Czech 2004 prospects: Jan Steber

By Robert Neuhauser

The Czech Republic is a longtime talent supplier to the CHL. Every year young Czech imports arrive who want to have a taste of another playing style, life and culture. The likes of Pavel Brendl, Josef Vasicek or Milan Kraft were enjoying respectable careers in Canadian major junior leagues a few years ago, while these days players like Petr Kanko, Petr Vrana and Kamil Kreps are starring in the CHL. The 2003 CHL Import Draft brought another bunch of Czech players to the CHL teams. One of them is Jan Steber, the import pick of the Halifax Mooseheads.

Jan Steber didn’t have a very common beginning to his hockey career. In fact, he even didn’t want to play organized hockey. But when he was six years old, his father bought him a pair of skates, so that the little Jan could learn how to skate like all the other kids. And because the blades of the skates were separate from the boots, he had to visit the hockey arena in Steber’s native city Orlova, Czech Republic. He asked there if the equipment managers can put the skates together. That was no problem for them and they told Jan’s dad to bring his little son to the practice of the entry level team, so that he can also learn how to skate properly and play hockey. Till that time was Steber’s only hockey activity collecting player cards, but now he had an opportunity to join his idols as hockey players.

Steber agreed to this and followed his father to the Orlova hockey arena. There he stood on the skates for the first time and very soon began to like hockey a lot. Steber’s first coach, Svatopluk Hermann, who enjoyed a successful hockey career for Vitkovice on the Czech elite level, recognized the talent for sports the little kid had. After watching him in the practices Hermann decided about putting Steber on offense. Steber was eager to score goals and create offense. He especially admired former New York Rangers captain Mark Messier and he also tried to pattern his jersey after Messier when he chose to play with number 11.

His talent and dedication to both workouts and practices paid off as Jan turned out to be one of the most skilled personalities of his team and an inspirational leader. He didn’t have the advantage of having one of his relatives playing or coaching hockey, but Orlova 1985-borns head coach Hermann worked with Jan a lot and gave him the needed tips. Steber showed a steady improvement in his play and already coming pee-wee age he was relied upon heavily on the Orlova team. When Steber was about to start performing for the 6th grade team, he was selected captain of his team. He proved that he is capable of this honor when he won his first individual trophy at a tournament played in nearby Ostrava in the Vitkovice arena. There he won the Top forward award. The trophy was presented by former national team player Frantisek Cernik and Steber considers this as the first highlight of his career. His good season for the 6th grade team was a bit overshadowed with a knee injury he suffered at a tournament played in Poprad, Slovakia, but it happened at the end of the season and didn’t influence Steber’s play much.

The next season, Steber, nicknamed ‘Stebrik’ from his surname, also captained his Orlova team, but his best season came the year after that, when he already didn’t wear the ‘C’. Steber formed a great line with Jakub Seliga and Vojtech Klecka and the combo clicked really well. Jan lead the team in scoring and it was clear that he won’t stay in Orlova for a long time. Extraleague teams are always hunting the young prospects to join their developmental system and Steber had a plenty of teams to choose from. The region around Orlova is stocked with Extraleague teams and Steber had possibilities of playing for one of Vitkovice, Trinec or Havirov. After some arguing Jan along with his parents decided that the Trinec offer was the most suitable and that performing under the tutelage of the experienced Trinec midget and junior coaching staff would help his progress most.

He played his 9th grade season for Orlova, but prior to the 2000-2001 season he joined the Trinec team. Thanks to his late birthdate he was still 9th grade eligible, but played most of his inaugural season in Trinec for the midget team under respected head coach Radomir Kuzilek.
There he met more skilled teammates and faced better competition. As a rookie he didn’t have such a big role on the team, he spend the beginning of the season with getting used to the midget Extraleague pace and after that he could showcase some of his talents. Steber also had to say goodbye to his favorite number 11, he couldn’t play with it in Trinec because one his teammates already wore this number, so Jan started playing with 38 on his back, the number he still wears today. He filled more a defensive role than emerging as a scoring threat, but still posted solid stats with 52 games played, 16 goals, 12 assists for a total of 28 points to go along with a whooping +26 and 39 PIMs. Trinec team was stocked with quality prospects and reached considerable success as the Trinec midgets stood in the finals against HC Slavia Praha. Unfortunately for Jan Steber, Slavia Praha clinched the midget Extraleague championship title in 2000-2001 when another 2004 prospect, Jakub Sindel, scored the series-winner for Slavia.

Trinec midgets could bounce back in 2001-2002 and this time they could make use of their experience from the previous season. They were a bit hurt with graduation of the likes of New Jersey Devils prospect Marek Chvatal and Jiri Hunkes to the junior ranks, but players like Jan Steber stepped up and took a bigger role. Steber understood on the ice well with fellow 2004 eligible forward David Krejci and he also increased his offensive output. He was there to provide a mix of grit and offensive punch with 22 points for 13 goals and 9 assists in 30 games. That with a +/- of +17 and 10 PIMs, proving that Steber is capable of handling also the defensive duties well. After a strong playoff run Trinec midgets outplayed Zlin midgets in the finals and won the midget Extraleague championship title. This was the biggest success in Steber’s career so far. And on the final practice of the season, already after the end of the final series, Steber tried to play in goal for this one practice. But there was no chance that he would switch to the goaltender position.

Trinec juniors head coach Josef Halouzka was aware of the talent Steber had and decided to give him a chance at the junior level as an underager already in 2001-2002. Steber was a key player on the midget squad and could get his feet wet even in the junior Extraleague, so that his transition to the junior ranks would be smoother in the next season. Jan dressed out for 12 junior games, posting modest stats with 5 points for 2 goals and 3 assists, a +/- of +1 and 4 PIMs.

