Igor Liba

That is Igor Liba shaking the hand of Soviet captain Viacheslav Fetisov before a game. Liba, who was Slovakian, was captain of the united Czechoslovakian national team for some time in the 1980s.

Igor Liba also happens to be one of the greatest players in the history of the game - even though most people have never heard of him.

Liba was one of the most complete players anywhere in the world in the 1980s. He was a gifted skater and a dangerous offensive force. He had a howitzer of a shot, but, if he had one fault he did not use that shot often enough. Like Wayne Gretzky in Canada, Liba loved to pass and set up plays. Yet he was very dedicated to his defensive responsibilities. He was even a tough son of a gun, not afraid of the physical stuff - a bit of a rarity among European players back then.

"If I could pick one Czechoslovak player for CSKA, it would be one of the most universal players in the world - Igor Liba," said Soviet national team coach Viktor Tikhonov. That's how highly regarded Liba was at the time.

Another of his greatest fans is Peter Stastny, the long time Quebec Nordiques star who many North American fans deem as the greatest Slovakian player ever. Stastny would pick Liba.

"This guy was born for hockey. There's very few of such players. He's one of the greatest talents that Slovakia ever had," said Stastny.

"Comparable to Liba was Vladimir Martinec - simply guys who were technically abnormally gifted. But not only did he have the technique, he had the feeling for the game, the vision. He had great hands, great stability - he wasn't super fast, but he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted - with anyone. And that's something that truly only the best of the best can manage."

Liba spent his junior years in his hometown of Presov, but by age 18 he already joined Kosice in the top league. He scored a point a game immediately.

By age 21 he led the entire league in goals with 35. Mandatory military service saw him switch to a very strong team in Jihlava where he led the team to national titles.

At about the same time Liba became the star of the national team, and admired and downright feared by the Russians. The Czechoslovaks iced what we call a left-wing-lock system nowadays. Liba would play all 200 feet of the ice, shutting down the likes of Sergei Makarov at one end and leading the offensive charge with linemates Darius Rusnak and Vincent Lukac.

With that dominant line facing down the Soviet top line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, Czechoslovakia won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics and a gold medal at the 1985 world championships.

The Czech hockey program kind of derailed as the 1980s continued. Liba remained a star in the Czech league, even if he was quickly forgotten - if he was ever appreciated - in North America.

As the Iron Curtain fell in the late 1980s many Communist Bloc hockey stars finally got their chance to leave home for the western world and the National Hockey League. That included Liba, who joined the New York Rangers in the 1988-89 season.

With the language barrier and drastic difference in hockey philosophy, it was not an easy transition for most of the veterans from Eastern Europe. That included Liba, who scored 2 goals and 7 points for the Rangers in just 10 games. He was then traded to Los Angeles to complete the season.

Liba continued to put up reasonable point totals in LA, accumulating 5 goals and 18 points in 27 contests. The Kings had acquired him - along with Todd Elik in exchange for Dean Kennedy - in hopes that he might click with Wayne Gretzky. But, according to Liba himself in a Slovak interview years later, the two could not play together because they both wanted to handle and pass the puck too much.

Liba quickly disappeared from the National Hockey League, and it would be his biggest regret in his hockey career. He returned to Europe, playing in several countries right through to the turn of the century.

"To this day, I regret it. One guy convinced me, that I should go to Germany. He conned me, it was too late when I found out that it wouldn't be it. I made the greatest mistake of my life. I could've continued in the NHL, I had the offers."

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