Czech-ing out the Soo
by Derek O'Brien|10 SEP 2020
Nick Malik and Jaromir Pytlik play together both on the Czech U20 national team and for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
photo: Martin Voltr
While much of the world was still under restrictions, the Czech U20 national team staged its first training camp of the summer in Rokycany, 80 kilometres southwest of Prague, in preparation for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, and had games against neighbouring rival Slovakia.

Among the 32 players in the first roster were 10 returnees from last year, including a pair of 2020 draft-eligible players from the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds who got their feet wet at last year’s World Juniors in their home country – forward Jaromir Pytlik and goaltender Nick Malik. 

“It was amazing because it was my first World Juniors and it was here in the Czech Republic, so it was something really special with the fans and everything,” Pytlik recalled about last year’s tournament in Ostrava. 

“It was good for me,” said Malik, who appeared in one game in relief in goal against Canada. “It was a strange situation and I had some unlucky bounces but it was a great experience.”

The World Juniors were part of an eventful season for the pair. Pytlik broke out in his first (almost) full season in the OHL and Malik joined him right after the tournament.  

“It was great when he came to the Soo,” Pytlik said of Malik’s arrival. “He came to live in my billet house, so that was so much fun. We could talk Czech to each other and he’s a great guy – really funny. We joke around a lot and he has good jokes.”

“It’s better for me to have a Czech guy there,” said Malik. “When I got there, everything was new for me so to have him there – I was born (in North America) but I hadn’t been there in five years. We knew each other a little bit through a couple of national team camps but we’re from different parts of the country.”

Pytlik comes from a rural and picturesque area in the south of the Czech Republic while Malik is from Ostrava – a city of close to 300,000 in the northeastern corner of the country. While Sault Ste. Marie – called “the Soo” by locals – is somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of the OHL and road trips are long, its population of around 70,000 seems just about right for both of them. 

“I come from a small village of 100 people, so for me, the Soo was a big city,” Pytlik laughed. 

“I like that it’s small because everything is close by – I can walk to Tim Hortons,” said Malik. “It’s nice that I don’t need a car.”

Just one year before Malik, it was Pytlik who joined the Greyhounds mid-season. After playing 31 Extraliga games with Vitkovice Ostrava, he decided to go overseas at age 17. 

“I went because I wasn’t playing a lot in the pro league,” he said. “I went there and it was a bit different with the smaller rink, so it took me a little while to adjust but I think it was the best decision of my life.”

About his first OHL half-season in 2018/19, Pytlik said: “I played on a line with Morgan Frost and Barrett Hayden, which was amazing. They’re great guys and they helped me a lot in the beginning. I thought I played well but wasn’t getting many points. I was just a rookie but now I’m one of the leaders on the team, and I’m happy about that.”

Last season Pytlik found his offensive touch, registering 50 points in 56 games. And now that he wears an “A” on his Greyhounds jersey, he is also one of the guys helping out newcomers.

“The first month or so was a bit of adjustment, but ‘Jaro’ helped me ease in and now I’m very comfortable,” said Malik, who appeared in 16 OHL games the last half of the season. “The guys on the team are my good friends now too.”

About the on-ice adjustment, the goalie said: “I like the Canadian style and it’s a junior league, so lots of odd-man rushes. I think it’s better for me as a goalie because I face a lot of chances, a lot of shots. I like that. In a pro league, teams play more defensive and shoot less.”

The son of former NHL defenceman Marek Malik, Nick was born in Raleigh, North Carolina and lived in several North American cities in his early years but returned home to Ostrava every summer and, up until last season, had played all of his hockey in the Czech Republic. Two years ago – the season Pytlik went to Vitkovice – Malik chose to transfer to regional arch-rival Ocelari Trinec.

“I’ve been there now three years and I think it’s been good for me,” Malik said of the Trinec club. “I’ve played in the second Czech men’s league (with affiliate club Frydek-Mistek) and the organization has treated me really well.”

Although his dad was a defenceman, Malik became a goalie because he likes Henrik Lundqvist. However, the elder Malik can still help Nick with his game. “He helps me a lot with puckhandling – you know, communication between d-men and goalies is important, like when the puck goes behind the net – so I try to work on that.”  

Pytlik’s father was a hockey player as well and is now a skills coach who trains players in the off-season, and that’s coming in handy for Jaromir right now. “My dad’s got a rink and I’ve been skating and working out with a small group of guys like Martin Necas and (Pittsburgh Penguins prospect) Radim Zohorna.”
Still there many uncertainties surrounding the coming season, starting with the Draft, which both Pytlik and Malik are eligible for. Pytlik, whose 25 September birthday is just 10 days after the cut-off, will be one of the oldest first-year players eligible. 

“I take it as a positive that I can be drafted this year instead of last year,” said Pytlik. “I don’t think it makes a lot of difference though. Either way, I think I’d be going back to junior this year.”

Under normal circumstances, European CHL players would head back to North America for training camp in August, but right now everything’s in the air. 

“Nobody knows,” said Pytlik. “I’ve been talking with some of the Czech guys in the NHL and they were just practicing and waiting to hear what’s gonna happen.” At least the NHL players have a schedule now with the playoffs starting on Saturday while things are less clear for other leagues in North America.

“Right now I’m training with Trinec and let’s see what happens,” said Malik. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’d like to see what happens in the draft but I don’t know when that will be.” 

Whatever happens, both players hope to be among the Czech team’s leaders at this year’s World Junior Championship, drawing on their experience from last year. 

“I was kinda nervous, but I worked hard and I think I played well,” said Pytlik, who picked up one assist in five games as a depth player. “I should have played on a line with Jakub Lauko, but he got injured after six seconds (in the first game), so all the lines changed and it was stressful, but this year I’ll try to be one of the leaders of the team and I hope it goes better.” 

With Lauko, Jan Jenik, Matej Pekar and others now overage, Pytlik will be among a group that includes fellow returnees Michal Teply, Adam Raska and 18-year-old Jan Mysak to carry the offensive load.

As for Malik, injuries to both Lukas Dostal and Lukas Parik resulted in getting 46 minutes of action, where he stopped 19 of 22 Canadian shots in the Czechs’ last group-stage game. This year, Malik will be in the mix for the top goaltending job along with Parik and Jan Bednar. 

Malik was very familiar with last year’s coach, Vaclav Varada, whom he knew from Trinec, but he’s comfortable so far with new head coach Karel Mlejnek, who is new to the Czech national team program. “No, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I think they’re both good coaches and they do their best.”

“We have a whole new coaching staff and I didn’t really know them before,” said Pytlik. “I only knew (assistant coach Pavel) Trnka because he was in Vitkovice, but I didn’t know the head coach. But we’ve had some good practices and so far, everything seems great.”

This year’s Czech national junior team was originally scheduled to open its season with a tournament in Finland in late July. However, due to restrictions still in place there, that event was cancelled. Instead, the Czech and Slovak U20 teams played exhibition games in Brno while Germany travelled to Switzerland for other exhibition games between neighbours. Another tournament at the end of August in the Czech Republic was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions.

The next tournament where the Czechs would play Finland, Russia and Sweden is planned during the November break. And of course, the big event is the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship scheduled from 26 December to 5 January in Edmonton and Red Deer in the Canadian province of Alberta.