Hlinka's lawyers claim discrimination
SALT LAKE CITY - Ivan Hlinka still can't figure out why the Penguins fired him, but his lawyers think they have a pretty good idea.
On Hlinka's behalf, they have filed a national origin discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The claim asserts that Hlinka, from the Czech Republic, was fired as Penguins coach on account of his national origin.
"We believe that coach Hlinka was fired because of the fact that the team no longer needed a Czech coach, because it no longer had a Czech superstar," said Hlinka's attorney, Mike Florio, of Clarksburg, W. Va.
Florio was referring to former Penguins star Jaromir Jagr, who was traded to the Washington Capitals last summer. The Penguins fired Hlinka on Oct. 15 of this season, after the team started 0-4.
The sides already are embroiled in a lawsuit. Hlinka filed suit against the team in December, claiming breach of contract. He has not been paid since the Penguins fired him. At the time, he was owed $854,000 on a three-year contract that expires June 30, 2003.
He wants the Penguins to pay him the money owed so far - more than $100,000 - and to resume his normal payment schedule until the contract expires. Hlinka also wants damages of 25 percent of all unpaid wages through the trial date, plus attorney's fees and interest.
If Hlinka's EEOC claim is upheld, the Penguins could sustain punitive damages, Florio said.
The Penguins, who have five Czech players on their roster and several more in their system, had no comment Saturday.
Hlinka is in Salt Lake City, working as the general manager of the Czech Olympic team. He wonders if the Penguins expected him to go away quietly without his money.
"Hopefully, they don't think I'm that stupid," Hlinka said.
He added that neither general manager Craig Patrick nor owner Mario Lemieux has spoken with him since the day he was fired. "They think of me like I am a zero," Hlinka said. "They don't need to talk to me anymore. That's not fair."
Hlinka finished his 86-game Penguins career with a record of 42-32-9-3. The Czechs play Lemieux and Team Canada on Monday afternoon.
"I cannot say I did a great job," Hlinka said. "But I did something over there."
The Penguins are expected to argue in court that Hlinka violated the terms of his contract by not taking English classes last summer at home in the Czech Republic. A clause in his contract states that he 'must follow any reasonable instructions given him by the team.' The Penguins have maintained that Hlinka was told to improve his English, preferably by way of formal lessons. Hlinka says the Penguins never made such an order and that no such demand was written into his contract.