Czech 2003 prospects: Josef Hrabal

By Robert Neuhauser

Hearing the name Hrabal, one famous Czech comes on mind of people. Bohumil Hrabal is a famous Czech prose writer who died a few years ago and nowadays the kids learn about his work at school. In the hockey circles is Josef Hrabal a more household name, though. The 2003 eligible Vsetin blueliner is among the top Czech 1985 defensemen and may have a shot at NHL Entry Draft next June in Nashville.

Even if Josef Hrabal’s father is a former active hockey player, it didn’t seem that Josef will enjoy a career of his own at first. Most kids start playing hockey when they are only about four or five years old, but not Josef. He liked sports, but didn’t have any favorite one, also after he started attending the elementary school. In the second grade, when Josef was seven years old, the turning point came. Josef’s elementary school in his native city Prerov visited the coach of the youngest grade team of Prerov and asked the kids in the class who of them would be interested in playing organised hockey. Josef repeated this at home and his dad, who always wanted his son to be a hockey player, told him that he will start playing hockey and took him to the first practice.

The little Josef wasn’t very happy about this, but laced up the skates and started to learn how to skate and the first letters from the hockey alphabet. He was a quick study and after some time he felt that the decision to play hockey was the right one. Josef wanted to play forward because he liked scoring goals, but the coaches have put him to play defense. There was enough of quality forwards on the Prerov 1985 borns team, but no one who would anchor the defense. Josef should fill this void and began to call the blue line his home.

He didn’t have many trouble with this, he showed a good defensive zone coverage and could eventually punish the opposing forwards. But the desire to play forward remained in Josef and he always tried to play an offensive style and join the rush after his defensive duties were done. At times he was even too offensive and he had to learn when to support the offense and when to stay back. About pee-wee age, under coach Ales Verlik, Josef’s play began to be more reliable and Josef brought home trophies for the Best defenseman from many youth tournaments where the Prerov 1985’s participated. He especially liked to play behind forwards Antonin Sprusil and Martin Zatovic, both of them this season performing for the Prerov juniors in the junior Extraleague.

Coming bantam age, Josef, nicknamed “Hrabos” (means “vole” in Czech) from his surname, already had a reputation of a leader of his team and a very solid prospect from the Prerov area. Extraleague teams were aware of this, of course, and started bidding for Josef. He was most happy with the offer which came from the Vsetin team and Josef finally agreed to join their developmental system prior to the season when he should start playing for the 9th grade team. Vsetin is also Josef’s only favorite team.

A smooth, poised blueliner, Josef Hrabal brings a nice two-way game to the table. He is a talented puckrusher with a strong creativity, he only needs to keep his game simple and avoid unnecessary mistakes when making the decision with the puck. Josef plays a positionally sound game and has very good passing skills. He doesn’t posess a cannon of a shot, but his shots are very accurate and quite easy tippable. He is effective at bringing his shots through. Josef has to mature more as he is sometimes guilty of some defensive lapses and his defensive-zone intensity neeeds some upgrading, too. Right now he seems better suited for a career in Europe given the fact that he doesn’t play the body very often and relies more on his finesse. The key factor will be how far is Josef able to upgrade his skating. He skates only average and could use a better agility and balance. To sum up, Hrabal is very raw, but talented, he looks like a project. Josef doesn’t have any player he would pattern his game after, he just tries to watch all the good defensemen.

Among the 9th graders Josef already wore the green-yellow colors of Vsetin and had a respectable season in all accounts. He got used to his new, more skilled teammates in rapid time and showed a huge offensive upside to go along with solid defensive savvy. He amassed 45 points for 22 goals and 23 assists, which are numbers for what some forwards would be happy. He also had a bright showing at a meeting of the top regional teams from the whole Czech Republic, played in Ostrava. Josef claimed there the trophy for the Best defenseman.
No wonder that Vsetin midgets head coach Jiri Hudler, father of bona-fide NHL prospect Jiri Hudler promoted Josef for some games already to the midget Extraleague. Josef played 34 games as an underager for the Vsetin midgets, going scoreless, with a -10 and a mere number of 2 PIMs.

