser

Astounding, considering not so very long ago not even Buzek was certain he'd ever play again, anywhere, at any level.

Recovering from the car wreck took him time. He then spent three seasons stuck in Michigan toiling for Kalamazoo in the IHL, called up during that time frame as an injury replacement for four games by the parent Dallas Stars. The Stars had drafted him 63rd overall in '95, but with Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov, Darryl Sydor, Richard Matvichuk, Shawn Chambers, Craig Ludwig and the rest virtual fixtures on the blueline, there really weren't any openings for him.

The expansion draft last June changed his luck and kick-started Buzek's career. And, at 22, he's arrived.

"Dallas has such a deep, talented team. It was tough to break into the lineup, of course. Here, I feel a part of everything. I play 25 minutes a game, power play, killing penalties. There, even if I made the team, I might be getting, oh, 8-10 minutes a night.

"It's difficult, sometimes, losing so many games. Other teams are faster. They have more experience. But we play hard every night. There are no easy games against us."

Buzek, says Fraser, was the Thrashers' best defenseman for the first two-and-a-half months of the season, until a concussion forced him to miss 10 games. He's since had to battle shoulder and groin problems. But, by comparison, they don't seem like much at all.

"Know what I like most about the kid?" asks Fraser. "He's always smiling. This is someone just happy to be playing in the NHL. I saw Petr when he was in Kalamazoo and never doubted his ability to play at this level. But he came to camp and competed every single day, every single shift.

"This is someone who's had to work extremely hard to get to this point. He has to work hard every day to get the most out of himself; he has some serious issues with his body that he has to deal with.

"They could make a movie about this kid, what he's been through, what he's overcome. But he never gave up. Look at him now. He's strong. Skates as well as most guys. Amazing. Petr, in my mind, is a perfect choice to represent our team in Toronto. A young, determined kid who's had to beat the odds to get where he is."

Just four and a half years ago, Petr Buzek lay in a hospital bed, wondering if he hadn't gone to a better place. Well, now he knows he has. To Atlanta. To the NHL All-Star Game. To an enviable position in his profession.

And that's no accident.

George Johnson covers the NHL for the Calgary Sun. His Western Conference column appears every week during the season on ESPN.com.

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