“It will be like at home. Many NHL player will come because it is close to home and we will feel like home in Slovakia. The city is similar to Czech cities. I hope it will be a great tournament because we were not that good in the last few years,” said Czech national team forward Dominik Kubalik.
For Kubalik it won’t just be the home-ice atmosphere that would make a call to the World Championship roster special. The 23-year-old has kick-started his international career since leaving his hometown of Plzen in 2017 to play for HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland.
It took some adaption first. He started the pre-season with Salavat Yulayev Ufa but was the scratched import player on the KHL roster. He then signed with Ambri where the import spots were filled too, started the season on loan in Plzen before definitely moving to Switzerland.
“In Ufa I was the sixth import and I didn’t just want to wait for my chance. I had hopes to make the Olympics and if I hadn’t played my chances would have become smaller. I wanted to play and improve as a player. It’s not so easy to make the Czech national team. You have to be in shape,” he looked back. He eventually made the roster both for the Olympics and also played his first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship last spring.
Now in his second season he definitely is in shape. He won the scoring title with 25 goals and 32 assists in 50 games and was voted Most Valuable Player of Switzerland’s National League in an unofficial poll by the coaches and captains of the teams. That hasn’t happened too often with a player from HC Ambri-Piotta, a remote 500-soul village in the mountains of Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland. (See previous story.)
“Last season it was more difficult for me because I started in Russia and then Plzen. This season we go the right path. We made a step forward as an organization this season. We play for each other, we battle for each other. We always want to be on the battlefield. We are really happy with our situation and we’re excited for the playoffs.”
Despite the cold at the partly open Valascia ice rink the hearts of the fans are filled with passion. This year even more as the underdog team finished the regular season in fifth place. It’s the best ranking since 2002 and it’s only the second time in 13 years (after 2014) that the white-and-blue cult club has reached the playoffs.
The club’s fans in northern Ticino (and from around the country) who pilgrim to the village hope to eliminate EHC Biel in the quarter-finals that begin tomorrow. And they put high hopes in Kubalik’s scoring qualities. The Czech winger appreciates the well renowned atmosphere at the remote and old rink where the fans celebrate long after the games and the team returns to celebrate with the fans in similar ways the Carolina Hurricanes have become known for in the NHL.
“The atmosphere is unbelievable. In the Czech Republic we have many fans who cheer and make crazy things but it’s not as crazy as at Valascia. For me it has become normal in the meantime but for my relatives who visit me it’s crazy. Our fans are our sixth man on the ice,” he said.
Kubalik went to North America once before playing junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League and becoming a seventh-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2013. However, at that time he wasn’t ready yet for the big spotlight.
He returned to his hometown of Plzen where he made the club’s professional team, developed to a better player in the Czech Extraliga before having his international breakthrough this and last season. He also leads the Czech national team in scoring during this season’s Euro Hockey Tour with six goals and seven points in six games. That may earn him the spotlight of the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship where he could show his skills at the highest level to the NHL scouts.
“The NHL is the goal for everybody. That’s what we play for. But I don’t think too much about the future. You never know what will happen next. I’m in Ambri now and prepare for the playoffs. After that I can maybe play the World Championship and then you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.