by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
Though there is no definite number, Oxford Dictionaries estimates that there are over 250,000 words in the English language. That’s not including slang, technical, or scientific terms. For those who grow up with English as their native tongue, it’s often hard to fathom just how vast the language really is, and how so many of the “rules” are broken on a sentence-by-sentence basis.
A sixth-round pick of the Nashville Predators in the 2012 NHL Draft, 23-year-old Marek Mazanec knew just a handful of those 250,000 – if that. After three seasons backstopping HC Plzen of the Czech Extraliga – the highest level of hockey in the Czech Republic – Mazanec split the 2013-14 season almost perfectly between the Predators and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.
The adjustment was two-fold.
“Everything was new for me last year. Different country, language, people, hockey style,” Mazanec said. “The hardest part was my bad English. I got lucky [with] the people in the Predators organization. Everyone tried to help me, so they made it little easier for me.”
Though he was wading through murky waters off-ice trying to learn the language and find his place in the Nashville system, Mazanec’s on-ice play was never in doubt. Making his North American professional debut on Oct. 18, 2013, with Milwaukee, he won his first five AHL starts before being recalled by the Predators after a hip infection sidelined Nashville starter Pekka Rinne.
“Playing for the Preds was something that I will obviously remember for rest of my life,” he said. “It means a lot to me. The NHL is the reason why we all play hockey; the reason why I’m here in North America.”
Like most rookies who get their first shot with the big club, the Ceske Budejovice native’s time with the Predators was a blur. He recalls not having much time to really allow the full impact to hit him, but reflects now with a clear sense of humility.
“I got the opportunity to be the starting goalie very early,” Mazanec said. “They believed in me even though I hadn’t played well, which I really appreciated.”
His 8-10-4 record with the Predators included two shutouts, giving him his first NHL game, first NHL win, and first NHL shutout in the 25 games he spent with Nashville while Rinne was rehabbing. He was named NHL Rookie of the Month in November 2013, after posting a 5-4-1 record with a 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage along with the two shutouts.
Despite all the gold stars already on his resume, both Mazanec and those supporting him know he needs to continue working on his game in order to earn that call back up.
“He’s obviously on the radar for Nashville, so they expect him to get better every day,” said Nashville’s developmental goalie coach, Dave Rook. “It’s like any young goalie that has success early, it’s different when you have to handle that success with expectations.”
In his first season with the Nashville organization, Rook already sees an incredible upside in the young goaltender.
“For a big guy (Mazanec is listed at 6-foot-4), he’s very athletic. He reads the game well and processes information well,” Rook said. “He’s very dynamic with his puck handling, too. He helps with the transition as well as the forecheck.”
Milwaukee head coach Dean Evason notes the upward progression not only of Mazanec’s play, but of his maturity level as well as his English. Both have helped further his on-ice production and allowed him the ability to give Milwaukee a chance every night.
“In games, he has a very calming effect. He handles the puck very well, and rarely will make a mistake in pressure situations,” Evason said. “On the ice, in practice, he competes. He’s got himself into a really good place physically. He worked really hard over the summer and it’s allowed him to get off to a good start this season.”
When asked, Mazanec immediately offers both an on-ice goal and an off-ice goal for the 2014-15 season: Be successful with the team and play 50-plus games, and improve his English.
He is active on the social media networking site Twitter, something that Milwaukee’s broadcaster Aaron Sims noted as proof of Mazanec’s growing comfort with the language and his place with the Ads.
As for the ice, after going 18-10-3 (2.44, .914) in 31 contests for the Admirals in 2013-14, Mazanec enters the weekend with a 5-2-0 record – one off the league lead in victories – a 2.42 GAA and a .914 save percentage through seven games.
Of course, his ultimate goal is to be a number one goalie in the NHL, but for now, Mazanec is content with developing his game in the AHL.
“Playing in the AHL is a part of long process for many goalies and for most of us, it’s the only way to get up to the NHL,” he said. “It’s nice to see Pekka [Rinne] being one of the best goalies in the NHL and knowing that he went through the AHL, too.”