It seems as though every year something good happens to the Ottawa 67’s. A team known for assessing talent had brought in several rookies into its lineup for the 2001-2002 season.
From Newmarket of the Provincial Junior A Hockey League (where he had collected 83 points on 33 goals in 49 games), 17-year old sniper Corey Locke joined the lineup. A couple of 16-year-old hopefuls and 2001 draftees Mark Mancari and Layne Moodie have already become everyday contributors for the club.
However, the 67’s crossed their fingers when selecting a couple of Czech imports, Karol Sloboda and Jaroslav Sklenar, 62nd and 72nd overall, respectively, at the 2001 CHL import Draft.
There is no doubt that these two youngsters have tremendous talent — Sklenar was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ sixth round, 183rd overall pick in the 2001 NHL draft. However predicting the players’ adaptation to the Canadian language and society would have been next to impossible.
So far, the season has been a dream for Sloboda, the league’s plus-minus leader going into last Friday’s game versus the Oshawa Generals, and arguably the 67’s MVP in the first 16 games of the season. Meanwhile, Sklenar — seen by many as a prospect with better potential than Sloboda — returned to the Czech Republic with homesickness. Somewhat of a shock to many that predicted Jaroslav as this year’s version of the departed Vadim Sozinov.
Sloboda, meanwhile, has quietly become a mainstay on the Ottawa blueline, to say the least.
Backtracking to the Import Draft in June 2001, the 67’s had little informattion about their first-round selection. “There isn’t much I can say,” said the 67’s Coach and General Manager Brian Kilrea.
The only guarantee was that Sloboda was willing to report and looking forward to a season with the 67’s squad.
The 6-foot-1 defenseman with the Dukla Trencin of the Czech Republic last year, Karol had played 22 games with the pro team, compiling zeroes in goals, points and penalty minutes. Needless to say, Sloboda was getting limited playing time in his home country.
As early as the pre-season, though, Sloboda was drawing raves from the coach and his teammates.
“I’d have to say that his strength is his all-around game”, said the fellow blueliner Brendan Bell.
Sloboda’s on-ice partner, Bell mentioned that they have learned a lot by playing with each other.
“We have helped each other a lot over the course of the season”, said Bell.
Sloboda started the season on a tear, accumulating a spectacular plus-3 in the opening game of the season. Sloboda’s patience with the puck, consistency and hockey sense were key in Ottawa’s early seven-game unbeaten streak.
“He works hard,” said Brian Kilrea, “he is an impact player because he is sound at both ends of the ice.”
Sloboda has admirable offensive skills to go along with his aggressive defensive style. He possesses a good long reach and distributes the puck effectively along the ice. Sloboda is not fancy in his approach; he avoids cross-ice passes and favors the simple plays.
Sloboda has demonstrated a low, hard shot from the point this year, which has resulted in three goals, including the game-winning marker in the October 19th game versus the Sarnia Sting. With only 1:08 remaining in the regulation of a 3-3 game, Sloboda won the game with a wrist shot upstairs.
“Thanks to Karol, the game went our way, because he works so hard,” said Kilrea after the game, “his all-around game is his strength.”
Kind words for a prospect who was considered a crapshoot pick at draft time. Generally, it is safe to say that aside from the top 30-40 players chosen at the Import Draft, the rest are not well known by North American scouts. And there are factors such as homesickness, language difficulties as well as the style of game. Not to mention the fact that oftentimes, the European teams don’t release the players, adding to the risk of selecting certain imports.
The factor that was a major incentive for the 67’s to select Sloboda was his willingness to play in North America. He was anxious to learn the English language and adapt to the new culture.
For Jaroslav Sklenar, the transition was too much to handle.
“(He) was homesick right off the start, and misses his family and he has a girlfriend at home,” said Kilrea, “so we decided that the best thing to do was to send him home”.
“Sklenar has had trouble with the language, but Karol has picked up on the league very well. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see him be an influence both on the ice and the dressing room. He’s gotten along with his teammates exceptionally well . . . I’ll tell you he plays better than the average rookie.”
“The transition (to the OHL) hasn’t been much of a problem. He played at a high level (in Czech Republic). He had to make adjustments to our way of living, but not to his game”.
Jake Dole covers the Ontario Hockey League and the 2002 NHL Entry Draft for Hockey’s Future, the No. 1 source for hockey prospect information on the web.