by Alan Fuehring | AHL On The Beat
For Jakub Skarek, the goal growing up was never to be a hockey player. Although he was born into a family of athletes.
“It was kind of an accident,” joked the New York Islanders prospect, who is from Jihlava, Czech Republic.
His mother, Eva, was big into basketball and also performed high jump. His sister, Tereza, is talented at javelin throw and his father, Josef, played soccer and volleyball, competed in ironman events, and was even a mountain climber at one point.
“The stories are incredible,” Skarek reminisced. “He climbed Mont Blanc, which is the tallest mountain in Europe (elevation 15,774 feet), and also climbed some other ones when he was young. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice.”
Hard work — the epitome of what the 21-year-old, nicknamed “Scary” by his teammates, is all about.
“When I started playing hockey, my dad was never involved in that sport really, so he bought some books and watched some videos and kind of learned what goalies should do,” Skarek said. “It was just a goal for my parents to teach me how to skate at first, but one time, a goalie didn’t show up to practice and the coach asked who wanted to try. I was 10 years old then and said I would. From then on, I’m a goalie.”
One year for Christmas, Skarek — who started out as a forward — unwrapped some sticks and a pair of gloves that his father brought home from a business trip. As he got older, his dad not only became his hockey coach, but a relentless motivator.
“My dad told me if you want to be better than everyone else, you have to work as much as they do and then work even harder,” Skarek said firmly. “My goal coming to the rink every day is just to work hard, fight for every shot on the ice.”
“We still talk after every game,” Skarek continued. “He watches them all on AHLTV so he has a nice view, and my family is enjoying that we have earlier games this season so he doesn’t have to be up at 2 a.m.”
For those curious, 1 p.m. starts in Bridgeport this season equate to 7 p.m. local time in the Czech Republic. Prime time TV. And speaking of television, Skarek also found encouragement from watching games in his living room, just not necessarily hockey.
“I watched a lot of basketball growing up and really liked Kobe Bryant, he’s kind of my inspiration in his work ethic. He was a maniac, in a good way of course,” Skarek laughed.
“I just want to make sure my body is warmed up and activated for the ice and I’m used to being in the weight room to do extra stuff as well. It has become habit to me. I don’t feel like it’s anything special.”
Whether anyone’s watching or not, it doesn’t matter to him. The 6-foot-3, 196-pound netminder typically isn’t the loudest guy in the locker room, but his diligence speaks volumes.
“It’s ridiculous,” said veteran Tom Kuhnhackl, whose locker stall is neighbors with Skarek. “Even if we have a 1 p.m. game on the road and we have testing early in the morning, he’s always there first, stretching out, getting his yoga in. On practice days, it’s not just that he’s on the ice early for goalie shooting, he’s out there even before that working on his game. That’s the biggest attribute for a young guy, you can never sleep. You always want to improve.”
Skarek and Kuhnhackl have gotten close over the last two months especially, drawing common ground from language and their roots overseas.
“I’ve always been pretty close with European guys,” continued Kuhnhackl, a native of Landshut, Germany. “When I played in Wilkes-Barre, I lived with a Russian and a Czech guy. When you’re around a Czech guy and your dad is from Czech Republic, you pick up phrases. It’s always fun to have a guy like Scary next to you. We joke around every morning when we’re both tired and a little grumpy. That cheers you up.”
“He’s everything you want in a player, he understands what he needs to do,” Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson added. “He comes in ready to put in the work and always has a positive attitude. He just wants to get better. Makes no excuses.”
Skarek has been recalled by the Islanders several times and he’s certainly been the go-to guy in Bridgeport this season, where he has started six of nine games and each of the first five prior to being called up to the Islanders’ taxi squad. In each of his last two starts, he’s carried a shutout into the third period.
“I feel like the work is paying off, but I still have to keep focused and know there is always a huge space to improve,” Skarek said. “I’m just very grateful, especially this year, that I have a chance to play so many games in Bridgeport. I feel that games are the best way to get better. Even the practices are great, but the games are the best way to improve.”
“I thought Skarek was awesome,” Thompson said after last Wednesday’s game against the Providence Bruins. “I thought his puck decisions, the saves he made, his control were all good, and he tracked the puck extremely well. He gave us a chance to win.”
Skarek was immediately recalled to the Islanders’ taxi squad after last week’s game. He continues to practice in East Meadow, N.Y., spending time around the rink with the Islanders goalie tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, who are among the NHL’s top netminder duos.
“[Varlamov] and Sorokin are great guys to learn from,” Skarek said. “I’m fortunate that I was learning Russian at school so I can speak a little Russian with them, mine isn’t that great so it’s just a little small talk, but they both know English pretty well so it’s great to get advice from them, especially [Varlamov]. We discuss things on and off the ice. Great goalies, and great people.”
Russian isn’t the only language outside of English and his native tongue of Czech that Skarek can speak. He can get by speaking at least six different languages in some capacity including Slovakian, Finnish and Swedish. It made it much easier to adapt in a new environment, which Skarek did prior to last season when he transitioned to the North American game.
Following a successful start to his European career, where he won the 2016 Czech2 championship, he was promoted to HC Dukla Jihlava the following season. In 2017, he won the Hlinka Memorial Gold Cup. Then in 2019, he came to the United States full time and played 30 games between the Sound Tigers and ECHL’s Worcester Railers last season. Skarek was a member of Lou Lamoriello’s first draft class with the Islanders, where he selected Skarek in the third round (72nd overall) at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas.
Skarek ultimately became Lamoriello’s fifth-ever draft choice with the organization.
“I love playing for both of them [Lamoriello and Bridgeport general manager Chris Lamoriello],” Skarek said. “The environment they have created and the people they are. I like that they are pretty straight-shooters and they are fair, genuine and honest.
“They expect you to work hard. No one owes you anything, but you owe it all to yourself when it comes to putting in the time and effort to be successful.”
That’s prototypical Lamoriello philosophy. And Skarek feels he’s right where he’s meant to be.