BY JEFF FALK
One of the great things about our Lebanon community is its diversity, it’s unique blending of different peoples from different cultures. For instance, did you know we have a former NHL player living among us?
That’s right. Tony Horacek is a transplant, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, who has adopted Lebanon as his home.
Not only has Lebanon embraced Horacek as its own, the former Philadelphia Flyer, Hershey Bear and Chicago Blackhawk has blended in quite well. From the outside, one wouldn’t necessarily know that he’s ascended to the height of his profession.
“It’s become home,” said Horacek. “It’s where we live. It’s got some of the best golfing in the Northeast. And it’s a great place to raise a family. Your dollar gets you more here than in a lot of other places.
“It’s (Lebanon) a small-town feel compared to a big city environment (Vancouver),” he added.
Now 46, Horacek met his wife, a Lebanon High graduate, 21 years ago when he was playing for the Hershey Bears. After living in the Hershey area for a time, they moved to Cornwall. where they are currently raising three boys ages 18, 15 and nine.
In some ways, with keen interests in ice hockey and lacrosse, Horacek’s boys are following in his footsteps, and through coaching, Horacek is actively involved in their development. But that is not to say that the younger Horaceks are necessarily aspiring to play in the NHL one day.
“I don’t think their goals are necessarily to play in the NHL,” said Horacek of his children. “They want to get to a good college. It’s a very difficult process in the states, in a good way. As far as my boys are concerned, if they could get an education out of it, that would be great. In today’s world, you’ve got to use athletics. What a great way to get somewhere. But it’s not always fair.
“It’s something you’ve got to be extremely passionate about,” Horacek continued. “It’s almost like an addiction. But if you believe in yourself, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. It just goes to show anything is possible. Whatever you do, just make yourself do it to the best of your ability.”
When it comes to developing hockey talent, the Lebanon area and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada are two different worlds.
“There’s a plethora of kids who play the game,” said Horacek. “There’s a lot of recreational hockey, but it’s not geared towards the competitive side of it. There’s nothing wrong with recreational hockey.
“Obviously the Hershey market has always supported the Bears,” Horacek added. “From an AHL standpoint, it’s (Hershey) the cream of the crop. Everybody wants to play in Hershey. The fan base is second to none. For them to sell out as much as they do, it’s very impressive.”
They say that players make the best coaches. But not all those who play can coach.
“Towards the end of my career, I was coaching in Indianapolis,” said Horacek, who seems to have the communication skills needed to coach. “It’s something I love to do. But when you get into coaching, the job experience isn’t always there.
“It’s a passion,” added Horacek. “It’s something I love to do. But it doesn’t always pay the bills. I’ve always coached my kids, all the way through. My youngest is nine, so there’s a ways to go yet.”
In addition to coaching his boys on elite travel teams, Horacek has coached the Cedar Crest varsity ice hockey program and the Lebanon Valley College ice hockey team, and has done extensive scouting, among other things since retiring. Horacek is the possessor of a master’s hockey teaching certificate from USA Hockey.
“Philosophy-wise, that’s 100 percent correct,” said Horacek. “Guys who play can’t just jump behind the bench. The athletes who are playing today are different from the players of yesterday. But there’s no replacement for hard work and discipline. Just because you had an NHL career doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed behind the bench.
“What it comes down to is being a teacher, being able to communicate,” continued Horacek. “Some guys who have had a lot of success see the game differently. But you’ve got to be able to communicate. That hockey sense is something you were born with, or not. Coaching is a passion, obviously, but at the college level there’s no way to make a living at it. One hundred, one hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand dollar a year jobs are hard to come by in coaching. But if the opportunity ever came up, I’d jump at it.”
Horacek, 6-4 and 209 pounds, enjoyed a solid, but not spectacular career in the NHL and the AHL.
He was drafted by the Flyers in the seventh round of the 1985 NHL draft. After six seasons in the minors, Horacek broke in with the Flyers during the 1989-90 campaign. In the 1991-92 season, Horacek was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I got to Indianapolis when I was 19, and then made the Flyers,” said Horacek. “I had a couple of years there. I could always skate. Obviously I had good size. I was the prototypical power forward with good hands. And I could battle if I had to.
“It was a culmination of a dream you have as a young child,” continued Horacek. “When you’re teaching kids, you want to instill in them that they can accomplish the dream.”
In 1997, Horacek retired from his position as a player/assistant coach to become the assistant general manager of the Utah Grizzlies of the IHL. During 154 games over his five NHL seasons, Horacek registered ten goals, 19 assists and 316 penalty minutes.
“It was obviously a dream come true, in a lot of ways,” said Horacek. “My career was shattered when I blew my back out. When I was coming up, there was a lot more fighting involved. There was a lot of intimidation involved. But I think the NHL has done a great job of marketing and cleaning it up.
“I wish I wouldn’t have gotten hurt,” Horacek continued. “When you get hurt, sometimes things don’t come back. But it was a great experience. I got to meet a lot of great people. I learned a lot about myself, about athletics, about competition.”