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MELTZER: Making his Kase

How David Kase's commitment to the game has impacted the Phantoms and now the Flyers

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

Flyers rookie winger David Kase has never been afraid of a challenge. His road to the National Hockey League has been anything but easy, but the bubbly and enthusiastic young Czech is extremely competitive and persistent. 

By playing style, Kase is a high-energy player who is unafraid to compete for pucks and battle in high-traffic areas despite giving up size to many opponents. He's an above-average skater and has the hockey sense to anticipate plays and go to the right spots although he is not a prolific scorer.

In 2015, Kase instantly accepted an invitation to take part the NHL Draft Combine. Standing only at about 5-foot-9 and weighing 163 pounds at the time, Kase was one of smallest and most physically underdeveloped Draft hopefuls in attendance. He finished last or nearly last in most of the tests but completed each and every one. That moxie, along with the energy and hockey smarts witnessed by Flyers scouts, prompted the organization to select him in the fifth round (128th overall) in the 2015 Draft.

In July of that same year, Kase attended his first Flyers Development Camp. Unable to speak more than a few halting words of English, and being the only Czech there, he repeatedly apologized for the language barrier ("Sorry, my English so bad. Sorry," he said numerous times) but eagerly soaked in everything he could learn on and off the ice each day.

Two years later, after competing in the Czech Extraliga (the highest domestic pro league in his home country), Kase spent a season in Sweden's SHL, where the competition was of a little higher grade. He nevertheless wound up leading his team, Mora IK, in scoring.

Last season, Kase came over to North America to join the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He got off to a solid start and then dealt with injuries. Nevertheless, he earned the trust of coaches Scott Gordon and Kerry Huffman, who could not help but be impressed with his work ethic, nonstop motor and eagerness to learn. 

He also adapted readily in the locker room -- where the youngster was among the most well-liked players on the team --- and off the ice. By now, Kase was also much more comfortable speaking English, and even doing interviews. While not entirely fluent ala Flyers veteran Jakub Voracek (who has played in North America since junior hockey), Kase understood most everything and his ability to express himself had become much less halting. 

"Everyone -- my teammates, coaches -- helps me so much. I feel happy here. Like, I learn a lot, and I like the hockey here, too. My dream is to play in the NHL," Kase said during his second Flyers rookie camp this past September.

Kase had an impressive camp, both during the Rookie Camp and early main camp. He was rewarded by new Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault by getting into a couple preseason games and even practicing on a line with team captain Claude Giroux on the same day he was later assigned back to the Phantoms to begin his second pro season in North America.

The Phantoms got off to a strong start, and Kase frequently played on the same line as highly touted rookie center Morgan Frost. Unfortunately, Kase once again was set back by an injury. It took him some time upon his return to look like himself again in terms of consistently swarming around the puck and getting under some opponents' skin. Team-wide, the Phantoms soon became riddled with injuries and depleted by key players (Joel Farabee, Frost, Phil Myers and others) being called up to the NHL to join the Flyers.

Suddenly, goals became very hard for Lehigh Valley to come by. Although Kase, too, wasn't scoring much (three goal and six points in 21 games), what was hidden beneath the modest scoring numbers was the high volume of scoring chances he was getting and creating once he recovered his game. Kase was easily one of the Phantoms most effective player in late November and early December.

With the Flyers themselves now racked with key absences from their forward corps-- four at the time and, eventually, six -- Kase received his first NHL call-up on Dec. 10, 2019 as the team began a three-game road trip. Both on and off the ice, the road trip was nightmarish; an 0-3-0 record overshadowed by the sobering news that burgeoning young left winger Oskar Lindblom would likely miss the remainder of the 2019-20 season to undergo treatment for Ewing sarcoma (a form of bone cancer). 

Kase's play in limited minutes was one of the few bright spots of the trip.

With the team returning to Philadelphia on Monday of this week, Kase had the opportunity to live out several boyhood dreams at once in his home debut. His older brother, Ondrej, plays for the Anaheim Ducks; the Flyers first opponent upon their return. 

The brothers' parents traveled from the Czech Republic to Philadelphia for the first-ever opportunity to see both sons play in the same NHL game. Their 46-year-old dad, Robert, is a former minor league player in the Czech Republic and Germany turned longtime junior hockey coach -- he coached both Ondrej and David in the Chomutov Pirates (Pirati Chomutov) junior system before they reached the pro level. The Kase family went out to dinner at Morimoto in Philadelphia to celebrate a monumental occasion for the whole clan; the culmination of years of striving and hard work.

The next night, David Kase started on a line with Frost and Voracek. 

"That is great for me," he said. "Jake is a very big player in Czech Republic and one of the best in the world. I played with Frosty before; very skilled center. So that is a big help."

The line would go on to score the Flyers' second and third goals of the game, including Kase's first in the NHL, as Philly beat the Ducks by a 4-1 count.

At 4:14 of the second period, slick puck movement sequence from Morgan Frost to Travis Sanheim started things as Kase won a positional battle in front to tip home his first NHL goal.Video: ANA@PHI: Kase taps in Sanheim feed for first NHL goal

"I just chipped the puck and Frosty took it back. He sees Sanny free. I just went hard to the net. Sanny made very nice pass to me. I just had the stick on the ice and I scored. It was a nice one for me," Kase said.

Kase launched into an ecstatic goal celebration as soon as the puck went in the net. He was so excited that he not only darted through the congratulatory high-five flyby line at the bench, he skated all the way down to celebrate with goalie Carter Hart at the other end.

The rookie was so pumped up that he forgot to seek out Voracek, who has acted as something a mentor to Kase since his call-up.

"It would have been nice to celebrate with him," Voracek said. "I went to get the puck (from the net to present to him) and he was already going down the bench. I was high-fiving with the referees in the middle of the ice. Hopefully next time he'll wait for me. I told him he'd get one. I'm glad he did. Game-winning goal, it's all good."

Did Ondrej say anything afterwards to his younger brother?

"Just on a face off he said congrats. He was just focused on his team and I focused on my team. I am happy we won tonight against him. I'm the winner in my family," David Kase said, beaming. 

Kase, who has gained the locker room nickname "Timon" among teammates in reference to the Lion King cartoon/CGI meerkat, was awarded the Player of the Game helmet by its last recipient, currently injured forward Scott Laughton. He also got possession of his goal puck, posing for photographs.Tweet from @NHLFlyers: A proud Pumbaa and a thankful Timon. 🇨🇿

For Vigneault's part, the coach plans to keep Kase with Voracek and Frost a little longer while other players remain out of the lineup.

"I thought that line was very effective. I thought Morgan played one of his best two-way games since he's been here. I thought Jake was a real good leader on that line and kept talking to the two kids throughout the game offensively and defensively. Especially since he can talk to David in his own language, that's obviously helping the young man. I think tonight we got the better of the two brothers, so that was real positive," Vigneault said.

David Kase will celebrate his 23rd birthday on Jan. 28. No matter what lies in store in his hockey future, he'll always have special memories of the night of his first NHL goal and be fortified by the knowledge that he navigated a particularly tough road to get there. Whatever the challenges that inevitably lie ahead, he will approach them with the same character and gusto that he always has.

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