When people mention great European goaltenders then they usually think about Dominik Hasek and Vladislav Tretiak. Jiri Holecek somehow never attained the same publicity as those two goalies.
But many consider him being a better goaltender than Tretiak. In his homeland (Czech Republic) Holecek was called "Kouzelnik" (The Magician), for his acrobatic style of play. He was equally good and fast with his blocker as he was with his glove hand. He also had very quick feet and tried to emulate the style of his childhood idol, Canadian Seth Martin. Another strength was that Holecek always used to be cool under pressure. Many say that if Holecek had got the same exposure as Tretiak did when he faced the NHLers then he would be regarded as the best European goalie ever.
Holecek was born on March 18, 1944 in Prague. He started playing as a little kid on a pond at Zizkov in Prague. Then in 1956 he played for Tatra Smichov as a forward. As a 13-year old he became a goalie just by coincidence when he failed to make the Bohemians Prague team in 1957-58 as a forward. He found out that the rival club Slavia Prague was looking for a goaltender. So Holecek tried out as a goalie and made the team. He played there until 1963 before he was picked up by the Slovakian club Dukla Kosice (1963-67) / VSZ Kosice (1967-73).
In 1973 he returned to Prague where he played for Sparta Prague between 1973-78. He played a total of 488 games in the league and won the "Golden Stick" award as the player of the year in 1974. After his domestic career was over he went on to play in Germany for EHC Münich 70 (1978-80) and then EHC Essen (1980-81).
On the national team Holecek represented Czechoslovakia 164 times (a record for Czech goalies). He was a three time World Champion (1972, 1976 and 19 77). Holecek was voted as the best goalie five times (1971, 1973, 1975, 1976 and 19 78) , more than any other goaltender. He was also a five time All-Star.
Holecek always played at his best when he faced the Soviets.
"I loved to play against them because our team didn't have anything to lose in those games. Everybody expected us to lose and if we won we became national heroes. I usually liked to skate out a bit to face the shooters but against them I stood on the goal line. Trying to skate out of your crease to cut the angles against the Russians would have been suicide" Holecek said.
He also never considered Tretiak to be one of the greatest goalies.
"No, Tretiak wasn't anything special. We had at least ten goalies back home who were better than him and the same goes for Sweden. The Russians had such a good team that it wasn't very hard to be in goal for them."
When asked who the best players were that he faced during his career Holecek said "That's very difficult to answer, but the Kharlamov-Petrov-Mikhailov line was awesome. The hardest shot that I ever faced was undoubtedly from Bobby Hull. It still hurts when I think about it And I liked Svedberg (Lennart "Lill-Strimma" Svedberg), he was the outstanding Swedish player."
After his active playing career was over Holecek went on to train junior teams in the Czech Republic as well as the national team. He used to be Dominik Hasek's trainer in Pardubice.
"Yeah, I used to train him in Pardubice. It wasn't very far away from Prague and it was incredible to train such a talent," Holecek said. Hasek had Holecek as his mentor and childhood idol and used to wear Holecek's famous # 2 in Pardubice.
As the new millennium began Holecek was in the advertising business and was also a color commentator for Czech TV.
Holecek was a "ghost" for many opponents and must be regarded as one of the three best goalies ever in European hockey history.
Special thanks to Patrick Houda