Czech Under-17 team coaches Karel Najman and Jaroslav Beck also penciled Jan Steber as a potential boost to the Under-17 team lineup and decided to give him a shot on the international stage at the 2002 World Hockey Challenge. The line of Vojtech Polak, Petr Vrana and Ivo Kratena draw the most attention, but Jan Steber could also showcase glimpses of what he was capable of. The coaches liked what they saw from Steber and from the 2002 World Hockey Challenge he had a roster spot guaranteed on the Under-17 team. He made the trip to the Four Nations Tournament played in Sweden in February, 2002 and closed out the season with an appearance in a four-game series in Germany. Steber played in 13 international games in 2001-2002, registering 8 points for 2 goals and 6 assists, -6 and 12 PIMs.

But even if he already boasted junior Extraleague playing experience from the previous season, Steber didn’t see much quality ice time for Trinec in 2002-2003. He performed mostly on the third or fourth line, also because of the fact that the team was relying on the performance of more experienced 1984 born players in order to make a championship run. They squared off against Kladno juniors in the final best-of-five series and lost, despite having a 2 to 0 lead. This prevented Steber from winning two consecutive championship titles, but he still calls the silver medal a success. Although toiling on the third line, Steber still managed to chip in offensively, averaging nearly a point per game in the second half of the season. Overall he appeared in 44 games, notching 27 points for 14 goals and 13 assists along with an even +/- and 31 PIMs.

On the international stage Steber recorded a very good season and had a significant role on the Czech Under-18 team. He started the 2002-2003 international campaign with a solid showing at the World Junior Cup, played in Czech Republic and Slovakia in August 2002. In five games for the second-placed Czechs Steber scored 4 points for 2 goals and 2 assists. On the next tournament of the Under-18 schedule, a Five Nations tournament, played in Prievidza, Slovakia, Jan Steber notched 2 points for 1 goal and 1 assist in 4 games. He didn’t find the net at the Christmas tournament played in Bern, Switzerland, but added four helpers to emerge as one of the leading scorers of the Czech team plus was selected the best player of the opening game against Sweden. Jan’s strong two-way play caught the eye of the NHL scouts also at the Five Nations tournament, played in the Czech cities Mlada Boleslav, Kralupy nad Vltavou and Praha in February 2003. Steber contributed to the third-place finish with more than a point per game, he scored 5 points for 1 goal and 4 assists in just 4 games and began to be talked about as a coveted 2004 prospect.

But in March his international season came to a sudden end. Steber was a lock to make the Czech Under-18 WJC team, but unfortunately hurt his leg prior to the tournament and finally didn’t make the trip to Yaroslavl, Russia for the Under-18 WJC. The leg injury is fully healed by now and Jan Steber is ready go far in the next season, but not in the Czech junior Extraleague. The Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL nabbed him with their first round pick, 16th overall in the 2003 CHL Import Draft and Steber is going to try his luck in North America, where he will join New Jersey Devils draft pick and former Under-17 team teammate Petr Vrana on the Mooseheads squad.

Steber is a good skater for a big man and possesses a nice agility. He only needs to gain more strength which will also upgrade his balance. His footspeed could see upgrading, too. Steber plays well in every game situation and is effective on both powerplay and penalty killing units. More of a passer than sniper, Steber distributes crisp accurate passes. He has a decent hockey sense and is smart and creative with the puck. He is an average puckhandler, but makes up for this with his strong intensity and determination. He takes care of his own end, too, and can’t be labeled as one-dimensional. Steber possesses a strong slapper, but his wrist shot could have a faster release and be more accurate. He can emerge even as a first-round pick in the 2004 draft, his improvement is taking an upward path and his huge 6’3”, 200 lbs. frame is another bonus.

He isn’t a very superstitious player, the only thing Steber does always before each game is the way he puts his gear on. Jan begins with the right side first.

Steber just finished his second year of studies at the business academy in Trinec, but he isn’t planning to attend school in Halifax next year. When Jan isn’t playing hockey or studying, then he is mostly relaxing by watching movies or sport channels on TV. He likes to watch Czech movies like Pupendo, Pelisky or the three-movie series Slunce, seno…, which stars actors like Bolek Polivka, Miroslav Donutil, Helena Ruzickova or Eva Holubova. But more than watching TV Steber listens to music. He lists mostly Czech groups among his favorites, with Kabat, Chinaski, Support Lesbiens and singer Daniel Landa being the leading ones.

When it comes to hobbies, then Jan takes part in many sport activities. When he had more free time, he made skiing trips in the mountains, but now he can’t do so and plays mostly soccer, basketball, tennis, table tennis or goes swimming. He is a fan of the New York Rangers, Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Steber is a fond of good food and he prefers to eat chicken, steak with potato puree and vegetable salad or pizza. Pudding belongs to his favorite sweets. He only wouldn’t be happy with fish soup for his dinner. To drink then he mostly chooses mineral water, juices or tea, Jan doesn’t like to drink beer.

For the next season Jan Steber has clear goals. Represented by agent Tim Cranston from the Navigation Pro Management Group, he will report to play with the Halifax Mooseheads and he hopes to make a splash simillar to the one Petr Vrana did in the ‘Q’ in the last season. Steber dreams of playing in the NHL, but would also be happy with performing in the Czech Extraleague. On the international stage he hopes to play at the World Championships or the Winter Olympic Games. He is a very promising young prospect and will be often talked about coming 2004 NHL Entry Draft.