Joining the NHL at the age of 30, Jiri Hrdina could hardly expect to become a star. The best he could do was to play in such a way as to please himself and his club. He came to the Calgary Flames in the middle of the 1987-88 season after the Winter Olympics, which had taken place in the city. In the spring of 1989 he was one of the fortunate few to pick the right club, and he got to raise the Stanley Cup over his head for the first time.
He was born in Mlada Boleslav, a town some 40 miles (60 kilometers) east of Prague. Although there were no Czech league games played in his town, he was noticed by talent scouts from Sparta Praha, and when he was 19 he left for the capital. After doing his military service with Dukla Trencin from 1981 until 1983, he played with Sparta and got to play overseas. Gradually he worked his way up to become one of the team's main supports. But in 1985 his place in the lineup for the Prague championship was suddenly in doubt. He was squeezed in only at the last minute after a terrific performance during a tournament of national "B" teams in St. Petersburg. He and Vladimir Ruzicka and Pavel Reichter created the most powerful lineup on the Czech team and walked away with the gold medal.
In time, however, he was put in the center and could devote himself to playing forward. He asserted himself as a shooter and grew as a personality, too. In the 1986-87 season with Sparta he made up an excellent attack line with the ambitious right winger Jiri Dolezal. They were a great success and, thanks to them, a complete line from one team went to play for Czechoslovakia in the World Championship in Vienna.
In Calgary and later in Pittsburgh, he was not among the key figures on the team. He was biding his time as an underrated defensive forward. But he did work successfully with some of the young Czech players who needed guidance. In the summer of 1990 the Penguins drafted a young man by the name of Jaromir Jagr in the first round. Jagr was 18 and felt quite lost in his new environment. Hrdina the experienced compatriot stuck by him to get him through the worst of it.
In 1991 and 1992 when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup title twice, the team was being pulled along by Mario Lemieux. But Jiri Hrdina was once again an integral part of the lineup. For a while it seemed that any NHL team who hired him was assured of a Stanley Cup victory. Nevertheless, Hrdina decided to quit in the summer of 1992.
He did not return to Sparta as he had been hinting, but threw himself into the job of talent scout for the Calgary Flames and from the summer of 1999 for the Dallas Stars.