Jiri Bubla was a legendary defenseman in his native Czechoslovakia during the 1970's and 80's. Bubla, whose name literally translates into "Bubble," represented his country 230 times, scoring 37 goals. He won three world championships and an Olympic silver medal was voted as the best defenseman in the world championships 1979.
He's one of only a few Czechs to have won the world championship title three times (1972, 1976, and 1977). Jiri played most of his career in CHZ Litvinov where he played between 1959-69 and 19 71-79. His other stints were in Dukla Jihlava (1969-71), Sparta Praha (1979-81) and, as North American fans likely remember him, with the NHL Vancouver Canucks (1981-86).
When Jiri played in Litvinov much of the attention was on him and forward Ivan Hlinka. They were the stars of their club team and had a remarkably similar playing career. They were born one day apart. They both became world champions on three occasions. They both started playing in the Litvinov system in 1959. They both played in two Olympics. They both played in the 1976 Canada Cup. And they both played for Vancouver Canucks in the early 1980's. Even in the 1982-83 O-Pee-Chee cards they were inseparable as Ivan Hlinka's card has Bubla's photo on it.
In addition, they were also both drafted in a special Czechoslovakian NHL entry draft. Jiri Bubla was drafted by Colorado and Ivan Hlinka by Winnipeg. This draft however was nullified due to the fact that there was no formal agreement between the Czechoslovakian Ice Hockey federation and NHL. So Vancouver obtained the rights to these two Czechoslovakian stars by sending Brent Ashton and a 4th round draft pick in 1982 to Winnipeg. Winnipeg then traded Ashton to Colorado and their 3rd round draft pick in 1982 for Lucien Deblois.
Bubla was an excellent soccer player as a youngster and some say he could have made it all the way to the national team if he had pursued that sport. Ultimately he chose hockey though, another sport that came naturally to him. On the European stage he was known as a tough, strong and a hard hitter who handled the puck very well. Blessed with mobility and hockey sense, he was extremely good at quick transitions from defense to offense. His sharp outlet passes created many scoring opportunities for streaking forwards that caught opposition defenders a step behind.
In 1977-78 he scored 50 points, including 21 goals, for Litvinov in 44 games. It was best year in league play, finishing 6th overall in the scoring race. In his brilliant career in the Czechoslovakian league Jiri scored 93 goals and 187 assists for 280 points in 470 games.
Bubla was a mainstay on the Czechoslovakian national team throughout the 1970s. He represented his country at nine World Championships, none more monumental than in 1972. With the games hosted by the city of Prague, the Czechoslovaks upset the hated but mighty Soviet Union team to capture the gold medal. The team would repeat as world champions in 1976 and 1977, as well as win 5 silver medals and one bronze. The team also captured a silver medal at the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, and second place at the inaugural Canada Cup.
Bubla was really standing out with the national team by the end of the decade. He was named to world championship all star teams in 1978 and 1979, and was named as the tournament's top defenseman in 1979.
In 1981 Bubla was granted permission to pursue a career in the West. When Jiri came to Vancouver he was 31 years old and didn't play as offensively as he had back home. At first the transition to a new lifestyle was tough, but not as tough as playing for a weak team. Injuries also limited Jiri's effectiveness but he showed flashes of brilliance and on many nights was Vancouver's steadiest defenseman.
His best offensive output while in Vancouver was in 1983-84. He had 39 pts (6 goals and 33 assists) in 62 games. During his last NHL season in 1985-86 Jiri played some of the best hockey of his North American stint. He scored 30 points in only 43 games.
In 1985 Jiri should have returned back to Czechoslovakia but he didn't. By not returning home he had left Czechoslovakia illegally according to the Czech authorities. His hockey career was over but not his story.
What do Jiri Bubla have in common with former NHL'ers like Greg Carroll, Jacques Richard, Steve Durbano or Kevin McCarthy ? Well if your guess is drug smuggling then you're correct. In 1986 Jiri Bubla was arrested in Vienna, Austria. He was part of an international drug cartel that smuggled large quantities of Heroin. He got away fairly easy and only got a 5 year sentence. He was released from the Graz jail (Austria) after four years.
The Griffiths family and manager Pat Quinn helped Bubla return to Canada following his release from prison, and helped him get his life back in order. At first he and his wife were given a contract to clean the Pacific Coliseum, the home of the Canucks in those days. Later he would have his own cafe and trucking company. He has always been eternally grateful for the help the Canucks have given him. Still in the Vancouver area, he is very active in the Canucks Alumni endeavors.
Bubla and his second wife raised two sons in Vancouver, but Bubla had a son from his first marriage back in Czechoslovakia. Jiri Jr. changed his name to his step-father's name, partly because he had no contact with his father and partly because of his father's prison sentence. His name was changed to Jiri Slegr - the same Jiri Slegr who would one day too make it to the Vancouver Canucks and the NHL.
Bubla and Slegr were able to get to know each other during Slegr's early days in the NHL, and now maintain a healthy relationship that was lacking during Slegr's upbringing.