After a recent practice at THE RINKS - Anaheim ICE, Ondrej Kase made his way through the Ducks locker room. It was long after practice had finished, so most of his teammates were already gone, save for a few of them finishing their meals and a handful of reporters milling about in the room.
"Ondrej, do you have a few minutes for an interview?" a reporter asks.
"Of course!" he replies, but not before taking a few extra seconds to scan the room. "No cameras, right?"
It's not that Kase, a native of Kadan, Czech Republic, has a distaste for being on camera. Rather, he takes his interviews very seriously and admits he gets nervous when the bright lights shine on him.
It happened a few times last season when he burst onto the scene with an impressive rookie campaign with the Ducks. The 21-year-old right wing led all Ducks rookies in appearances (53), scoring (15 points), goals (5), assists (10) and game-winning goals (2), and went 2-for-3 in the shootout to become one of three Ducks (also Corey Perry and Patrick Eaves) to record a game-deciding goal during the regular season. He also added two goals in nine Stanley Cup Playoff games.
"If this was the same time last year, we probably couldn't do this interview," Kase says, with a laugh. "But I feel so much more comfortable with my English. The guys are helping me out so much."
Kase is referring to his teammates - the people he spends more time with than anyone else during the season. Days and nights spent on the road are usually with a roommate, last year being former Ducks defenseman Shea Theodore. This time around, at least in training camp, it's defenseman Brandon Montour. "It works perfectly," he says, without hesitation. "We don't have any problems."
When he needs a laugh, Kase looks no further than hulking left wing Nick Ritchie, who he says is the funniest guy on the team. "When you see him, he just says some funny stuff," Kase says, holding back his own laughter. "He's a pretty funny guy. I really like him."
Kase is the kind of player you can't help but root for. He was the sixth-to-last-pick in the 2014 NHL Draft (seventh round, 205th overall) and weighed 160 pounds at the time. He put up modest numbers with Piráti Chomutov in the top leagues in the Czech Republic and gained international experience when he represented his country at the World Junior Championships on several occasions. He entered the draft as the eighth-ranked European skater behind Ducks prospect Marcus Pettersson (No. 7), Adrian Kempe (No. 6), David Pastrnak (No. 5), Jakub Vrana (No. 4), Kevin Fiala (No. 3), William Nylander (No. 2) and Kasperi Kapanen (No. 1). Of those eight, six were taken in the first round. The only two not selected in the first round? Kase and Pettersson (second round, 38th overall).
These days, Kase tips the scales at 185 pounds and looks visibly bigger than he did last season. He says he placed an emphasis on getting stronger in order to withstand the physical demands of a full NHL season.
"I only put on a couple pounds of muscle, but I feel good," he says. "I went to the gym a lot more. I tried to get stronger. I hope to be here all season. Score a couple more goals and assists."
Last season, he endeared himself to Ducks fans with his jubilant goal celebrations and his "energizer bunny" work ethic, as described by his head coach, Randy Carlyle. "He can play with pace, can make plays in small areas, can create space for himself, and he's not afraid to go into those areas," Carlyle said, during the Western Conference Final last May. "He's a fearless player for his size. And he goes into the areas and can make plays with good players."
This season, Kase was allowed to shed his assigned training camp/rookie number - 86 - in favor of something more to his liking. "They asked me if I wanted to change my number, so I changed it to 25," he says. "I've worn it a couple of times in the Czech Republic. I hope it's a good change for me. It's a good step for me to choose a lower number."
There is more to Kase's life than just hockey. He says he would likely be an architect if he wasn't playing professional hockey. "Just the way buildings are built and how they look," he says, when asked what interests him about architecture. "Back in the Czech Republic, we have more gardens. Here, especially in California, it's house after house after house."
When Kase hits the road with the team, does he catch himself admiring the local infrastructure? "Not too much," he says. "Going on the road is all about hockey, but some cities are very beautiful."
As he continues to grow as a player, he also does so as a person - the light shining brighter with every passing day.