Hanzal back on track in the USHL

By Jeff Dahlia

When the Coyotes went into the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, they weren’t looking for a savior with their first round pick. They were looking for just another big piece of their future.

Phoenix took Martin Hanzal with the 17th overall pick. In Hanzal, they got a big winger who not could only handle the puck, but could skate, had tons of creativity and a tremendous amount of drive.

As the hype of the draft weekend died down, the Coyotes were ready to get their centerpiece of 2005 into motion, to prepare him for the NHL. In doing so, their main goal was to get the crafty Czech in North America. Like any European player, the jump is two-fold. He needed to learn the North American style and he needed to start grasping the culture changes.

All was set to happen, until the wheels fell off the wagon.

No “Pat” On The Back

Having selected Hanzal in the 2004 CHL import draft, the WHL Regina Pats were eager to finally get him playing for them. Rightly so, Regina thought he was going to play the 2004-05 season, but things had changed overnight.

Somewhere between the Import Draft and July 2004, Hanzal changed agents. At the time of the draft, he was represented by Mark McKay from Octagon Sports. Then two new agents in Robert Spalenka and Mark Stowe came on board. In less than a month, Hanzal’s outlook and future was drastically altered.

During that period, Hanzal went from having his transfer papers signed, sealed and delivered to Regina for the 2004-05 season, to actually being sent back to his Czech club at his agents’ request.

Aware of the hurdles European prospects face with coming over, Pats General Manager Brent Parker worked with Hanzal and his agents.

“We released him back based, basically, on good faith,” said Parker when he was told Hanzal would be on board for the 2005-06 season. “Things happen and I know sometimes kids change their minds. It’s a big jump and we all know that.”

Patient and willing to aid in Hanzal’s development rather than interfere with it, Parker and the Pats played on without the up-and-coming Czech forward for the entire 2004-05 season.

“Sometimes it’s even harder on the European players because there are a whole bunch of adjustments aside from hockey,” Parker explained. “You have the language barriers, cultural differences, aside from him being an 18-year-old away from home. There are a lot of things that go into it.”

In the offseason, Regina’s head coach Curtis Hunt had a golden opportunity to meet with Hanzal, his family and Spalenka. Serving as an assistant coach on the Team Canada’s U-18 World Championship team and with the tournament being held in Pilsen, Czech Republic, Hunt had the ideal setting to make another pitch for the WHL and Regina.

According to Parker, Hunt did a tremendous job speaking not only his own behalf as a coach but also that of the entire Pats organization and the City of Regina. Having felt that all the “loose ends” were tied, both Parker and Hunt were more than confident that Hanzal was on his way for the fall.

Then in the NHL Entry Draft, the Coyotes selected Hanzal in the first round and the plans changed yet again.

“They informed us around August 2005 that Martin was not coming over,” Parker said of Camp Hanzal. “They wanted him to play over in the WHL but he wasn’t coming to Regina. Then they asked that we flat-out release him.”

Backed into a no-win situation, Parker could not let this big, crafty player walk away without an ounce of compensation. From roughly early September 2005 up until the 2005-06 WHL trade deadline, Parker and the Pats tried to unload Hanzal. Things got a little more interesting when Hanzal’s representatives gave Parker a short list of teams that their client would play for.

Teams started showed interest, but for the most part, they walked away with cold feet.

“Around late November, we already had a number of teams phone us inquiring about Martin,” Parker said. “We told the other teams to contact his agent and see if he would be willing to come there. If so, we would start to try to put a deal together. A number of teams did call and a number of teams were told that he wouldn’t go there by his representatives.”

Parker was able to get close to one deal, but it became too tough to pull off something that suited both parties. When the list shrunk to only one team, Parker’s hands were tied.

“We felt that it would be difficult for us to put a deal together with someone who knows that this would be the only place he would go,” Parker explained. “We felt we would give another team too much of an advantage.

“Trust me, it’s not like we were saying the right thing behind closed doors to everyone. We also were saying behind those doors that we weren’t going to trade Martin just to screw the agent. All we said was, ‘If we don’t get the right deal, we’re not going to trade him or give him away.’ I think that is fair. We got offers, but we just didn’t see how they would fit for our organization for immediate needs and for the future.”

Even though Parker understands that even junior hockey is a business too, he still feels he did the right thing.

“We felt he was worth the time and effort,” Parker reiterated about trying numerous times to get Hanzal on board with the Pats. “We think he’s a good player, who would be a good addition to our organization. You always have recruiting issues that you’re always dealing with at the junior hockey level. It was frustrating and time consuming, but we still thought he’d be a great addition to our club.”

