Martin Vagner – A new Czech QMJHL star

By Robert Neuhauser
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is better known for developing young top-notch
goaltenders and forwards than defensemen. No wonder, With the offensive style, which is in
the ‘Q’ played, the goalies face lots of quality chances every night and the forwards
are responsible. But from time to time also a defenseman takes center stage in this league.
This year there is no higher ranked player from the QMJHL than Czech defenseman Martin Vagner.

Martin Vagner started his career in his native city Jaromer. His dad played hockey for Jaromer
at a lower level and his small son seemed to like the game. He soon got his first pair
of skates and took his first strides at the local rink. At that time his father was the
hockey hero for Martin and he wanted to be like him. So his career had a green light.
Martin started playing hockey for Jaromer when he was five years old and he wasn’t playing
only defense since the first time. He was a talented kid and the coaches have occasionally
slotted him also at the forward position. Martin handled the puck quite well, so he could
eventually become a very good forward. But defense suited him better and Martin began to
call the blue line his home. He had all the needed tools and gained a reputation of one
of the top defensemen in his region in rapid time. Martin was very efficient at both ends
of the ice and the team relied on his skill. But the small Jaromer city was in a short time
also small for Martin’s talent. The nearest city with an established franchise was Hradec
Kralove and they wanted to bring Martin Vagner to their system. Martin received their offer
when he was just 12 years old and he finally accepted that offer.

So for the 7th grade
Martin wore already the Hradec Kralove jersey and on that jersey was a ‘C’. From that season
Martin captained the Hradec Kralove 1984 borns team for three years.
His defensive skills were honed by a
more experienced coaching staff and Martin began to be considered not only in his region
as a very talented defenseman, but also in the whole country. He added a very solid offensive
output to his game and earned lots of quality ice time on powerplay and penalty killing units.
In Hradec Kralove Martin spent three years. During that time he participated at many youth
tournaments, like every kid playing hockey. But Martin also won a lot of trophies from
those tournaments, either for the best player or more frequently the best defenseman. He
was concentrating on a mistake-free defense and the forwards still could make use of his
accurate outlet passes and an ability to join the rush. All of this made from Martin a
highly coveted pee-wee aged player, who was on wish lists of many Extraleague teams. They
want to ensure the future by bringing the most talented kids into their systems and then
developing them into future players of the senior team. Mighty HC Sparta Praha team succeeded
in the chase for Martin, who moved to the capital city Praha when he was ready to make the
leap into the midget ranks.

Martin Vagner is an outstanding skater with a great lateral movement and is well-balanced
on his skates. He has a big frame (6’2”, 205 lbs.), is very mobile for this size
and he uses his reach well.
Defensively he is very sound positionally and he keeps his game simple and mistake-free.
Martin has a terrific vision and hockey sense and he distributes the pucks very effectively.
He plays with lots of poise and maturity and is capable of smart, crisp outlet passes.
Martin also posesses a hard shot from the point, which isn’t telegraphed, he just needs
to release it more in order to become a legitimate powerplay threat. His passing skills are
exceptional, shooting just above average. Martin is a reliable blueliner, but has to further
develop his toughness and intensity. He is a big guy and needs to show more of his nasty edge
and hit harder. But overall is Martin an immensely talented two-way defenseman who is
very likely to slip into the first round of the draft.

After having a highly succesfull cup of coffee with the Sparta Praha midgets in 1998-99
Martin was relied upon heavily the next season, where he should have a leading role in the
Sparta’s defensive corps. He coped with that duty well as he recorded 10 points for 2 goals
and 8 assists in 45 games, where he also spent 34 minutes in the penalty box. For one game
he even got promoted to the junior team, in that game he went scoreless.
His defensive savvy was a coveted asset also for the Czech Under-16 team. Martin, who likes
to wear the number 6 on his jersey after his dad, but dreams of the number 76, skated
with the Under-16 team on three occasions and besides a succesfull three-game series against
the young Russians he was a member of the team which won the Four
Nations Tournament in Angerholm, Sweden.

