Ustrnul back to Chicago to fight for a job

By Holly Gunning

The Atlanta Thrashers drafted Libor Ustrnul in the second round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, 42nd overall. They had high hopes for the 6’5 defenseman out of Plymouth of the OHL. The Czech native was signed to a rookie contract beginning in 2002-03, and has played the last three seasons with the Thrashers AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.

In mid-November, Ustrnul was struck by the puck in the cheekbone. He fell to the ice, sustaining a concussion. He came back after just three weeks, but it was too early. Ustrnul took another hit and started feeling dizzy, with loss of memory and vision problems. He then took two and a half months off to try to heal completely.

On March 3, the 23-year-old was assigned to the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators in an effort to get him back to game shape. Having just played three games with the team, Ustrnul said he felt very good.

“I feel physically and mentally ready and 100 percent. But the main thing is that you need to play games and in Chicago they expect you to do the right things all the time, you cannot make mistakes. So that’s why they sent me here, to build my confidence, handle the puck a little bit more, so that when I start playing for Chicago I am ready. Sometimes when you come off of injury and jump into games, you’re jumping onto a moving train, you know?”

Gladiators Coach Jeff Pyle played the 235-pounder in all situations, even the power play, which he was not used to as a defensive defenseman. Against Columbia on the man advantage, he threw a heavy shot on net from the point, and Brad Schell put in the rebound for the goal.

“Yeah, it was probably my first power play (time) in professional hockey,” Ustrnul said laughing. “I’m not really a big fan of power plays. I’m happy (to play it), but I’m more a penalty kill guy. I’m happier if they don’t score against me.”

Previous concussions

This concussion recovery period was not the first for Ustrnul, in fact, far from it. Given one’s susceptibility to recurring concussions, his history with them is concerning. Ustrnul’s first concussion was at age 12, when he fell on the slippery stairs at a hockey rink, hitting his head on the wall. A race car fanatic, he had two more in car accidents. He has had one in each of his three years in Chicago, for a total of six by this count.

Ustrnul has seen several specialists in Chicago, but is of the opinion that the doctors don’t in fact know very much about concussions and can’t really do anything. Rest is the only medicine, he believes.

One test the neurologist gave him involved remembering pictures and then drawing them. He laughed that he could remember the pictures even now.

“The words change sometimes, but the pictures are always the same. If you give me paper, I can draw it.”

While his memory might be quite good, having been to the neurologist enough times to memorize the tests is certainly a dubious distinction.

Mental battles

The most frustrating thing for Ustrnul with his injuries has been simply being out of the line-up. He’s played 40 and 46 games the past two seasons, and 27 thus far in 2004-05.

“It’s the last year of my contract and I was hoping to have a great season. I wish someday I can play for Atlanta.

“It’s very hard mentally. You get down, but you can’t do anything. You cannot work out when you have a concussion. If you get a broken arm you can run, do the stairs. But with a concussion, you lie on the couch and eat. You try to get in shape, eat good things, but when you get back, it takes two weeks to get back in shape, another two weeks to get back to game shape.”

The past couple of years have been trying for Ustrnul in his personal life as well. During the 2002-03 season, his grandfather died and he flew home to the Czech Republic for the funeral. The next year, as the 2004 playoffs got underway, his sister died suddenly at age 24. He said it was the saddest thing that’s ever happened in his life. It’s weighing heavily on him even now, as the anniversary of her death approaches.

Back to Chicago, for now

Bag in hand as he left the Gwinnett arena on Tuesday night, Ustrnul will fly back to Chicago on Wednesday intent on working his way into the line-up. Then, “if the NHL opens, try to make the NHL. Play in the best league in the world and enjoy hockey.”

While Ustrnul would like to believe he’s improved during his time in Chicago, he’s well aware of the one step forward, two steps back path he has been on.

“I probably improved my skills a little bit. But every time I came back from a concussion, I have to build up again, it’s a step back and step back. So it’s hard to tell, but I think (I’ve improved).”

Ustrnul credits playing alongside Garnet Exelby his first year in helping him adjust to the AHL game, and veteran Dallas Eakins for being a surrogate father to him, keeping him on a straighter path.

Already with a full complement of defensemen, the Wolves have just added another by the name of Jay Bouwmeester as they gear up for the Calder Cup playoffs. The addition of Bouwmeester does not bode well for Ustrnul’s chances of getting back into the line-up. With his contract with the Thrashers expiring at the end of the year, he needs the time to show that he should still be in their plans. But he could just as easily be back on a plane to Gwinnett to finish out the season.

Walking into the night with a flight itinerary back to Chicago, Ustrnul’s head is clear for now, but his future is uncertain.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.