All aboard for Omaha

Moving on past the WHL deadline of Jan. 10, 2006, and unable to find a suitor in the “dub” for Hanzal, the Coyotes started looking at their next best option.

Again, the Coyotes chief concern was that Hanzal was playing hockey and adjusting North America this season. Time was running out and all other relative options in Canada were closed. Phoenix dialed the USHL.

After getting interest from the Omaha Lancers and the Sioux Falls Stampede organizations, the decision was Hanzal’s to make. Having taken everything into account, he opted to play in Omaha.

“The Coyotes main concern was that they could find him a place to play and a place to adapt to the North American style of hockey,” Omaha Lancers head coach Mike Hastings explained about early talks. “(Director of Player Personnel) Tom Kurvers said, ‘Hey we’re not sure if this is what the young man wants to do, but we’re trying to provide him with some opportunities. Would you be interested? Did you have a spot for him?’

“For the most part, everyone involved felt it was best to leave it up to Martin to decide whether he wanted to come over to the States and play in this league or not. Fortunately for us, he decided to come over.”

After playing sparingly with his home club HC Budejovice in the top league, Hanzal finally had a new home. He arrived in Omaha a little more than a month ago and is finally starting to make the anticipated adjustments that have been on hold now for almost two years.

“The first three or four games, he seemed to be just running on pure adrenaline,” Hastings said. “His first game in the league was on the road against Lincoln, who’s our biggest rival. There were about 4,700 people there and it was sold out. Anyone can get excited to play in a situation like that. Now, after having some more games under his belt, I feel he’s got to the point where he’s a bit more comfortable.”

He is obviously a little gun shy to an extent, but you also see the eagerness in his eyes and his body language to keep the ball rolling.

“Looking back, I think one the reasons Phoenix selected Martin is because of the young man he is,” Hastings said. “He’s come in and fit in like an old tennis shoe. He has done a good job as far as his work ethic, his discipline on and off the ice, and his want to succeed every day.

“Whether he’s working with our strength coach, working hard in practice or even trying to grasp the English language with his tutor over at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, he’s definitely putting in the effort. He gets excited because he wants to continue to get better both socially and athletically.”

Not only has his individual effort been a positive exclamation point, but also his new teammates are starting to take to him.

“I think because of the way Martin has come in and handled himself as an individual, has been the difference,” Hastings said about the forward earning his way into the minds of his fellow Lancers. “Because he hasn’t expected anything special and he has just come in and gone to work every day, it has made that part of the transition smooth.”

Getting back on track

As far as the 2005-06 season goes, this is the end of the line for Hanzal. There has been some feuding, some misunderstandings and some unfortunate events in which have delayed the Czech prospect’s development. But one thing for certain is that the Coyotes have their latest high profile prospect on U.S. soil.

Now it’s time for Hanzal to dig down deep and keep things going in the right direction.

“I have to say that Martin is extremely coachable,” Hastings pointed out. “If you give him something, it’s digested and he utilizes it immediately. I don’t see an ego getting involved here because that was a concern we had. He was coming from the Czech Elite League.”

While Hastings is more than eager to help Hanzal along, he said he’s far from judging him at this point because it’s too early.

“I think the biggest part of all of this would be to look at the whole piece of work at the end of the season,” Hastings explained. “Right now, I think it is an unanswered question because will he continue to develop on and off the ice? Is he going to end up feeling comfortable where he is at on the rink, off the rink and everything in between? Will he be able to shuttle into a leadership role towards the end of the season? Can he sustain getting uprooted and dropped into a whole new scenario and asked to survive again?”

Amid all of these questions, Hastings is aware there is a possibility he might leave after this year.

“If he masters this league by the end of the year and he’s a dominant player who out grows the league, then he needs to move on,” he said. “If he hasn’t, then he should look at staying.

“I really think the decision is more common sense than anything else. If he is that head and shoulders above the league, then yes he needs to move on. If not, then he needs to look at what is best for him.”

Whatever the case may be, Hanzal has a place to call home for the moment and he has a league and organization that is proud to help in his development.

“To me, we have an opportunity to show Martin what we’re all about,” Hastings added. “The organization and the league can look at it as their own individual goals or better yet, what is best for the kid. I can tell you that the USHL is getting younger and we’re moving them through the league a bit faster. That’s a good thing because it tells us that the kids are coming in here and they’re ready to move.”

As of Mar. 1, Hanzal has played in 12 games for the Lancers and has collected 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) and is currently a +8.

Having traveled more than half the distance to Phoenix, he’s headed in the right direction.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.