Czech NHL rookies – Josef Vasicek

By Robert Neuhauser
In this part I take a closer look at a player, who tries to fill the gap after Keith Primeau in Carolina. It’s a player with nearly the same size and the same leadership qualities. It’s Josef Vasicek.

Josef grew up in a small city of Havlickuv Brod, where he started to play hockey. He was only 5 and he soon became the young star of this provincial city. As long as Josef visited elementary school, everything was OK. But the city of Havlickuv Brod was too small for his talent. Josef had respectable talent and was one of the best players in the country at pee-wee age, but he wasn’t the top talent like Milan Kraft among the 1980 born. Compared to Milan, Josef didn’t have the chance to play hockey for the same time as Milan, as he is 9 months younger (born 09-12-1980). But he could take advantage of his good size. He was taller than most of the guys his age and because of his workouts he had enough strength to use it to his advantage. Josef developed his no-fear style and great play in front of the opponent’s net. The scouts of HC Slavia Praha recognized this fact as the team broke into the Czech Elite league in 1994. The new team wanted to build a solid core of bantam aged players, who were playing in the smaller cities, to have a good base for the future. Some players were supposed to step into the Elite team after their stint with Slavia’s midget and junior teams. Josef, called “Pepa” like all Josefs was one of those players. Slavia fought its way to the elite midget league, ELHD, and Josef contributed for both the Slavia Praha midgets and the Under-16 team. Milan Kraft was elected captain of the Under-16 team, but Josef’s leadership was considerable, too. He was playing with his Slavia teammate Jan Sochor (Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick) most of the time with the junior nationals, with Josef playing center and Jan the gritty winger. Together they worked their way into the Slavia Praha Jr. team, but Josef saw only limited action in 1996-97, when the Slavia Praha juniors won their first of four consecutive junior league titles. In that season Josef also participated at the Europe’s youth winter olympics with the Under-17 team, but that didn’t lead to a medal. In 1997-98 Josef could learn again from the excellent coaching staff in the Slavia Praha Jr. team and raise the trophy for the ELHJ champion for the second time. But the top of the season was in April in Sweden at the European championships of the Under-18 teams. Eyes of the NHL scouts focus on this tournament and Josef was hard to overlook on the ice with his 6’3″ frame. The young Czechs performed well and four teams finished with the same number of points after the final group. Sweden led by the Sedins took gold and the Czechs were the poor team to leave without a medal. Two goals against in the game against Sweden decided. Josef impressed the NHL scouts with 2 goals and a fearless play. Carolina Hurricanes seemed to be impressed enough to take him in the 4th round with the 91st overall pick in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo. Sarnia Sting Jeff Heerema was the Canes top pick (now skating with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL), but Josef turned out to be a real steal. Drafted by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL in the 1998 CHL Import draft, Josef could choose between pursuing his career with the Slavia Praha juniors or crossing the sea to Canada. He wasn’t considered to be a top prospect, but Josef wanted to make a name for himself in the OHL. So in August 1998 Josef arrived in Soo. The 1998-99 season saw another Czech prospect stun the CHL – scoring machine Pavel Brendl with his 134 points, but Josef also showed decent skills during his rookie season. His main goal was to get adjusted to the smaller rinks and another lifestyle and he did that well. He was willing to hit the opponents often, he used his body well. Either along the boards or in front of the net. He also developed his defensive and passing skills and the coaches discovered his leadership qualities. So after finishing his rookie campaign Josef was honored with wearing the C in Soo. That was great. Josef captained the former team of Wayne Gretzky! A fearless leader is a player every team needs. Even the Czech Under-20 team preparing for the 2000 WJC. Milan Kraft captained this squad and Josef was a secret star. Not as big a prospect as Martin Havlat or Michal Sivek, but a hardworking guy using his size well. Hurricanes scouts could be satisfied with his performance. Josef excelled with the puck and was calm and confident on the ice. On powerplays he was used as a defenseman. One of the leaders of the winning Czech team. Josef notched 4 points (1 goal + 3 assists) in the tournament. His lone goal came in the second game, in the 2:2 tie against the USA squad. A big success for the whole Czech junior hockey. Josef continued his great play in the OHL, finishing with 72 points (26 goals + 46 assists) in 53 regular season games. His +/- stats were great, too, as Josef finished with +17.

So he saw his chance to earn a roster spot with the Hurricanes. He worked hard in the summer and it paid rewards. Showed well at the Canes camp and his dream came true. Josef suited up for his first NHL game. And he does well even in the NHL. By this time Josef has 9 points on 2 goals and 7 assists in 13 games for the Carolina Hurricanes. Good luck!