by Josh Heller | AHL On The Beat
If you were to travel in the Czech Republic from the capital, Prague, to Pilsen, it would take you just over an hour. If you were to travel from Prague to Jihlava, it would take you about an hour and half. And if you were to travel from Jihlava to Pilsen, it would take you about two and a half hours. But for Albany Devils defenseman Vojtech Mozik, a native of Prague, forward Petr Straka, a native of Pilsen, and rookie forward Jan Mandat, a native of Jihlava, hockey has brought them together in Albany, N.Y., a 14-plus hour flight, and nearly 4,000 miles, from their home.
Mozik is in his second year with the Devils organization after signing out of the Czech Republic prior to the 2015-16 season. Mandat is in his rookie season after signing as a non-drafted free agent after playing three years in the QMJHL most recently with the Val d’Or Foreurs. Straka was acquired by the Devils from the Philadelphia Flyers in November for a conditional seventh round pick.
All three have taken different paths to this point in their careers, but for those three players, who are referred to jokingly as the ‘Czech Mafia’ by their teammates, playing together this year has been a major bonus.
“I think there is some kind of culture we have built here. I don’t know if it’s good or if it’s bad,” joked Straka. “It’s definitely something we have and it’s certainly part of the team.”
While most players don’t have a lot of say in which team they play for and who their teammates are, there is no doubt that all three players were well aware of which teams had Czech players and which teams didn’t.
“Right away when I knew I was coming to Albany, I knew that [Mozik] was here,” said Mandat. “I didn’t know his personally, so we started talking on Facebook and I asked him plenty of questions.”
And as for Straka, he and Mozik had been teammates once before while playing for the Czech Republic during the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships.
“I was in touch with [Mozik] before I came over after the trade,” added Straka. “We sent a few messages, just to get in touch a little bit. But it was definitely one of my first thoughts when I got traded here. I knew that these guys were already here.”
While Straka and Mandat have been linemates a few times this season, both agreed that the biggest benefit of being on a team with their countrymen comes away from the rink.
“I don’t know if it helps too much on the ice, but certainly off the ice it’s a big advantage,” said Straka. “On trips we can go out together to dinner and throw out some Czech jokes and watch some videos with Czech speaking people, joke about what happened at home. We even have some friends that we all know. All the little things.”
Of the three players, those ‘little things’ may have the biggest impact on Mozik. As a rookie last year, Mozik played in 53 games with Albany picking up two goals and 15 assists. He also made his NHL debut with the New Jersey Devils playing in seven games with the big club. But away from his home country for the first time and trying to deal with the changes in the North American game, from the size of the rink to the strength of the players, Mozik also had to learn a new language and a new culture without much help.
“Last year I didn’t have any European guys on the team so I was here on my own,” said Mozik. “It was tough. But this year is much better and you feel much more comfortable. It helps.”
Even Devils head coach Rick Kowalsky can see the benefit for someone like Mozik in having Mandat and Straka on the team.
“I think the big difference is that Mozik came over last year and didn’t have any Europeans. So that was a big adjustment for him. Just playing in North America and not having even any Europeans let alone Czech counterparts,” said Kowalsky. “You can really see the difference in Straka and even Jan being a rookie, both played in Quebec league. They’ve been over in North America, they’ve both gotten exposure to some situations where they haven’t been around the language. I think that experience, coming over a little earlier and living with a family and playing juniors, there is certainly a different aspect than coming straight over from the Czech league into North America.”
While the three have enjoyed each other’s company this season, they all know that ultimate goal is to play well for all of their teammates.
“It’s fun, now we have three Czech guys here,” said Mandat. “But just because we are the three Czechs doesn’t mean we just talk to each other. We also talk to the other guys on the team. We are just trying to do our best to help the team and help win games.”
Being a professional hockey player can be a tough life. It can be a lonely existence, taking you far away from home, especially for foreign players who not only trying to play well, but are also trying to learn a new language, a new culture, and a new lifestyle. But for Vojtech Mozik, Petr Straka, and Jan Mandat, having each other as teammates has helped ease that transition and help Albany, N.Y. feel a little more like home.