Filip Hronek is a man of action and of few words. The 21-year-old Czech offensive defenceman prefers to author his masterpieces on the ice. If you had to liken Hronek to a literary icon, it might be the young Ernest Hemingway, renowned for his short sentences.
Of course, the bearded Hradec Kralove native hasn’t mastered the great American author’s sporting passions, like boxing and bull-fighting. Yet he is conquering opposing hockey teams with style at his second consecutive IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He leads all defencemen with seven points.
Reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War dynamiter Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hronek had a dynamite performance in the 7-2 romp over Norway. When he scored the first two goals in a span of 6:34, the bell had already tolled for the Norwegians.
“I feel pretty good,” Hronek said laconically after the Czechs defeated Italy 8-0 for their fourth win in five games. “We are happy we are winning, and that’s what matters.”
For the Detroit Red Wings, Hronek’s NHL club, scoring from centre ice holds glorious historical connotations. In 2002, Nicklas Lidstrom achieved that odd feat against Vancouver Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier in Game Three of the first round of the playoffs. It turned the series around and Detroit went on to win the Stanley Cup.
However, when asked to comment on Radko Gudas’s wacky centre-ice goal on Italian netminder Marco de Filippo Roia, Hronek was emotionless and Hemingway-esque: “He went for a change and he scored. He was lucky.”
In the spirit of Hemingway, who believed in writing 500 words every day, hard work, rather than luck, has been the key to Hronek’s meteoric ascent. He’s gone from a 61-point campaign with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit in 2016-17 to an AHL title with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2017-18 to this year’s double whammy of NHL and World Championship duties.
Interestingly, expectations were not always as high as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for this 185-cm, 75-kg rearguard. When Hronek was drafted in the second round (53rd overall) by Detroit in 2016, he had earned just four assists in 40 games with HK Hradek Kralove, and had gone pointless in his first World Juniors.
Let’s put the kid in perspective. The all-time top two scoring leaders among Czech NHL defencemen are Roman Hamrlik (638 points in 1,395 career games) and Tomas Kaberle (563 points in 984 games). Hronek is a long way from rivalling their productivity or longevity. He ain’t Papa yet.
Yet with 23 points in 46 games this year as a Wings rookie, Hronek’s points-per-game average of 0.500 currently places him third all-time, behind Kaberle (0.572) and Jiri Latal (0.522) and just ahead of Marek Zidlicky (0.499). It’s a promising sign.
In Bratislava, Hronek is averaging 19:06 of ice time per game under Czech head coach Milos Riha – second only to Gudas – and it reflects the trust that’s been placed in him. “I'm fine,” said Hronek. “I have a good ice time and I’m happy for that.”
If you’re looking for someone to evaluate Hronek in a lengthy style more reminiscent of Proust or Tolstoy, it’s wise to turn to 31-year-old teammate Michael Frolik, who leads the Czechs in scoring with five goals and 10 points.
“He’s been unbelievable,” said Frolik. “I think you can see what kind of potential he has. He’s our best D for sure. It’s great to see a guy like that. I think three years ago, he was kind of nowhere. And now, he's playing in the NHL and he's a top guy on our national team. So I think we needed a guy like that who can control the power play and has got a great shot. He's got great vision. I think in Detroit, they are really happy with what they're seeing now. I think he's got a bright future in front of him.”
Simply put, Hronek is a hockey star who is as stoic as he is gifted.
In Hemingway’s short story “The Three-Day Blow,” the protagonist Nick Adams is reticent about discussing his breakup with his girlfriend with his buddy Bill. Hronek was almost as terse about his thriving partnership with HC Ocelari Trinec blueliner David Musil, the son of former 797-game NHLer Frantisek Musil: “He’s a good defensive defenceman. So it’s good for me.”
He did admit to keeping tabs on the World Championship performances of such Detroit teammates as Canada’s Anthony Mantha (7+4=11) and the U.S.’s Dylan Larkin (2+2=4): “Oh yeah. I can see what they do and I'm happy for them.”
Asked to identify his favourite memories from his NHL rookie season, Hronek cited his first game, a 3-2 home overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on 4 October, and his first goal, which came in an 8-2 road loss to the Boston Bruins nine days later.
That’s similar to the pain and pleasure pattern for Czech hockey lately. Despite producing young individual stars like Hronek, Jakub Vrana, and David Pastrnak recently, the Czech Republic hasn’t celebrated an IIHF World Championship gold medal since Cologne in 2010.
Under these challenging circumstances, Czech fans must hope that Hronek continues to live up to Hemingway’s description of a hero as “a man who lives correctly, following the ideals of honour, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful.”
Next up on Sunday at 16.15 are the Austrians, who have been outscored 28-6 in five straight losses. For them, facing Hronek’s Czechs may be – to borrow a title from Hemingway – Death in the Afternoon. The Czech group finale against Switzerland will provide a stiffer test. Regardless of the opponent, the modus operandi remains the same.
“We have a good group of guys,” Hronek said. “We have to work together.”
Unlike Hemingway in 1954, Hronek will never win a Nobel Prize, but if his current progress continues, a Norris Trophy could be on the horizon. Meanwhile, he’s hoping to inscribe his name in the history books in the gold medal game on 26 May. Such Hemingway-worthy action would be far better than the Kafkaesque horror of a fourth straight quarter-final exit.