by Scott Stuccio || AHL On The Beat Archive
Perfect passes, exciting goals, highlight-reel saves -– they are all on the list of every broadcaster’s favorite moments in a season. But watching a player beam with pride after earning his first NHL recall is a moment that just cannot be taken away.
Bears defenseman Tomas Kundratek was not even with the Chocolate and White for the entire season. In fact, he was acquired in a trade for a player who many thought would be: forward Francois Bouchard, a two-time Calder Cup champion.
Sitting low on the Connecticut Whale defensive depth chart, Kundratek was excited about the opportunity to join a Hershey blue line in need of more speed and grit, with Russian prospect Dmitry Orlov seemingly locked into the Washington Capitals lineup.
Nearly three months have passed, and since then, Kundratek has lived up to his billing. He also earned a recall to the Capitals team that acquired him, setting up his first-ever stint in the National Hockey League.
“It was unreal,” Kundratek said simply about getting the call. “I was a little nervous obviously when I got the call, but I didn’t have much time to be nervous because I was in the lineup the next day. I didn’t sleep very much that night and I couldn’t even get the pregame nap because I was so excited.”
That first game at Verizon Center came on Jan. 11 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kundratek had 16 shifts in the game for a total of 11:09 of ice time -– not a bad amount at all for a first NHL contest. And it made things even better when the Capitals went on to not only defeat the Penguins, but shut them out – which in turn made Kundratek feel even better about his play.
Paired with long-time defenseman Roman Hamrlik, Kundratek jumped into the role comfortably.
“Before the game he talked to me a lot,” Kundratek explained. “We talked Czech and that made it easy. Then when we got on the ice he talked to me a lot more. He didn’t give me any tough plays or any bad passes. He just kept things simple with me and we played really well together.”
The amount of time he spent on the ice directly resulted from hard work each shift, which certainly caught the eye of the Capitals bench bosses.
“I think for a young kid coming to the NHL for his first time and getting almost 11 minutes of ice time every game, it was huge for me. I really appreciated it and I thought I did a good job.”
Bears assistant coach Troy Mann, who works tirelessly with the Hershey defense corps, agrees. He hasn’t had nearly as much work to do in getting Kundratek’s game to line up with the systems he has in place.
“If you think about trades, the initial response from the player is usually really positive,” Mann said, “because the player is trying to impress not only the coaching staff but the organization. I think in Tomas’ case, he just got better and better each game which goes with confidence and hopefully we had just a little bit to do with raising his game.”
A large portion of Bears fans that saw Kundratek for the first few times couldn’t believe that this was once a player sitting in the stands in Hartford. Since joining the Bears in that early November deal, he has posted eight points from the blue line – six of those being goals – and adds a steadying presence whenever he plays.
“I think the initial scouting report that we got when he came over was that he was a great puck-mover and skater but wasn’t overly physical,” Mann continued. “When he came to us, surprisingly he had more bite to his game than we thought. He’s maintained that and his confidence level is rising, so his skill set is there. For me, that’s a deadly combination to have to play against –- a 21-year-old with tremendous potential.”
Bears head coach Mark French adds that there is always a sense of pride when coaching a player and then watching him play his first NHL game.
“In Tomas’ case, he’s a guy that we’ve had for a very short time,” French said. “It’s been a quick process of bringing him up to speed, but we’ve been very happy with him. There is a great sense of accomplishment for us to get him his first NHL recall so quickly.”
There are two different attitudes that a player like Kundratek can possess in his reassignment to the American Hockey League: positive or negative. Kundratek, in a very good way, showed what attitude he had.
“The most important thing when Tomas came down is that it was built off of such positive experiences,” French said. “All the reinforcement he got from Washington was such an uplifting help for him that when he came down, he had things he wanted to work on right away. We’re dealing with a very motivated player who knows exactly what he needs to do to get back to the NHL level.”
From the broadcast booth, for a player to return, he needs to work as hard as possible – but have a great time doing it.
“I’m enjoying it so much here, and this organization has helped me so much,” Kundratek added. “I feel so much like family on the team.
“Not long ago I talked to my parents and I said to them, ‘I’m starting to enjoy hockey again,’” he continued. “It was tough not playing in Hartford. When I came here, I got a lot of ice time and a lot of trust. Everything went really well for me in that time. So I’m really enjoying hockey again.”
It is exactly that attitude that undoubtedly will propel Tomas Kundratek back to the National Hockey League in due time. In the meantime, the Hershey Bears are glad to have him working their blue line.