Czech NHL rookies – Milan Kraft

By Robert Neuhauser
Following the career of the Pittsburgh Penguins center Milan Kraft is following the career of a future phenom. Milan was an outstanding prospect back home in the Czech Republic and he shows a lot of promises in North America, too. The world championship title of the Czechoslovakia team in 1985, coached by Ludek Bukac, impressed Milan just like most 5-year old kids. And because he wanted to be like his heroes, so started Milan, a native of Tymakov, Czech Republic, playing hockey in the nearby city of Plzen. The son of the boss of a building company quickly blossomed into one of the top kids in the Czech hockey. Milan showed his great smarts, passing skills, vision and a sense for the game. You’ve got to be born with this. Milan obviously was. Always played with guys older than him, where he had to fight against guys bigger and stronger than him, but he was simply too good to play with guys of his own age. Milan needn’t to be afraid that it’ll be too hard for him, he was always a solid sized guy. And he is a leader, both on and off the ice, a natural captain. His only drawback was, that he sometimes played inconsistently and wasn’t a top skater. But otherwise everyone had to admit that he is great. Milan Kraft soon became the label Top 1980 born prospect and he really was. A leader of the Plzen team, and the best player in many tournaments.

In the 1994-95 season he performed really well at the selection tournaments for the new Under-16 team. And so in the fall of 1995 Milan became a consistent member of the Under-16 team. Not to say – the captain, due to his leadership qualities. And the top star. Milan played already for the second year in the midget ELHD league and was more mature than his teammates, ELHD rookies. The Under-16 team finished last at the Four-nations tournament in 1995-96, but captain Kraft was as usual one of the best players. In 1996-97 Milan moved up to play for the Plzen Jr. Once again he was the captain of his junior national team, the Under-17. He led his team at the World Hockey Challenge, that year in Red Deer, and at the European Youth Olympics in Sundsvall, Sweden. But the best thing was, that besides scoring 26 goals in 36 games for Plzen Jr. he played his first nine games in the Elite league as the 4th line center, with wingers Tomas Klimt and Dalibor Sanda. He recorded one assist as a 16-year old rookie. The 1997-98 season was very important for Milan, in June 1998 there was the NHL Entry Draft scheduled in Buffalo. Milan split that year between the Plzen’s junior and senior team, recording 5 points (0+5) in 16 games in the Extraleague and 43 points (22 goals + 21 assists) in 24 games for the juniors. The European championship of the Under-18 teams was the top of the season, an event followed closely by the NHL scouts. The Czechs finished fourth due to a two goal margin in the game against Finland, a bitter disappointment. But Milan was the top goal scorer of the tournament along with Henrik Sedin, both of them registering 5 goals. Was fifth in the scoring of the whole tournament and that earned him a first-class ticket to Buffalo. He was regarded as a top prospect, a sure first-rounder. That really came true when the 23rd placed Penguins took him to the center stage. He was in the NHL!

After a summer full of hard work there was September and the training camp of the Pens. The 18-year old guy could share the locker room with the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and other Czech idols. However, things turned out the most logical way. Milan was sent down to the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League. He didn’t worry, at least he could play regularly and not split time between two teams, just like in Plzen. In 1998-99 Calgary Hitmen Pavel Brendl was the clear top scoring rookie, no doubt. But not everyone noticed that Milan finished with good numbers, too and that he was solid defensively.

He came to the Pittsburgh Penguins camp ready to fight for a roster spot. Milan almost succeeded in this task and played some exhibition games on a line with Jaromir Jagr. But at the end he got cut and was heading Prince Albert to pursue his junior career. That year fellow Czech Michal Sivek joined him in Prince Albert and both had a teammate, who speaks their own language, which was good. Milan was dominating in Prince Albert on both ends of the ice surface. No doubt for the coaches of the Under-20 team to select him for the World Championship and name him captain, once again. Milan was really the leading personality. He started the tournament with a hattrick in the first game against Slovakia, scored once in the semifinals against Team USA and – that’s what is most important – scored the gold-medal winning penalty shot in the finals against Ilya Bryzgalov in the net for Russia. Added 7 assist, the 1st line center was the second in tournament scoring with 12 points (5+7) right behind Henrik Sedin of Sweden with 13 points. He was selected the best forward of the tournament and 1st All-star team center. A real pro, on and off the ice. He couldn’t celebrate the title a lot, the WHL season kept its pace. Milan finished second in team scoring behind Scott Hartnell (now with the Nashville Predators) with 67 points for 33 goals (12 of them scored on the powerplay) and 34 assists in 54 games. Was a -2 along with 40 PIMs. And after the Raiders were eliminated, Milan got recalled by the Pens. He was scratched for all of the Eastern Conference Semifinal games, but at least he could see how the pros practice and do a lot of details to help the team to win. He had almost a spot guaranteed on the roster of Ivan Hlinka’s team, if he would work enough during the summer. He certainly did. After a successful camp he could travel with the team to Japan for his first NHL game, against the Nashville Predators with former teammate Scott Hartnell. Another dream came true…So far Milan has 10 points on 5 goals and 5 assists in 23 games for the Penguins. Good luck!