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A Pole with a Stanley Cup. He defended Jágr with Eliáš, worked in the mines and his father beat him

Polish hockey is celebrating a great return to the elite scene. Saturday’s match against Latvia in Ostrava will be the first appearance of the Poles in the highest category of the World Cup after twenty-two years. Maybe it’s time to remember one of the most famous and colorful (although probably not the most talented) personalities of the hockey scene of our northern neighbors. NHL enthusiasts will surely still remember the name Krzysztof Oliwa.

Polish hockey player Krzysztof Oliwa in his days of glory in the NHL.

| Photo: Profimedia

Hockey in Poland is not one of the most popular sports, but it can still boast a number of memorable moments (who among the Czech fans can remember, for example shocking win over Czechoslovakia at the World Cup in 1986?) and excellent players.

The most famous one is undoubtedly Mariusz Czerkawski, the first Pole (more precisely, the first hockey player who was born and grew up playing hockey in Poland) in the overseas NHL. He played almost 800 games and scored 450 points. But he never won the Stanley Cup. Another of his compatriots managed to do that. To one and only.


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“I’ve always wanted to be the best at what I do. Ok, someone might argue that I wasn’t technical enough and stuff, but I don’t care. I was the best at what I did,” Krzysztof Oliwa said some time ago in an interview with Przeglad Sportowy.

The hockey career of this thunderous rabid man with dynamite in his fists truly testifies to the fact that sheer determination and a willingness to sacrifice everything to a set goal can sometimes be more effective than talent. The statistics tell a lot: Oliwa played 442 games in the NHL and collected only 19 goals in them as a left winger, but almost 1500 penalty minutes.

They called him the “Polish Hammer”.

An abusive father and a rough youth

Oliwa’s childhood was rough. His father was a drunkard and a violent man who beat the boy. At the age of thirteen, he even told him that he did not consider him his son and disowned him. The young hockey player ended up in a children’s home and at a training school, where he had to work in the mines early in the morning three times a week. When the afternoon was over, he went to practice.

“There was no future in Poland,” Oliwa said of the bleak early 1990s. So he tried to break through with hockey in Switzerland, and there he was noticed by observers from overseas. He was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1993, and the Polish youngster then fought his way through the lower leagues for several seasons behind a big puddle. There he understood that if he wanted to get to the top, he would have to toughen up. Properly.

Famous moments of the Polish brawler in the NHL:

Source: Youtube

“When I started in America, I heard almost all the jokes about Poland in the dressing room. I got loaded in training, even more in matches. How many times I got punched in the face, really tough guys played there back then. I didn’t know how to fight. So I started training – running, gym, boxing, psychologist, training and training again. And then I got them all. They started to fear me,” he recalled about his transformation into one of the most feared brawlers from around the turn of the millennium.

He ended up on the street at Christmas

He definitely didn’t have his way to the NHL. He learned English together with ten-year-old children, on the ice he tried to survive the bloody hell that was the lower overseas competitions at that time, and it was not easy even with the families who accommodated him.

In one, they put him in a bed in the basement next to a pipe with hot water so that he wouldn’t get cold, in another they blamed him for eating too much. And the peak came one Christmas. The Canadian family he was staying with had invited relatives over for the holidays and simply told the immigrants from Eastern Europe that they had to disappear for a few days.


Hockey battle.  Illustrative image

Jagr with fists. The Canadian was pulled out of the pub, at the age of 47 he got into a fight on the ice

“I ended up on the street. I wandered around and then to make extra money I started shoveling snow. I cleaned people’s driveways and saw them outside the windows at the holiday table. That’s when I thought I would return home to Poland. I called a friend I played with in Tychy (Oliwa’s birthplace in Silesia, editor’s note). I asked him how he was enjoying the holidays, what he had planned. He told me that he gets up at four in the morning to go to the mines, but otherwise everything is fine. And I thought to myself that shoveling snow is not so bad after all,” Oliwa recounted.

Pass for the goal from Jágr

In the end, he made it to his dream NHL and stayed in it for a long time. He built respect with his fists – he was one of the most famous as a bad guy. On the ice, he played both the role of an entertainer for the audience and a protector of star teammates, as they were Patrick Elias, Jaromir JagrMario Lemieux or Jarome Iginla.

Nobody minded that he scored few goals. He had something else to do. Defending the stars, provoking opponents, taking care of getting your teammates fired up.

“There are people who say I was just lucky. That I didn’t deserve to play in the NHL. But no one will just give you 400 matches in that competition. I played them and scored a goal after passes from Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux. Any more questions?” he laughed at the memory of engagement in Pittsburgh alongside two hockey legends.


Little big hockey player

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But Oliwa experienced the most in New Jersey. The Devils then had a great team, which in 2000 ran out for the Stanley Cup. The Polish striker was also there, although he was injured just before the start of the playoffs and had to undergo surgery. However, his name is not missing from the cup. No other Pole has been able to do that until now.

“The guys even took me for a photo together after the last match, everything was amazing. And that’s when Lou came up to me (Lamoriello, former longtime New Jersey general manager, editor’s note), hugged me tenderly and said: Chris, you are no longer our player, I sold you to Columbus. This was told to me by the same guy who a few years before almost cried for me to stay at the club and that I wanted him like a son. But I don’t hold any grudge against him, it’s just business,” he revealed behind the scenes of the NHL, in which there is no room for sentiment.

Divorce, drinking and business

Oliwa finally ended his professional career in 2006, although he still had a valid contract. But the years of beating other people took their toll, he repeatedly ended up in the care of doctors, and for example, after one injury, he still has six screws and a platinum plate in his hand.

In addition, the only Polish Stanley Cup winner admitted that at that time he was able to enjoy life. “If I ever wrote my biography, I would publish a guide to all the bars and clubs in Warsaw in 300 pages. I caused a lot of embarrassment. But that’s gone now,” said Oliwa, who went through a difficult (mental and financial) divorce in 2000.


Jiří Vašíček (right) from Slavia settles accounts with Václav Varaďa from Třinec.

Remember the famous battles on the ice: Bloody Vašíček, the duel of the giants and the shame in Zlín

After finishing his hockey career got down to business. He imported cars from the USA to Poland, had a clothing company, and most recently planned to start a chain of cafes. He is also thinking about publishing a children’s book to show the new generation what can be achieved through hard work and dedication.

By the way – when he was already a famous hockey player, he once met his father by chance at a bus stop. The one who beat him in his childhood and then disowned him. “He was crying and apologizing. I gave him my signed player card. Let him put it on his table and see what he has deprived himself of,” said Oliwa. A man whose power once made the world’s most famous league tremble.

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