Back in 2001, Plekanec was one of eight players former general manager Andre Savard selected at the NHL Entry Draft in Sunrise, FL. The Kladno, Czech Republic native was picked in the third round, 71st overall, after the Canadiens’ brass had already secured the services of Mike Komisarek (7th), Alexander Perezhogin (25th) and Duncan Milroy (37th) with their first three selections at the National Car Rental Center, which is now known as the BB&T Center and remains the home of the Florida Panthers.
Now the second-most experienced player on the Canadiens’ roster aside from Andrei Markov with 11 full-time NHL seasons and 843 games on his resume – all with Montreal – Plekanec is amazed at just how fast the last decade-and-a-half has flown by.
His memories of the NHL Draft might be a little spotty at this point in time, but there are a few things that still stand out to the Canadiens’ No. 14, who continues his steady rise in the franchise’s record books every single year.
“I remember the long flight over [to Florida]. That’s one of things that pops when I think back to that time [in my life]. It was probably the first or second time I’d ever been in an NHL rink,” said Plekanec, referencing the trek he and his agent, Frantisek Kaberle Sr., had to make to be in attendance at the NHL Draft in the Sunshine State. “I had no idea if I was going to be drafted, which round or whatever. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect because we didn’t get a lot of NHL coverage where I lived. It’s not like these days where there’s all kinds of information out there and the young guys already have an idea of where they might be going and they see themselves in the NHL playing for a team.”
Leading up to the draft, Plekanec took part in the NHL Combine in Toronto, working out for potential teams who might be interested in bringing him on board weeks later. Admittedly, conditioning wasn’t necessarily a top priority at the time for the future Canadiens assistant captain, who can now be found in the gym every single day keeping his body in fine form leading up to the 2016-17 campaign.
“I did a bunch of interviews with different teams while I was there. I remember interviewing with Montreal, too, but I had no idea they were interested in picking me. I think I did 20 interviews in all. I didn’t do so well in testing, though. I did one chin up, maybe two,” cracked Plekanec, who takes exceptionally good care of his body these days, according to strength and conditioning coach, Pierre Allard, which has enabled him to be a consistent pro from one year to the next.
Immediately after the draft, Plekanec returned home where he continued plying his trade for his hometown team in Kladno for the duration of the 2001-02 season. It would be his final year overseas before he felt the time was right to make the move to North America for good.
“I think that was my plan all along, to go back to Europe for one more year after the draft. I was playing in a professional men’s league over there. I was happy to play there because that was my goal growing up. Unfotunately, we had a tough year and we lost a lot of games. We were relegated to the second league. So, that was the time to go over to North America. My goals changed. I was 19 years old, so I could go to the minors right away,” explained Plekanec, who would go on to play 231 games with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs between 2002 and 2005, learning from the likes of Claude Julien and Doug Jarvis behind the bench.
Plekanec says that when he eventually arrived on Canadian soil in the early 2000’s, his mindset with respect to his game really took a turn for the better, especially when it came to preparing himself for the inevitable grind of a long season.
“The year I came here, I started being way more professional. I started to know a little bit more about stuff like eating properly. It really didn’t exist before that. You become much more professional when you have a chance to crack into the NHL. After I signed my entry-level contract, I was thinking more and more about making it,” said Plekanec, who still fondly remembers coming to training camp for the very first time. “I remember being in the dressing room and then on the ice with Doug Gilmour. He was a legend that I knew about, obviously. I was out there with [Mariusz] Czerkawski, Saku [Koivu], [Richard] Zednik and [Jan] Bulis. They were all big names for me.”
Plekanec wouldn’t earn a roster spot in Montreal until the 2005-06 season, though. In retrospect, it’s safe to say nothing was handed to him. The process of becoming a full-time NHLer was a lot more difficult than the now father of two thought it would be at the start.
“I was going into camp thinking – ‘Now, I’m in camp. If I have a good one, I’m going to play in the NHL.’ I still laugh about that because it really doesn’t work like that unless you’re a top-notch prospect and you were drafted really, really high. I expected myself to stay in Montreal, but then I went down to the minors and stayed there forever,” said Plekanec, who quickly realized nothing was a given in the NHL ranks – especially for a rookie. “When I didn’t get called up, I thought – ‘O.K., it doesn’t work like that.’ So, I was in Hamilton for two years before the lockout hit in the third year [in 2004-05]. I probably would have had a chance to make the Canadiens that year, but it didn’t happen.”
It happened the following year, though, and Plekanec has been with the Canadiens ever since. He currently sits tied for second in his draft class alongside Jason Spezza in career NHL games, ranks sixth with 216 goals, seventh with 337 assists and eighth with 553 points. That isn’t too shabby for a player who was selected behind 70 others before his name was called all those years ago.
“Obviously, that’s something special. I should have been a first-rounder [with numbers like that],” concluded Plekanec with a laugh. “I’ve been lucky, just not being hurt and being able to keep on playing. You have to take care of yourself, but avoiding injury is the key thing. Everything kind of snowballs off of that. You play more and more games, so you have a chance to put up points and score some goals. It’s definitely nice.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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