He may sometimes feel like a fish out of water, but it’s a sensation that Radek Faksa has had plenty of experience with. But when that water’s frozen and he’s strapped on the blades, few OHL players look as natural — or at home — on the ice as the Dallas Stars’ Czech Republic-born first rounder.
In fact, now in his third year in the OHL, Faksa explained he’d have a hard time going back.
“I think it’ll be a little harder for me now if I went back to the Euro-style of play,” he said. “It was pretty tough for me the first year and especially those first 15 games. I don’t think it’s easy for anyone coming over from Europe for their first couple of games.
“I understand that and I’m OK with the hockey now here.”
In North America — especially Canada — we are familiar with hockey prospects leaving home at young ages to further their careers. But you would be hard pressed to find one who can match Faksa, who left home at 11.
While it was his — and his mother’s — choice, it was one made necessary by various circumstance, financial and otherwise.
“I moved from my hometown of Opava at 11 years old,” he explained. “My hometown didn’t have that good of a hockey program and my mom, she couldn’t drive me everyday there, so I had to live there in the hotel by myself.”
Faksa lived in a Trinec hotel from ages 11 to 17, while he was playing in the HC Ocelari Trinec system. And though the experience matured him dramatically, it was also isolating.
“The first year was very hard because I was there by myself — the other guys were around eight years older and they didn’t talk with me too much,” he said. “I found some friends from school and hockey, so sometimes I would hang out with them. But still, I had to study by myself, had to make food. I had lunch at school and dinners at the hotel, but I had to make snacks and breakfast.
“[My mother] was an hour a half away. It was tough for me and, of course, it was tough for her.”
Faksa explained that he was able to resist falling into traps that might trip up other young people living away from home with so much freedom. And he’s not the only one who feels that way.
“My mom is pretty proud of me because I didn’t go wild or anything. I studied and she’s happy with me,” he said. “I think it has helped me with my life because I learned to do things on my own — I learned how to do laundry and shop for groceries, make food. It was pretty good for my future, I guess.”
Faksa was the 22nd selection in the 2010 CHL Import Draft, selected by the Kitchener Rangers with its first-round selection. And while living away from home was old hat to him by this point, he did experience similar feelings of isolation during his first year in Canada.
“The language was the biggest challenge,” Faksa explained. “When I came here I didn’t speak English. I didn’t talk to people that much. I didn’t feel comfortable. But my English is now better and my billets [who do not speak Czech] have helped me a lot and the team has helped me.”
The miracle of modern technology has helped, as has a close-knit Czech presence in Kitchener.
“I’m talking to home every day, either on Facebook or Skype,” he said. “My family comes over once a year to visit me. My brother has visited with his girlfriend to Kitchener. They’ve come together from the Czech Republic.
“I’ve met lots of Czech people [in Kitchener] and they’ve invited me for dinners, which is very nice of them and has helped a lot.”
That said, there are still some things that make Faksa feel every kilometer of distance between Canada and the Czech Republic.
“For sure I miss my family and friends, speaking the language — it’s my country,” he said. “I miss some of the food, but there’s Czech food that I can find in Canada, so it’s not that bad.”
He also feels bad for his mother, who now is dealing with an empty nest.
“This year my brother’s in Kitchener and my sister, she’s moved too,” Faksa explained. “She’s by herself now and it’s tough for her.”
But there’s been no thought of his mother joining the family in Canada. “Not yet. My grandmother’s still there and our family’s there. She’s not ready to leave,” he said.
A blossoming command of English, a third year in Kitchener, and a familiarity with the league and his team have all combined to establish both a comfort level and a foundation for success. Dallas selected Faksa with its first-round pick, 13th overall, in 2012. Last year he scored nine goals and added 22 assists in 39 games in a season limited by an MCL strain that did not require surgery. The previous year, in his rookie campaign, he performed at better than a point-per-game pace with 29 goals and 66 points in 62 games, finishing second to only Aaron Ekblad in Rookie of the Year voting.
This season, he’s off to a good start. In 11 games, he’s scored eight goals and added two assists. But Faksa said he wants to step up in other ways this season.
“For sure I want to be a leader on this team because I’ve already been here three years now,” he said. “We’re a pretty young team. I’ve put the expectations on myself because I’m a first rounder and my expectations are to help this team wherever the team needs.
“For sure there’s pressure [being a first-round pick], but I’m not looking for it — I’m just working hard and will see what happens.”
He’s also brought back the experience of participating in the Dallas Stars’ training camp this year.
“It was a great experience. It’s always a great opportunity when you’re playing with NHL guys,” Faksa said. “All of the guys were really nice and would talk to you, but I really liked Jamie Benn. He’s someone I look up to.”
Growing up, Faksa said he looked up to someone a little closer to home.
“For sure it was Jaromir Jagr,” he said. “When I was young all the kids in the Czech Republic would watch him. It was really special because he helped put hockey in the Czech Republic to a different level.”
It’s a level that is reminiscent of the Czechoslovakian hockey glory days. And while Faksa feels that national pride, he doesn’t really remember anything but the Czech Republic.
“When we separated from Slovakia, our team always won the big games and we’ve won the World Championships a couple of times. We really haven’t lost a lot from the split,” he explained. “Actually I was born in the first year of the Czech Republic, so I really didn’t care too much about it!”
That national pride is evident when he talks about suiting up for a third time on the Czech Republic’s national junior squad.
“I’m proud to play for my national team. When I put the jersey on it’s something special for me,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s my third year already in the World Juniors and I’m really excited about this year.”
And as the year progresses, he’s looking to not only improve his game, but to help the Rangers improve as a whole. The team is currently last in the Midwest Division, with a 4-8-0-0 record in 12 games.
“I want to get bigger and stronger. I want to work a bit more on my skating and my explosiveness,” he said. “I’m looking forward to making the playoffs this year because we didn’t play too well the last couple of games. Hopefully we can put some wins together and move up in the standings.
“We’ll get better as a team and those young guys will learn how to win in the OHL — that’s exciting to me.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @jaycmenard