It hasn’t taken Jakub Voracek very long to make a name for himself on this side of the Atlantic.
Voracek, the Columbus Blue Jackets first pick, seventh overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft this past June, left his hometown of Kladno in the Czech Republic last season to get his first taste of North American hockey with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – and he’s looked great in the process.
The slick, now second year, playmaker led his team in points (23-63-86), set a franchise record for assists and earned the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. In addition, he’s a fixture on You Tube.
“There are seven videos,” Voracek says with a laugh, aware of his growing following.
The clips offer a nice snapshot of what Voracek can do on the ice, including a deke on a breakaway goal against the St. John’s Fog Devils and a behind-the-back dish to an open teammate on another scoring play. While his offensive instincts are obvious, the 18-year-old winger entered this summer’s draft regarded as one of the most complete and NHL-ready players in the opinion of many scouts.
“Last year was huge for me,” says Voracek, who made a smooth transition to the more physical brand of play in North America. “I learned English and the Canadian style of hockey. It helped me for camp.
“I think I had an advantage over other guys from Europe. I think that was the reason I was the first European drafted.” His combination of skill, character and determination made Voracek the pick for the hometown team when it was Columbus’ turn to select in the opening round. He says it was an unbelievable experience to hear his name called in front of the packed Nationwide Arena crowd with his parents in the stands.
A couple of months later, Voracek hardly looked out of place when he got the opportunity to participate in his first NHL training camp.
“If you practice with players like Fedorov, Nash and Vyborny, it’s a huge experience,” he says. “I had the chance to play a couple of NHL games. Every NHL game, every NHL practice, it is an experience. I have to learn from that and I did. “The NHL game is all about power. When I had the puck, I didn’t have time - everything is so tight and so quick. It’s a huge difference from junior.
Voracek had no problem with the organization’s decision to send him back to Halifax for another year of grooming. At 6’1” and 190 pounds, he has decent size but knows that he must get stronger physically to compete at the NHL level on a nightly basis.
It’s already apparent that the Mooseheads are going to benefit from his return. Playing on a line with Logan MacMillan, the 19th overall pick by Anaheim this summer, and fellow Kladno native Tomas Knotek, Voracek is off to a tremendous start with two goals and 13 assists in his first five games, including two four-assist efforts.
“We’ve played pretty good,” he says of the line. “We’ve scored a lot of goals and had a lot of scoring chances. I think we will play with each other for a long time.”
Voracek believes that another productive year in junior and an improved physique will give him a better chance to make the Blue Jackets next season.
When he finally does crack the big club’s lineup, he’ll be joining a few other players that made their way to the NHL via Kladno. One is Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens, a friend who Voracek spent some time talking with this summer.
The most notable name to come from his hometown is Jaromir Jagr. Voracek was just a toddler when Jagr was winning Stanley Cups alongside Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh and he has continued to follow the perennial all-star’s career with the New York Rangers, a team stocked with Czechs.
“He was my favorite player and he is still,” says Voracek. “He’s still one of the best players in the world.”
In time, the talented young winger might get the chance to line up against Jagr.
“I hope so,” Voracek says.