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He shoots, he scores… Retired hockey star Bobby Holik on passion for America, guns
JACKSON HOLE, WYO - This time of year, for just about every year of his life, Bobby Holik could be found on the ice. October would be the start of a renewed campaign in the National Hockey League, one of 18 seasons Holik would spend with the New Jersey Devils, Hartford Whalers, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers. The two-time Stanley Cup champion retired from the game that made him a multi-millionaire just a few years ago and, full disclosure, as a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, I couldn’t stand him.
I first met Holik in a local coffee shop. I suggested JH Roasters because the owners – Stefan and Luba – are from Slovakia and their staff is largely Slovak, so I thought they might speak the same sort of Russian-German or whatever Holik’s native tongue is. Ol’ number 16 speaks, reads and writes English better than most American-born college grads, but with a noticeable dialect and deletion of pronouns when he gets excited and rambling.
Holik’s birthplace and hometown is Jihlava, Czech Republic. I thought he would feel more at ease with a cafe reminder of his homeland. Truth is, Holik feels right at home in the United States of America – he’s been a citizen since 1996 – and right about now, while his old teammates prepare for the 2013-14 hockey season, the Jackson resident buys a mule deer tag and heads for the hills.
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Holik on hockey, hunting
Trudging up a hill is where I next met Holik. He plodded straight up a steep ridge where I would have switchbacked. He paused only briefly to press his eyes to a 50-year-old pair of binoculars once owned by his grandfather. I think he was trying to kill me.
We had decided to go hunting together. I promised the 43-year-old father of one I would show him my secret, best mule deer spot near Granite Creek. It had crossed my mind that I might stage a terrible hunting accident while out there. I would rid the world of Holik and probably be elected into the hockey hall of fame on the votes of those who have had to square off against the hulking centerman.
At 6 feet 4 inches, 235 pounds, Holik was a beast to play against. Longtime linemate Randy McKay told New Jersey’s Star-Ledger after he retired, “He didn’t know his own strength. He’d hurt [his own teammates] in practice. No wonder guys didn’t like to play against him.”
For years, I’d watch Holik bruise and bloody my Habs on TV. I moved to New York City, scored season tickets for the Rangers, and watched Holik and his ape-long arms mangle them live and in-person at the Garden. His line was affectionately known as the “Crash Line,” and as their leader, Holik was relentless.
When I was able to catch my breath I asked him, “Does this remind you of the double-overtime playoff game against the Rangers in ‘94? I got this wore out just watching it. Tell me you weren’t on the ice when Matteau scored.”
“No,” Holik shook his head. “But the shift right before that I had a chance at a breakaway. I was open and headed for the net but Randy [McKay] never got the pass to me.”
I eventually told Holik about my harbored hatred. He shrugged and muttered something mafia-like about how it was nothing personal, just business. It wasn’t true animosity I had toward the Devil, I admit. Whenever I played hockey video games with my friends I would always make sure I had Holik on my team. He made all the other video players fall down whenever they skated anywhere near him.
Holik doesn’t talk much about hockey now. The sport he began playing professionally at age 16 in his home country no longer consumes him like it once did. The Czech standout came to America at age 19 as a first round selection, 10th overall, of the Whalers in the 1989 entry draft. His first step on American soil was made on a sheet of ice in Connecticut. He played 1,314 career NHL games, tallying 747 points (326 goals, 421 assists) and full day’s worth of penalty minutes (1,421).
Holik retired at the end of the 2008-09 season, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. He fills his days now doing horsey chores around the home ranch in Jackson Hole. His daughter Hannah, 16, is a competitive hunter-jumper equestrian. He also spends time making appearances as a rep for Česká zbrojovka Firearms (CZ-USA), a gig he pretty much fell into.
Following behind Holik last week as he set a blistering pace off-trail and up an incline a mountain goat would have considered ridiculously steep, I finally caught up enough to ask the “money” question. It wasn’t anything like, “How did it feel to score the winning goal” or “What was it like to trade punches with Islander tough guy Gerald Diduck (who I also met once in a doctor’s waiting room in NYC)?” No, I asked Holik what got him into guns.
