BRATISLAVA – His spot on the Slovak U20 team seemed to be a lock last summer. But only few months later Richard Mraz was still anxious to hear whether he would be called up to represent his country in Ufa, Russia. Once a budding star in junior hockey, a health scare last April has changed his career path completely.
Whenever a 15-year old player is dominating a U18 league, he will get attention. This was no different for Richard Mraz. The winger was playing for HK Nove Zamky in the second tier Slovak U18 league at the time but was already racking up nearly two points a game before HC Nitra recruited him. In three seasons he recorded 122 points in 110 games and made his debut on the international stage at the U18 World Championship.
His career was clearly moving upwards and he took the next step when signing for, by then, Slovakia’s only KHL team Lev Poprad for the 2011-12 season. Initially he played for their junior team but he did receive a call-up to play in Europe’s most prestigious league. Playing alongside the “big boys”, Mraz did not look out of place with a pair of assists in three games.
By that time he had also returned from a successful U20 World Championship in which Slovakia qualified for the playoff round against all odds. Mraz’ performance in Calgary had his jersey number 12 end up in a lot of scout’s notebooks.
Apart from his five points in six games, Mraz was an offensive dynamo for the Slovaks throughout the tournament and his size (188 cm) and weight (85 kg) were considered ideal for playing in North America. Together with his agent, he decided to move across the pond and make himself eligible for the CHL entry draft, where the Ottawa 67’s were more than happy to see the Slovak winger available to them with the 54th selection.
The reason Mraz’ stock dropped had to do with a freak but nevertheless very serious incident that happened late April, when the player was in Russia playing a tournament with the national junior team.
After severe tremors and high temperatures, Mraz did not spend his time on the ice but in a St. Petersburg hospital instead. Initial fears of mononucleosis proved incorrect, but when a CT scan was made, doctors diagnosed a spleen that was four times its normal size and was pushing out other organs, making the situation life threatening.
Mraz was immediately operated on. He lost nearly 20 kilos and now has a huge scar as a permanent memory. Nevertheless the forward was adamant not to have the incident stop his drive to reach the top. After extensive visa problems were cleared, he reported to the training camp in Ottawa where he underwent an individual training schedule to get back in shape.
After six months of off-ice recovery training, the Slovak then finally re-appeared on the game sheet and registered a goal in his third game. However, the transition to the North American game did not go as smooth as anticipated and the Slovakian saw his ice time dwindle under coach Chris Byrne. Mraz himself got frustrated by the type of game he had to play and after just eight games both the team and the player decided it was better to part ways.
As Mraz told the Slovak media about his departure, he didn’t have the feeling he was given a fair chance to show his value.
“I am a technical player that needs space on the ice,” he said, “but the coach wanted me to play physical all the time. I did not receive a lot of constructive criticism but instead got benched more and more. That led to me wanting to leave the team.”
Mraz returned to his home country, where he dressed for the U20 team playing in the Slovak Extraliga. In four games he appeared since then he has registered a pair of goals and three points, but the unfortunate Slovak winger’s World Juniors roster spot was still in serious jeopardy.
With just 12 games played this season and coming back from a severe injury, Mraz was sitting close to the phone to find out how much credit he has built up last season with Slovakian U20 coach Ernest Bokros. Fortunately, he got the call and made the final roster.
But he realizes there are no givens any longer, and that his once blossoming career has taken a different path than expected. Although his first experiences in North America weren’t all too rosy, Mraz doesn’t rule out a return there next season.
“I’ve seen other teams that play nice technical hockey in the OHL,” he remembers. “Unfortunately we were forced to play a different type of game but I’m convinced I can be a success in that league on another team, so who knows I’ll go back.”
But at this moment he has other priorities.
“My injury this summer taught me one vital lesson. Nothing is more important than your own health,” the forward says.
Nevertheless, the U20 team won’t be playing league games any longer after the U20 World Championship, meaning Mraz will be having to join yet another team if he wants to continue playing this season.
“I didn’t want not to miss out on the World Juniors and being able to join my team mates to Ufa. Furthermore I want to regain my appetite for the game of hockey.”
Nothing better than to do this in the country, where all trouble started several months ago.