MANNHEIM – The Czech city of Kladno has long been known for producing quality goods: steel, Lego bricks, and...oh yeah, world-class hockey players. Strapping winger Jakub Voracek is one of the latest exports, and he's making his IIHF World Championship debut in Germany.
Scoring forwards like Tomas Plekanec (Montreal) and the retired Michal Pivonka (Washington) also hail from Kladno, as does this year's Czech backup goalie, Ondrej Pavelec (Atlanta). But there is one name that clearly outshines all others from the industrial city northwest of Prague: Jaromir Jagr. And the 20-year-old Voracek is thrilled to be playing on the same team as the Triple Gold Club member who ranks ninth in all-time NHL scoring.
“I think it's a dream come true for everybody who's ever played with him,” Voracek told IIHF.com after the Czechs practiced on Monday at SAP Arena. “Especially for the young guys, who were watching him on TV when we were five or six years old. He used to play with Mario Lemieux, and now he's sitting next to us in the dressing room. It's pretty impressive what he's doing at age 38. With his style and composure, he can play for so many more years if he wants.”
Jagr set the tone offensively with three assists in the Czech Republic's 6-2 opening win over France, and Voracek didn't look out of place himself, logging 15:40 of ice time. It wasn't too far off what he averaged nightly with the Columbus Blue Jackets in his sophomore NHL campaign.
“For 50 minutes we played a good game against France: up and down, good defence, scored three power play goals,” said Voracek. “In the third period, we lost a little control and allowed them to score. Overall, we've just got to play the same way against Norway on Tuesday.”
On a Czech team that is missing key Olympic-class snipers like Plekanec, Patrik Elias, and David Krejci, Voracek will get his chance to dent the scoresheet under coach Vladimir Ruzicka.
He tallied a career-high 16 goals and 50 points with Columbus this year. His confidence seemed to increase after the February 3 firing of ultra-defensive head coach Ken Hitchcock, who served as Canada's bench boss at the 2008 Worlds and as an assistant at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
In fact, 22 of Voracek's points came post-Hitchcock. Interim replacement Claude Noel, a long-time minor league scoring ace and coach, clearly has given the young Czech more latitude to be creative.
“The change was good,” Voracek admitted. “I think we started to play a little bit more loose, and we played better hockey after Hitch left. Obviously, it's not just his fault he got fired. It's everybody's fault, and we felt bad for him. But I think it was the best thing that could have happened for our team at that moment.”
Thus far, the 189-cm, 96-kg forward has mostly done a good job of being in the right place at the right time.
While heading over to North America to play major junior hockey has become a popular option among young Czech stars, it often doesn't pay off for them as expected, and the trend has taken a toll on the development of young talent in the Central European nation. However, for Voracek, the 2007 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League rookie of the year, things panned out. He led the Halifax Mooseheads in scoring for two straight years and cracked two Czech World Junior teams before leaping straight to the NHL as Columbus's 2007 first-round pick (seventh overall).
In his final season with the Mooseheads, Halifax co-hosted the 2008 IIHF World Championship with Quebec City. However, Voracek wasn't part of the international hockey festivities in Nova Scotia's leading port city.
“I left two or three days before the tournament started,” Voracek said. “I didn't get to watch it in person because the Mooseheads had lost in the playoffs, and I was pretty excited to go home because I hadn't been home all year long. I saw some of it on TV, though, and it was pretty cool.”
Actually participating in a World Championship and questing for a gold medal, though, is ten times better. Voracek is looking forward to competing against Columbus teammate Kris Russell, one of his usual dining partners at NHL pre-game meals, when the Czechs play Canada in the next round. Away from the rink, his plans are simple and mundane.
“Sleeping, eating, and playing hockey is what I'm doing here,” said Voracek with a laugh. “I don't do that much. It'll be nice to see the city and grab a coffee downtown, but that's about it. We're playing every second day, so you've got to get some rest.”
Spoken like a true Kladno boy who knows the importance of delivering a high-quality product.