Jaroslav Jiřík, the first ice hockey player to play in the North American NHL League from behind the Iron Curtain died in a plane accident on Monday, Czech Radio reported. Jiřík died at the age of 71 when a new sports plane he had recently purchased crashed soon after take off near his home town of Brno, in the Czech Republic.
Jiřík made history when he became the first player from behind the Iron Curtain to play in the NHL in the 1969–1970 season. He was originally supposed to have been one of three Czechoslovak players picked to play in the NHL, but the Communist authorities had second thoughts about letting two younger players in their twenties accompany him. So, Jiřík, then 30, made the journey to play for the St. Louis Blues on his own.
Jiřík was also one of handful of Czechoslovak players who staged a brave protest in the 1969 World Championships in Stockholm.
Jiřík eventually only played three games for the St. Louis Blues and failed to score, spending much of the season with their league affiliate, the Kansas City Blues, and only being called up for the Blues late in the season.
He had, however, already established himself in his domestic Czechoslovak league, the Extraliga, scoring 300 goals in 450 games and won silver medals in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, and in the 1965 and 1966 World Championships.
Jiřík was also one of handful of Czechoslovak players who staged a brave protest in the 1969 World Championships in Stockholm against the occupation of their country by forces from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact a year earlier.
He and other players covered up the symbolic Communist red star on their shirts in a move which caused uproar in the stadium and at home.
The Czechoslovak team went on to win the game 4-3, sparking euphoric celebrations in the streets and an attack on the offices of Soviet airline Aeroflot in the capital, Prague. Those acts were the excuse for a crackdown by the regime and ever tougher measures to ensure that the population did not stay from absolute loyalty to Moscow in the period known as normalization.