“I was always interested in firearms because I am sort of an amateur historian and I’m kind of always reading about the battles; and weapons in general are a huge part of history,” Holik said. “And when I retired I had time to try some things and one of the things I had always wanted to do was shoot some guns.”
Holik grew up the son of European ice hockey legend Jaroslav Holik, who played for 18 years, like his boy would, before turning to coaching. Dad instilled the discipline and drive Holik would call upon every shift he skated in front of rabid fans at various rinks throughout North America. It was his grandfather, though, that planted the seed that one day would blossom in Jackson Hole.
“Look at this,” Holik stopped suddenly and stared out at the Hoback Range. “This is my favorite time – when there is a little bit of snow on the mountain tops mixed with the fall colors and the grass is still green. You got everything here.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant “here” as in the unnamed butte between Game Hill and Battle Mountain we were scaling, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in general, or America as his adopted nation.
Holik’s grandfather provided young Bobby’s escape into the woods. He became connected to nature when he was with him. The two bonded much the way Wyoming boys grow into their first pellet gun. They spent time in the outdoors building fires, pitching tents, and phantom hunting with nearly all wildlife already killed off in Eastern Europe. Holik’s grandfather was grandfathered in when it came to possessing a firearm in communist Czechoslovakia at the time.
“My grandfather was the only one I knew who had a firearm. It was an over-under shotgun I think, or a shotgun-rifle combo,” Holik remembered. “I never really seen him fire it. By that time the environment was in rough shape. But he was a longtime hunter.”
Holik watched as his father and grandfather frequently got into long discussions about politics. The former grew up under Soviet occupation in the mid-1940s, the latter was forced to acknowledge Hitler’s invading troops with a Nazi salute in 1938.
“I guess I approach the topic of gun control and the right to bear arms from a different perspective. For me, it’s not so much a gun issue as a rights issue,” Holik said. “In every dictatorship, the first thing they do is disarm the people so they will not be overthrown. That happened in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Communists took over with the support of still-occupying Russia in what they called a peaceful occupation. Of course it was peaceful because no one outside of the infamous Eastern Bloc secret police had any firearms. They have to disarm the masses because they are a threat if they are armed.”
Holik likes to use a quote commonly attributed to the Swiss: “The highest form of freedom is the ability to defend yourself.” To Holik, an armed populace is a good thing, for the sake of both national security and personal protection.
“If the State of Israel, for example, completely gives up nuclear weapons they are probably going to be destroyed within weeks of disarming,” Holik said. “The more people that have arms, the safer we are. That’s been proven. It has happened in Asia, the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, even in Europe in the past. Once you take guns from one group and not the other, genocide happens, quite often. And people say it can’t happen here and probably not, but certain things can happen here. But, as a country, we will self-destruct in the voting booth long before we ever take up arms against our own government.”
Holik was conscripted into two years of mandatory military service in then Czechoslovakia under the Warsaw Pact. He didn’t see it as oppressive and still doesn’t. In fact, Holik believes a compulsory enlistment of some kind would work on several levels in the United States. Even if he might be just a little sheepish about bringing it up.
“I learned stuff in basic training I will probably never use again but the most important thing was the camaraderie,” Holik said. “The idea that you are doing something together with your peers – young men from all walks of life – and you are acquiring basic learning skills like competency with firearms, CPR training, and like that. It helps young people integrate into life, and gain self-esteem and empowerment.
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“My problem with doing this in America is our current foreign policy of being a worldwide police. Too many young men would go straight into warzones and that’s not what I’m [advocating]. I’d much rather see young people serving in some way, maybe with the Forest Service here in Wyoming. There is so much to be done in nature or outside or in agriculture. No compensation, just one year or even six months of mandatory service that empowers our youth with a learned skill and connects them with the outdoors.”
Holik never dreamed he would one day cast a vote in a democratic election but he would, as a registered Republican. And hockey was his ticket stateside. He was naturalized at a ceremony in Newark, New Jersey, where he surrendered his Czech passport even though he could have qualified for dual citizenship.