His debut on the elite midget level was good, but in 2000-2001 he could count on a much more increased role on the team. Even then he concentrated on having his defensive duties done, but using his experience from the previous season he also occasionally joined the rush. He scored his first marker in the midget Extraleague and finished with 8 points for 3 goals and 5 assists in 44 games he played and 33 PIMs. He posted an awful -19, but also mostly thanks to the bad final part of the season, where the whole Vsetin team underachieved and was swept by the opponents. Josef had a good season with a bad finish overall.
Josef made his international debut in 2000-2001, too. After a solid performance on the selection tournament for the new Czech Under-16 team coaches Karel Najman and Jaroslav Beck have invited him to two more tournaments during the season. The first was a three-game series against the Under-16 team of Slovakia and the second one was the last tourney of the season, a three-game meeting with the Under-17 team of Switzerland. In this series Josef also notched his first international point for an assist, rounding out his stats for the Under-16 team at 6 games played, 1 point for 1 assist, a -1 and 2 PIMs.

In 2001-2002 Josef was still midget Extraleague eligible, but felt ready and enough mature to compete already at the junior level. In 5 games he dressed up for the Vsetin midgets, showing his dominancy with 7 points for 2 goals and 5 assists, a +9 and 2 PIMs. But the most of the season he spent skating with the Vsetin juniors, frequently on the second line. Vsetin juniors’ head coach Bretislav Kopriva liked what he saw from Josef in his underage season among the Vsetin juniors. He didn’t have many trouble with adjusting and didn’t need to change his game a lot. Josef displayed an offensive upside again, in 38 games for the Vsetin juniors he notched 6 points for 4 goals and 2 assists, a +15 and 18 PIMs.
His international season consisted of three tournaments, the biggest event was the famous World Hockey Challenge where Josef participated. The other two were a Four Nations Tournament played in Finland and a Five Nations Tournament in Sweden. At all these tourneys Josef went scoreless, thus his stats from the international season are 13 games played, 0 points, a -6 and 8 PIMs.

In August Josef took part in the prestigeous World Junior Cup of the Under-18 teams, played in both Czech Republic and Slovakia. He skated mostly on the fourth line in a pair with Kamil Cerny.
This season he is also a mainstay on the Vsetin juniors defense, earning the valuable powerplay ice time and being counted on as one of the anchors of the defense. In the first 21 games of the season he tied his stats from the previous season, also registering 6 points for 4 goals and 2 assists. But the previous high came last week when Josef Hrabal celebrated his debut in the senior Extraleague. The injury bug hit the Vsetin seniors and Josef was promoted to play in a home game against Znojmo. He was paired with veteran Patrik Luza even on the first line, in that game Josef went scoreless.

Josef Hrabal can’t be counted to the superstitious players. He had some superstitions in the past, but not now. From those only one thing remained, Josef always puts his left skate first.
As most of the hockey players, he doesn’t have much free time. School takes him a lot of time as he attends a secondary school in Vsetin, from which is he about to graduate in summer of 2004. Finishing his studies is one of the most important things for Josef now. Thus also he isn’t rushing to the CHL and will most likely try to fight out his way to the NHL through the European leagues. A pleasant fact for Josef is that he was ranked 6th among Czech skaters in the CSB Preliminary Ranking.

Josef is a huge fan of TV movies and he prefers the Czech movies, mostly comedies like “Pelisky” or “Dedictvi aneb kurvahosigutentag”, where Czech movie stars Miroslav Donutil and Bolek Polivka play. Because he already three years lives off his parents in Vsetin, he likes mostly the food he can’t cook for himself, like goulash or various kinds of chicken meat, but he has to eat lots of pasta. To drink then mineral water.
Josef’s first hockey dream is to win the junior Extraleague championship title this season, then to be a regular player in the Czech senior Extraleague and after this feat is accomplished, then hopefully play in the NHL.