By Kyle Kujawa -
Not many 19-year-old goaltenders have the chance to hear their name chanted by a crowd of 20,000 people. Even fewer get that chance while representing their country on one of hockey’s biggest stages.
You can forgive Petr Mrazek if he seemed a little excited.
“Everyone asks me about that,” said Mrazek. “I couldn’t play for the national team for two years because I had a problem in the Czech Republic. When they called me and said I could, I was so happy.”
One of the top young goaltenders from the Czech Republic, Mrazek didn’t even sniff the preliminary rosters of his country’s World Junior Championship teams the previous two seasons, despite being an NHL drafted goaltender who was considered a rising star for the OHL’s Ottawa 67s.
When he found his country leading the United States late in the third period, on the back of his 52-save performance, he proudly wore his emotions on the sleeves of his jersey. He fist-pumped after a penalty shot save, dog-piled on a teammate who sealed the win with an insurance goal, danced while the Canadian crowd shouted his name, and even dove halfway into the bench to celebrate with his teammates.
“I didn’t think I would celebrate like that,” he said. “I’m a quiet goaltender, but that was something special. It’s one of the biggest things that can happen in your hockey career. You can’t play in the under-20 every year. You only get one or two chances.”
The celebration didn’t always go as planned, though. The tournament was hosted in Canada, meaning the crowd didn’t take too kindly to his energy after he celebrated a penalty shot save on a Canadian player during an earlier game. Mrazek was booed for the rest of the night, making the chants two nights later all the more interesting.
“I knew that when we played against the USA that people would probably cheer for us,” said Mrazek. “I knew they didn’t like them [in Canada], so I tried again and they loved it. There were 20,000 people in the arena calling my name. It was unreal.”
Although his celebrations drew the attention of several detractors, there was no doubting that his performance matched the hype. After being named the tournament’s top goaltender, he returned to Ottawa to cap off a three-year junior career with a long playoff run. He led his team to the Eastern Conference Final and posted more than 30 saves in 11 of his 17 postseason appearances.
“I think I ended up in a great city with Ottawa,” said Mrazek. “It’s like a European city a little bit, there are a lot of Czechs. I met some Czech families and they helped me to adjust.”
Mrazek came to North America prior to the 2009-10 season, as his agent told him it would provide him with a better chance of impressing NHL scouts and eventually getting drafted. Detroit selected the Ostrava, Czech Republic, native with their fifth choice in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
“When I was growing up, people said [the OHL] was a good way to get a chance to play in the NHL,” said Mrazek. “My agent told me it would be a good chance to get drafted, so of course I wanted to go. It was a new experience, and a lot can happen.”
While it’s not too common, there are cases every year of talented European prospects who struggle after entering leagues around North America. Challenges range from adapting to a new culture and living alone at a young age to the language barriers in making new friends and understanding lessons from coaches.
“The biggest thing was having no parents there, and I didn’t speak English well,” he said, adding that he missed his family and friends but never felt homesick. “It was hard, but I was able to use Skype and talk to them.”
Now that he’s transitioned to the AHL, Mrazek is far more familiar with the North American lifestyle, more polished with the English language and in an environment he knows he can thrive, having been around many of his new teammates at previous Red Wings’ prospect camps.
“I don’t think it will be a big change, just little changes like a new town, new people, new players and new coaches,” said Mrazek. “Maybe the hockey is a little different, but I was in Canada for three years, so living here won’t be too different.
“I will work hard every day and take it step by step,” he continued. “I’ll try to play here a lot by practicing hard, working out in the gym hard and resting to be ready for games.”
Mrazek began his first AHL training camp when players reported on Oct. 1, and he finds himself learning the same lessons he’s been learning since becoming a member of the Red Wings organization.
“I worked with Jim Bedard and Chris Osgood in Traverse City, and I talked to them a lot when I was in Ottawa for two years,” said Mrazek, noting that the two goalie coaches were present during the Griffins’ training camp.
It remains to be seen if and when the 10,834-seat Van Andel Arena will be chanting his name, but like new head coach Jeff Blashill, Mrazek is another component of a young and energetic core that hopes to lead Grand Rapids to a quick start once the 2012-13 season begins.