We’ll see what’s going to happen. I really wish to stay here in Calgary. I like it here, so we’ll see what happens. - Jakub Nakladal
CALGARY, AB -- He left his home to chase a dream.
At times, he had to leave his wife and young son, too.
And the sacrifices have been worth it for defenceman Jakub Nakladal.
“In the start it was sometimes hard,” recounted Nakladal, who spent parts of nine years in professional hockey in Europe, primarily in his home country of the Czech Republic, before jumping across the Atlantic to join the Calgary Flames on a one-year, two-way, no-promises pact that will soon expire.
“Especially for my wife, we didn’t see each other for two months. Especially right now, we have a two-year-old. He’s still young. We knew what could happen, because nobody could tell me that I’m going to play in Calgary for sure. But I think it’s a big experience for us, in this way. My wife was so strong this season. It was okay.
“Right now, I think it was a good year.”
Nakladal’s wife, Andrea, understands. His son, Jakub Jr., might be too young to recognize the situation.
And though opportunities had come before to offer Nakladal a chance to ply his trade on hockey’s biggest stage, it wasn’t until the Flames came calling that the 28-year-old and his family felt comfortable enough to make the jump.
So, he jumped.
“We’ve been in contact with one team from the NHL maybe three years already, and I said many times it was always my dream to come to North America, but I never saw a real opportunity for that before Calgary,” said Nakladal, a veteran of three IIHF World Championships. “Calgary contacted us and I just knew. I was waiting for a real opportunity and Calgary gave me a chance.”
The chance was there.
If Nakladal was patient.
He started the season in Stockton of the American Hockey League, an attempt to acclimatize the European blueliner to North American hockey.
He earned one recall on Oct. 21 -- a teaser, as the Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic native didn’t get a lineup nod.
He was assigned back to the minors a week later.
“I was expecting that I was going to play all year in Calgary, but right now looking back, it was maybe better that they sent me down,” Nakladal said. “I was there for a couple months, and I learned a lot of things like they said. I think I can be more patient, mentally too. That was really important for me to learn.”
A return to the NHL didn’t come until Feb. 9, and even then it was a dubious debut at best. Nakladal logged 1:45 of ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and didn’t dress in either of the two games that followed.
But, with Calgary’s defence depleted, Nakladal earned a more regular opportunity.
He earned his first NHL point, an assist on home ice, 10 days after his debut.
He netted his first NHL goal six games later, a howitzer in Boston that was followed by a grin from ear-to-ear.
He’s played 24 of 25 since back-to-back scratches following his first skate, only sitting because of a horrendous-looking eye injury on a high stick in Pittsburgh in early March.
Nakladal’s spot in the lineup has come with seizing an opportunity as much as being given one.
“It's been a nice progression,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said. “There is no doubt about it. He’s been strong, he’s been logging good minutes, he’s getting some power play time sometimes. It’s normal. He had never played in the NHL before so the first time is kind of an eye-opener but after he scored his first goal his confidence grew a lot and usually that is a sign of any player – young or old that step in the NHL. Once you get that big goal, after that you feel so much better.”
Agreed, suggested Nakladal.
“I feel I’m getting more and more comfortable,” he said. “At the start of this two months, getting called up, I think I wasn’t nervous, but I had big respect because it’s the NHL. It was my first game and first couple of games. Right now I know what the NHL is about and how I have to play. The coaches try to help me every day and show me all my shifts. These help. Every game I feel more and more comfortable.”
The games are running out.
Nakladal and the Flames have just two dates remaining on the 2015-16 docket.
After that, the status of the pending unrestricted free agent is up in the air.
But Nakladal doesn’t necessarily want it to be.
He likes the opportunity in his adopted home.
“After this season my contract’s finished,” Nakladal said. “We’ll see what’s going to happen. I really wish to stay here in Calgary. I like it here, so we’ll see what happens.
“We’ll see. My wish is to stay here in Calgary.”