If Japers’ Rink existed in the early to mid 90s, there’s a chance the forum would look at Michal Pivonka the same way we see Alexander Semin today. There were times he could exhilirate you with his playmaking skill, then utterly frustrate you a couple games later. Cue the "trending Pivo" and "good pivo/bad Pivo" and "Pivo Lobby" memes. He could be used effectively a man up or a man down and one year tied for the team lead in both PP and SH goals. He often took a back seat to a teammate from the same country who would put up the bigger, flashier numbers and draw most of the press. That said he seemed content to stay with the Caps and in fact never played for another NHL team in his career, and recently played at the Winter Classic Alumni game.
Michal Pivonka was born in Kladno, Czechslovakia in 1966. He played junior hockey for the Czech junior Dukla Jihalva team and was a prominent fixture on the national junior hockey teams that played at the Euro and World Junor tournaments. It was at the 1983 Euro Juniors where he came to the attention of scouts scoring 9 points in 5 games and being named to the tourney’s first all-star team. Caps GM David Poile was one of the interested suitors and he picked him 59th overall in the 3rd round of the 1984 Entry Draft. Pivonka expressed interest in defecting to the US and playing for the Caps but said he first had to stay in his home country and complete military service. Pivo played in the 1985 and 1986 WJCs and was named the tourney’s top forward in 1985 (10 points in 7 games) and winning gold in 1986.
Because of the Iron Curtain at the time, it wasn’t a sure thing Pivonka would play for the Caps as he would need permission from Czech authorities to leave the country. In July 1986, Pivo defected to the US from Rome while on vacation in Yugoslavia with his fiancee. The seeds for this daring move were planted the previous year when Poile and Caps director of player personnel Jack Button met Pivo at the 1985 WJC in Hamilton, Ontario and guaranteed him a five year contract that would come into effect if he defected in July 1986. Pivonka and his fiancee were given temporary refugee status and on July 22, 1986 Pivonka was introduced to the local media. The event was a minor international incident and the Czech embassy in DC criticized the Caps for not attaining Pivo through more legal channels.
With Bengt Gustafsson leaving to play in Sweden before the 1986-87 season, Pivo plugged an immediate hole for the Caps and centred a line with Bobby Gould and the late Gaetan Duchesne in his rookie year. His line of 18g 25a and 43p were good enough to finish 7th in rookie scoring and 3rd in rookie shooting % with 15.4. Pivo’s strengths were his strong skating, excellent passing and a willingness to play physically when needed. Unfortunately he wasn’t the most durable of players and suffered a shopping list of ailments throughout his career (strained ankle ligaments, sprained wrist, sprained knee, kidney stones, groin injury, torn lateral meniscus in the knee, flu, concussion, a shoulder injury which sidelined him through the latter half of the Caps Stanley Cup run).
Upon fellow countryman Peter Bondra’s arrival with the Caps in the early 90s, Pivonka’s play reached a new level. Having an elite sniper on his wing helped Pivo utilize his strong playmaking skills and he scored 70+ points from 1990-1991 to 1992-93. Before the 1995-96 season, Pivo and Bondra’s agent Rich Winter aimed to get major salary increases for his clients ( from $836,000 to an asking price of over a mil). Both were held out of training camp and were signed to contracts to play with the IHL Detroit Vipers. On October 20, 1996 the Caps gave in to Bondra’s demands and signed him to a 5 year contract at 1.2 mil per season. Within hours Pivonka was also signed for a 5 year 1 million dollar incentive laden contract. Reportedly before he could play again for the Caps, Poile sat Pivonka down for a four-hour lecture on playing a more leadership role with the team
The lecture seemed to have positive results as Pivo put up a career year in 1995-96 scoring 16g 65a and 81 points. The 65 assists were the most by any Caps player since Dennis Maruk in 1981-1982. On October 19, 1996, Pivonka passed Mike Gartner for the Caps all-time assist leader. Unfortunately his 1996-1997 torn meniscus led to another catalog of injuries and a couple seasons later Pivo was out of the league. When he retired, he was the Caps all-time assists leader, 2nd in all time career points and 3rd in games, playoff games and playoff points for the franchise.
Pivo and Bondra did a lot of local charity work and set up a joint fund raising effort for the Children’s Hospital at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD. He also took the opening faceoff at the recent Winter Alumini Game.
Happy 45th Pivo!