Klesla comes of age
Nearly two centuries ago, the British poet William Wordsworth wrote about The Character of the Happy Warrior:
Whose high endeavors are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright;
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there.
The Columbus Blue Jackets hope their first-ever draft choice, defenseman Rostislav Klesla, is the living embodiment of those words and the early returns indicate he is. Klesla was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team last season and is a bigger, stronger player this season.
Klesla, 20, a native of Novy Jicin in the Czech Republic, is one of the NHL's brightest young prospects, a 6-foot-3, 206-pound blueliner that the Blue Jackets expect will be the leader of their defense for a decade or more. In his fifth season of North American hockey, Klesla has improved greatly every year. He's solid in the defensive zone and can contribute offensively as well.
The Blue Jackets love his character, intelligence, enthusiasm and work ethic. He's optimistic and when he discussed his recent seasons, he finished many recollections with the words, "And that worked out well for me."
Things have been working out well for him ever since he took the advice of his agent, Jiri Crha, the former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, that he go to North America and play Tier II junior hockey at age 16. Klesla played for Sioux City in the United States Hockey League. He was one of the youngest players in the League, competing against players as old as 20.
"Jiri said it would be a good idea to get a taste of that style of hockey and learn English before the draft. I thought, 'Why not? I'll be closer to the NHL, which was always my dream, so I'll fight my way through it and try to get a good position in the Draft.' That's what happened so it worked out great. I've got no complaints about that."
Klesla was the fourth overall selection in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft behind goalie Rick DiPietro and forwards Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik. He was pleased to be recognized as the top defensive prospect of his generation.
"If you get a good defenseman, it's a cornerstone for your hockey club," said Columbus Director of Amateur Scouting Don Boyd. "The glamour players are the forwards who can score, but we felt that at any given point in the season he could have gone from No. 1 overall to No. 4 and a lot of people didn't feel he would. We got the luck of the draw and the Islanders took the goaltender.
"I think those teams are happy with their results and we are too," Boyd continued. "(Coach) Dave King and (GM) Doug MacLean have feathered him into the lineup pretty well, getting him active on the power play and penalty killing. It's a big job walking into the NHL as a 19-year-old defenseman. He's a competitive kid and he sincerely wants to win."
Patrick Sharp, the rookie center of the Philadelphia Flyers, remembers Klesla making great strides in the USHL.
"He made a lot of improvement that year and he was one of only a handful of 16-year-olds," said Sharp, who played for his native Thunder Bay. "We certainly were aware of his abilities as the season went along."
"From where he started to where he finished is unbelievable," said his Sioux City coach, Dave Hakstol, who played at the University of North Dakota with future NHL players Dixon Ward, Russ Romaniuk, Greg Johnson and Garry Valk and is now an assistant coach there. "When he got off the plane, he could speak two words of English. He had the same difficulty on the ice, where his biggest adjustment was getting used to the smaller ice surface.
"He was a clumsy 16-year-old, but you could see his natural ability. He has tremendous hands and can think the game. Despite the language barrier, we'd do a drill and he'd understand it right away. He had a great ability to understand hockey, paired with great eagerness to learn.
"He's an upbeat, positive kid and within two months he had turned into a good player in the USHL," Hakstol continued. "By Christmas, he had become a very good player and by the playoffs I thought he was possibly our best defenseman."