Stastny hopes low numbers add up to his first Cup

March 13, 1991|By Bill Verigan | Bill Verigan,New York Daily News

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Legends are not the stuff the New Jersey Devils are made of -- except for their marvelous center, who was outscored only by Wayne Gretzky in the 1980s.

Peter Stastny may one day be enshrined in the hockey Hall of Fame on two continents. But the 34-year-old Czechoslovakian star has given little thought this year to the future -- or his glorious past. While his first full season with the Devils after nearly 10 years in Quebec has been something less than Stastny-esque -- 15 goals with 37 assists in 55 games -- there seems to be an extra bounce to his step these days, perhaps a greater sense of urgency.

"Experience has taught me that the older you get, the hungrier you are for that title," Stastny said. "The Stanley Cup trophy is by far the best thing in hockey. It's precious, and a lot of excellent players never won it because only four teams dominated in the '80s."

With the playoffs seven weeks away, Stastny takes little comfort that this has become a season of milestones -- 800 games, 700 assists, 1,100 points, and, most recently, 400 goals.

Instead, he takes satisfaction that his 400th was the game-winner in a 4-2 victory on Jan. 30 at Los Angeles, where the Devils had only one victory in their last 13 games. And that the goal signaled the end of a personal and team slump that saw the Devils go winless in 11 straight.

Stastny has four goals in the last four games, and every time he scored, the Devils won.

"Many people kept asking when I was going to score 400," he said. "I told them before the season I'd have it before Christmas. Everywhere I went I was reminded, and I said that goals are not everything. I said that in two of my very best games I got no points and one assist."

Certainly, points don't fully measure the worth of Stastny, who became only the 32nd player to reach 400 goals (Gretzky and Bryan Trottier are the only active centers ahead of him).

But coming into the season, his 1.4 points per game ranked fourthin National Hockey League history and his drop-off this year had critics wondering if the Devils paid Quebec too dearly for Stastny -- two solid defensemen, Craig Wolanin and Randy Velischek.

"No, I'm not at my peak," Stastny admits with a smile. "But after so many seasons at Quebec I'm just starting to have a lot of fun because this team is good. That might save my career."

If he could, Stastny would give up all of his milestones and honors for what he calls the "ultimate honor" -- most valuable player in the Stanley Cup championship series.

"I got to the semifinals twice, but never reached the finals," he said. "The Stanley Cup MVP comes from the champion team, and it means he contributed to that championship."

While Stastny believes in the Devils, coach John Cunniff believes in Stastny. That's why Stastny is one of only five Devils to play every game this season. That's why Stastny is almost always on the ice near the end of games, when age would more likely be a factor.

As the only concession to Stastny's age and stature, Cunniff lets him skip the morning skates on game days.

"I want him when it counts," Cunniff said. "Maybe he won't get 100 points, but he's third on the team in points."

Little things mean a lot where Stastny is concerned, and faceoffs are one of those tasks that Stastny can still do better than anyone.

"I'd like to be in more often and do everything," he said. "When I'm in I always believe I'll find a way to win, just like those faceoffs, like knowing when to go where, like helping younger players. I also believe I can always do better. I expect to get 100 points, even if others don't expect me to."

Stastny has often done the unexpected. He and his two brothers, Anton and Marian, led Slovan Bratislava -- a team comprised of persecuted Slovaks, who had never won a title -- to the Czechoslovakian League title in 1979.

"We had talent, but never before did we work that hard and work together," said Stastny, who could have been talking about the Devils.

Only a Stanley Cup for New Jersey could surpass that championship. It is better than the two world titles the tTC Czechoslovakian team won by defeating the supposedly invincible Russians. But not long after that title, Stastny knew he had to leave his homeland.

"I knew I might not have many chances," he said. "The Communist regime knew I did not agree with their policies, and I was always outspoken. At the first opportunity, they would have taken me and my brothers off the national team. They would have sent us someplace obscure. It happened to others.

"So when they let me take my wife, Darina, on a trip to Vienna along with Anton, I knew it was time. She was six months pregnant, and if we had had a child I knew I would never be able to leave. I would still be there today."

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