MONTREAL - Jakub Jerabek has never been to Montreal before, but he's certainly heard a lot about it.
That's because the 25-year-old Czech defenseman - who signed a one-year free agent contract with the Canadiens on Monday - has spent his fair share of time in recent years fine-tuning his game under the tutelage of long-time NHL rearguard and fellow countryman, Jaroslav Spacek.
In fact, the two Czech rearguards have known one another for quite a while, dating back to Spacek's playing days in North America, before the veteran blue-liner eventually made his way back home.
"When I was still playing in the NHL, I was practicing mostly over the summer in Plzen with our home team, where Jakub grew up and played as well. That's where we first met," recalled Spacek, who played 145 of his 880 career NHL games in a Habs uniform. "He'd watch our practices. I skated with [former NHLer and current HC Plzen head coach] Martin Straka. Then, when I finished up in Carolina in 2012, I came back home and worked with defensemen. I worked with Jakub for the next four years before he went to the KHL last season."
Now an assistant coach with both Plzen and the Czech National Team, Spacek is delighted to see his pupil poised to take the next step in his career as he prepares to battle for a spot in the Canadiens' lineup. He firmly believes the 2016 Czech Extraliga's Defenseman of the Year boasts the skills and hockey IQ to handle the inevitable learning curve that comes with playing on smaller ice - something Jerabek hasn't experienced first-hand since competing at the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo.
"He was actually one of the candidates to make our World Cup of Hockey roster last fall. He can be ready. He likes to work and he learns quickly. Give him a little time, put that trust in him, and he will deliver," said Spacek, before expanding upon some of Jerabek's top on-ice assets. "I think he's got a really good first pass. He's started to get more physical. He knows what to do before the puck gets to him. That's something that makes him one of the best young Czech defensemen. I've seen big progress in him and he's at the top of his game right now."
That, according to Jerabek, is due in no small part to Spacek and Straka's guidance in Plzen, and his decision to head to Russia to spend the 2016-17 campaign with Vityaz Podolsk in order to test himself against stiffer opposition.
"After spending six or seven years in my hometown, it was time to say goodbye and go up a level because the KHL is different. When I look back now, I think it was the right choice," said the 2017 KHL All-Star, who registered five goals and 34 points in 59 games last season. "The guys are faster and more skilled than in the Czech League. That was the biggest difference between the two."
Will the move pay dividends for Jerabek when it comes to impressing the Habs' brass? That remains to be seen. But there's no questioning his desire to cement a spot with the big club this fall.
"I think the NHL is absolutely the best league in the world. If there's a chance to go there and play with the top guys, it's the best thing I can do. When the chance came up to go to Montreal, I didn't have to think about it for one second," said Jerabek. "There are a lot of good guys in Montreal, though. I'll fight for my chance, work hard, and hope that I make it."
In the meantime, Jerabek will make his second-straight appearance at the World Hockey Championship this spring, where he'll suit up alongside another Czech great in Tomas Plekanec. As a full-time Montreal resident for the last 12 years, the veteran centerman will be a great resource for Jerabek to consult with as the annual tournament rolls on.
"I've talked with Jaroslav about Montreal and I'm hoping to talk to Tomas about it now, too," said Jerabek, who registered five assists in eight games in his first appearance with the Czech Republic's senior team in 2016. "Jaroslav said it's a fantastic organization and a fantastic city with great people."
Jerabek will undoubtedly be given the grand tour upon his arrival in Canada, which should come sometime in late August. Following the World Championship, he'll take some well-deserved time off before resuming his training in Plzen ahead of his departure.
With four months to go until training camp, he'll have plenty of time to prepare himself for the challenge ahead - one that he's definitely taking in stride.
"I'm very excited because I think a lot of people don't know me yet," said Jerabek. "I'll just have to make sure I make a good first impression."