In the summer of 2000 Martin made another change in his hockey career. He decided to leave
Sparta Praha, where he spent two years and headed east to Pardubice to join the local junior
team. Pardubice offered him a chance to play in the junior Extraleague as an underage while
in Sparta he would probably have to stick with the midget team for a third straight season.
Really, in Pardubice he dressed up for only one midget game. In that game he also scored a
goal, proving his dominancy at this level. Martin was better served in the junior team. He got
a great mentor in Jakub Barton, who was three years older than Martin and was paired with
him for most of the games. Barton learned him how to survive at the junior level while being
an underage. The sky was the limit for the Pardubice juniors last season and they really
fought their way into the final series, where they defeated the Vsetin juniors and grabbed
the junior Extraleague championship title. Martin also enjoyed a very succesfull season, in
52 junior games he notched 13 points for 1 goal and 12 assists to go along with 44 PIMs.
He established himself in junior hockey and enjoyed a major success with the championship
title.

Martin Vagner was one of the defensive anchors of the Czech Under-17 team in 2000-2001.
He missed just the three-game series against the young Germans in August,
a three-game series against the Under-17 team of Finland and the European’s
Youth Olympics, the latter due to playoff duties with Pardubice. At all the other tourneys
he left a very solid performance with his blend of defensive awareness, strong puckhandling
and very good vision. He also participated at the famous World Hockey Challenge and has lit
the lamp up one time in the game against Team Ontario. His second international goal then
came at the following Four Nations Tournament in Finland in the 4:5 overtime loss to Russia.
Overall in 2000-2001 Martin dressed up for 17 games of the Under-17 team, scoring 5 points
for 2 goals and 3 assists while also racking up 32 PIMs and a +/- of -1.

It was a great season for journeyman Martin, who felt it’s time for a change again. Finally
he decided that the best way to the NHL is through the CHL and stated that he is ready
to say goodbye to Pardubice and come over to Canada. That was a message the CHL teams were
waiting for.
The Hull Olympiques didn’t hesitate to pick Martin with the third overall pick in the 2001
CHL Import Draft. The Olympiques were the first team from the ‘Q’ picking and they felt
that the skilled blueliner will fit the team’s scheme nicely and will be an immediate
contributor. They struck gold with selecting Ales Hemsky the previous year and were
crossing their fingers to have another Czech gem ready to perform at the Robert Guertin Arena.
So at the end of August Martin Vagner found himself aboard a plane heading Canada. He had
the advantage of a fellow Czech on the team and Ales Hemsky made his transition more
smooth. Martin had the same trouble as every European player who is in his rookie CHL season,
but got accustomed to the language and different culture soon. He learned English very fast
and after a while had no problems with understanding his teammates. Martin also added some
French words to his vocabulary, but he admits that his French is very limited.

On the ice
he had no limits, Martin was turning heads during the scrimmages and had a roster spot for
sure. He also soon got a Canadian nickname, head coach Claude Julien began to call him ‘Vags’ (quite
simillar to Jaromir Jagr’s ‘Yags’, eh?) As the season progressed, his confidence grew and
quite soon he was among the top players for the Olympiques. Vets Derek Martin and Jesse Lane took
him under the wings and learned him the tools of the QMJHL trade. Martin Vagner made use of
the tips and his draft stock took a steady rise. He performed also at the Home Hardware CHL
Top Prospects Game in February for Team Kelly Hrudey, leaving a solid impression.

He topped the CSB preliminary ranking of
the QMJHL players after an impressive beginning of the season and he picked up where he
left with the 8th overall ranking among North American skaters in the CSB final rankings
and a consideration as a first-round prospect. That also thanks to a stellar QMJHL season,
in 64 regular season games Martin scored 34 points for 6 goals and 28 assists, very good
numbers for a rearguard. After the eventual QMJHL champions Victoriaville Tigres finished
the Olympiques’ season, it was unfortunately too late for Martin to join the Czech Under-18
team at the WJC, but Martin was among the locks to make the team if he could arrive in time.

But life isn’t hockey for Martin Vagner. In Hull he was also visiting a secondary school and
split time between studies and major junior hockey.
This was the first season where he faced
such a tough schedule as it is in the ‘Q’, so it is quite logical that in his free time
Martin’s most popular activity is having a rest in order to have strength for the games.
When he isn’t resting, then Martin likes to play his favorite soccer or hang out with his
friends. He goes with them either to the cinema or to a discotheque.

If there would be a film about Martin Skoula in the cinema, Martin Vagner would definitely
buy a ticket. The Litomerice native and the current Colorado Avalanche blueliner is Martin
Vagner’s role model, one he tries to pattern his game after. Thanks to Skoula and Martin’s
recent idol Ray Bourque are the Avs his favorite team. And as the situation looks like,
coming end of June Martin could very well end wearing an Avalanche jersey as he still could
be available when Pierre Lacroix makes his selection. We’ll see. Good luck!