by Alan Cross || AHL On The Beat Archive
When given an inch, take a mile.
Grand Rapids Griffins center Andrej Nestrasil knows a thing or two about waiting for doors to open, and blowing those doors off the hinges on your way through.
A third-round pick (75th overall) by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Nestrasil left his homeland of Prague, Czech Republic, and moved to North America in 2008 to play for the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigres, hoping the path would eventually lead him to the NHL.
Fortunately for Nestrasil, the risk recently paid off.
Following an impressive performance at Detroit’s training camp in September, Nestrasil secured himself a roster spot with the Wings to begin the season. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound center made his debut with Detroit on Oct. 9 to become the 146th Griffins alumnus to play in the NHL.
While Nestrasil never had the prospect hype of Gustav Nyquist or Tomas Jurco, he’s always been equipped with a little bit of grit and a lot of determination. It’s aided him immensely in his gradual rise to the top.
After two highly successful campaigns with Victoriaville and a season with Prince Edward Island, Nestrasil debuted with the Griffins on Oct. 21, 2011, at Oklahoma City, where he logged a goal and an assist and earned first-star honors. Despite his immediate impact with Grand Rapids, Nestrasil primarily found himself skating with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye for two seasons in order to fine-tune his development.
He finished the 2011-12 season with four points (one goal, three assists) in 25 games for the Griffins and had a similar experience in 2012-13, notching six points (three goals, three assists) in another 25 games. Nestrasil found his name engraved on the Calder Cup after appearing in a single playoff game during Grand Rapids’ championship run, when he subbed for an ill-ridden Jan Mursak. But he was still searching for more.
“The game for me changed my first year in Grand Rapids because I had to play fourth line. I wasn’t used to that; I had never played that before,” Nestrasil said. “When you play fourth line, you just have to make sure the other team doesn’t score, basically. You’re kind of like a shut-down guy. When you play top six, you’re there to score, so you can risk more. That’s what I like better, and I think I’m better at that.”
When injuries plagued the Wings in the middle of last season, Nestrasil was given the opportunity for more ice time with the Griffins. He took the chance and ran with it, most notably exploding during the tail-end of the season when he racked up 11 points (6g, 5a) on a seven-game point streak from March 14-29.
He had finally achieved top-six status.
“[Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill] has a saying that ‘greatness is a daily choice.’ You have to wake up and decide if you want to be great or take a step in the wrong direction,” Nestrasil said. “I 100 percent agree with him. If you show up every day, of course there will be days where it doesn’t go your way. But if you’re going to be ready every day and not give up, eventually it’s going to turn the other way.”
Nestrasil finished the 2013-14 season with 16 goals and 20 assists, tying for fifth overall on the team in scoring. His 70 appearances and 36 points shattered his previous two-season point total (50 games, 10 points).
“Right now I don’t struggle with confidence because of the second half of last season. That’s when I gained my confidence back,” Nestrasil said. “I reassured myself that I can play at this level.”
He’s learned to not sweat the small stuff, too.
“I realized that sometimes it’s not about how good of a hockey player you are or if you play or not, you just can’t let the things around you have an impact,” said Nestrasil. “Stay away from the stress, don’t even look at it.
“Sometimes something happens in the middle of the season and you think, ‘Why? Why did this happen to me?’ Those kinds of questions you can’t figure out because you can’t find the answer. I just stay away from that because it messes with your head. Just focus on yourself and try your best every day.”
Never short of a quip, Nestrasil carries with him a keen sense of humor and a quick wit, qualities that have helped inform him both on and off the ice. His good attitude has kept him centered and sane while finding his way in North American hockey, and it’s an outlook he preaches to his fans.
“I feel like hockey is not just about hockey players,” Nestrasil said. “I try to stay positive every day and when someone asks me if I can do some community work, I’m all for it because, first of all, we’re done skating at 1 p.m. and we have nothing to do for the rest of the day. And second of all, these people that you can do something nice for are the people who come to the rink to support you.”
While some may have expected Nestrasil to join the ranks of fizzled-out prospects, his 2014-15 results have given him another shot at his dream of a permanent NHL spot. He was re-signed by Detroit to a one-year contract on July 17. And he’s not about to waste it.
“I had a lot of offers from Europe and other places where I could have gone for a lot of money,” said Nestrasil. “But as soon as my agent called and told me about those opportunities, I said no right away. I knew after my talk with [Red Wings general manager] Ken Holland and [Red Wings assistant general manager] Ryan Martin after the season that they wanted to sign me.
“My dream has always been the NHL. Why should I give up what I want when I’m one step away? It’s a one-year contract, so it kind of puts pressure on me, but it’s better that way.”
After a summer of strict workouts and losing a significant amount of weight, Nestrasil is ready to take his game to the next level. While the return of an injured Pavel Datsyuk would likely see Nestrasil land back in Grand Rapids, he’s champing at the bit to make the best out of his NHL season while he can.
He hopes to see success from his Griffins teammates too, especially his Czech brethren. Tomas Nosek, a highly touted Detroit prospect, made his debut with Grand Rapids last Friday; Martin Frk looks to be in good shape after an extended summer-long workout; and Petr Mrazek is primed and ready to make his full-time leap to the NHL.
When asked if 2014-15 will be the year of the Czechs, Nestrasil laughed.
“We’ll see! There are so many of us. Even if you count the Slovak guys, that’s like half of the [Griffins]. I think it’s going to be a good year for the Czech guys,” Nestrasil smiled.
“At least everyone knows where the real hockey players are born.”