A citizen by choice, Holik brings a passion for the ideals of freedom not often found in the natural-born. He is a voracious reader, devouring any material on history, politics, or his adopted country. Holik once told a sportswriter he felt like an American long before he got his first passport.
As a U.S. citizen, Holik makes a perfect Wyomingite. He treasures a fiscally conservative, small government model. He hunts. He is prepared to defend the Second Amendment.
“To me, right now, we are standing up for the principle not necessarily the specifics. We are at that point,” Holik said about current gun control rhetoric. “I don’t need an AR (assault rifle) or a 50-caliber to defend myself from the government. Personally, I don’t have any ARs because I think it’s not a fun gun to shoot. But I want to have the choice. I’m fighting for the choice that’s going to be taken away. I decide on my own whether I want that gun or not.”
Holik’s is the stance of the NRA, a “take my machine gun today and you’ll be after my kid’s BB gun tomorrow” argument. Slippery is the slope that allows big government a foot in the door.
“That’s why I am standing up for gun rights; not necessarily for that specific firearm you want to keep, or you want to own, or you want to buy, but for the right of the choice,” Holik said. “If I want to buy a 30-round magazine I should be able to buy it. Just like if I want to buy diesel [fuel] for my V8, I should be able to. If we decide we don’t really want or need 30-round capacity [firearms], the next thing they will say is you can’t drive that big of a truck because if you hit somebody you will hit too many people and too many people will die, and you will cause more damage with a truck that size. So you are going to drive a five-cylinder from now on. Where does it stop?”
I tried to play devil’s advocate with the guy who wore a pitchfork on his chest for a decade.
“What about the recent rash of mass shootings? The anti-gun crowd says we would be a safer society without guns. It’s too easy for any derelict to apply four pounds of pressure on a trigger.”
Holik fired back immediately with a lightning-fast poke check: “Timothy McVeigh killed 168 without a gun. Used a bomb made from fertilizer,” he said. “I look at these people as mentally ill people, and the gun is just a tool in their hands. There are a lot of other tools.
“A perfect example is the Connecticut school shooting tragedy,” Holik continued. “Connecticut has one of the tightest gun laws in the country and it happened there. But it’s also one of the hardest states to admit a relative or a friend into a mental institution. It doesn’t make sense. Same thing with the guy in Colorado. He went to a gun club and they deny him membership. This guy in the naval yard shooting went to buy an AR and was denied. The laws on the books work. It’s the people who don’t.”
Like many gun owners, Holik believes the best deterrent to crime is not knowing who’s packing.
“Home defense is a hot topic,” Holik said. “People will say, ‘How often will you need to defend yourself and shoot someone? Where are the cases?’ Well, it doesn’t happen that much because everybody’s armed. Once you start taking away the arms, the balance will be off. To me, I hope arms are not used or needed for these purposes but it needs to be there.
“Look at rural areas like Wyoming where a patrolman or trooper might have to cover hundreds of square miles. Put it this way: Let’s say you are in a neighborhood and you put up a ‘Gun-Free Home’ sign. Very likely, you are gonna be the first target.”
Holik’s relationship with CZ-USA began innocently enough. He was in a gun shop in Florida where he splits time with his Jackson residence. He saw a poster for CZ arms and ended up buying a 9mm and a .22 rifle. He liked the way they shot. Back in Wyoming, Holik chatted with Shep Humphries (Jackson Hole Shooting Experience) about CZ firearms and Humphries put him in touch with CZ-USA president Alice Poluchova, based in Kansas City, and a relationship was formed. Holik now represents the CZ product.
Holik says he has enjoyed meeting a diverse group of dealers, instructors, competitors and gun owners across the country while working for CZ-USA the past three years. CZ sales are on the rise in the United States, with 200,000 guns sold in the last five years, as more and more Americans are being introduced to the historic firearms manufacturer.
After writing this story I had lunch at Sidewinders, the sports bar under the huge American flag. Bobby Holik’s number 16 hangs on the wall there encased in a glass shrine. It looks larger than life. I wouldn’t mess with him on the ice, I remembered thinking. Even if I was armed.