– It was just before noon in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Thursday. The city’s American Hockey League team, the Griffins, was preparing to bus to Lake Erie, Cleveland, for a Friday night tilt against the Monsters.
Andrej Nestrasil was among the group.
“It was either clear waivers and jump on the bus to go to Lake Erie with the Griffins or keep the bag and go somewhere else,” he said. “At 12:01 I got the news, and I was really excited about that.”
The news: Nestrasil would hang onto his bag and head to Denver, Colorado, to meet the Carolina Hurricanes, who claimed the 23-year-old forward on waivers, edging out other reported suitors due to their position in the standings.
“On one hand, it is tough, but on the other hand, that’s the business,” Nestrasil said of the waiting period of being on waivers. “My mom called me yesterday, and she was so down and sad. I was like, ‘Mom. What are you doing? I’m going to play in the NHL. This is a good thing, and I’m really happy about it.’
“I’m really happy [Detroit] gave me an opportunity to make the NHL and play in the NHL, but on the other hand, when someone claims you on waivers, you’re probably wanted. They want you to be here, which makes me feel more comfortable to play. I was really excited.”
Nestrasil arrived in Denver after midnight, just like the team, and on Friday afternoon, he skated with the Canes for the first time.
“It’s been a real interesting last 24 hours,” he said after the team’s practice in Westminster. “My first impression is that there are a lot of young guys on the team.”
And, he knows quite a few of those guys, including Zach Boychuk, Chris Terry, Victor Rask and Brad Malone, who he faced off with often last season in the AHL. Hailing from Prague, Czech Republic, Nestrasil also finds commonality with countryman Jiri Tlusty and Slovak Andrej Sekera.
“They give you more insight into what’s going on,” Nestrasil said. “When you’re new, you talk with all the guys and introduce yourself, but it’s going to take a while to get in a groove and get familiar with everyone. I know that if I have a problem I can just turn around, ask one of them and be fine. It’s perfect.”
Nestrasil was drafted in the third round by Detroit in 2009. He split the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons between the East Coast Hockey League and the AHL before making the jump to the Griffins full-time in 2013-14. In 70 games last season, he 36 points (16g, 20a) and added an additional four goals and two assists (six points) in 10 postseason games.
Then this season, Nestrasil cracked the Red Wings’ opening night roster.
“I don’t think anybody expected me to be in the NHL this season, but I really made sure I was ready. I had great physical testing in Detroit and great exhibition games,” he said. “I was really just enjoying it. When they called my name and number, probably half the rink had no idea who that guy was. But I really enjoyed it.”
Hurricanes Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Francis said the club has had its eye on Nestrasil for some time, and they jumped at the opportunity to pick him up on waivers.
“At every level he’s been at, he’s found a way to make himself better and succeed,” Francis said. “He’s a big body at 6-3, 200. We think he has good hockey sense and a good skill set. He’s still young at 23, and he needs to continue to learn to play at the pace of this level.”
It also doesn’t hurt that head coach Bill Peters is somewhat familiar with Nestrasil having served as an assistant coach in Detroit for the last three seasons.
“I said from day one that I’d like to get bigger if we can, and he certainly fits that mold,” Francis said. “He’s definitely a top-nine guy with top-six potential.”
“He’s heavy on the puck. He hangs onto it, and he has a good skill set. He’s comfortable as a left-hand shot playing the right wing, and he’s pretty versatile,” Peters said. “He can play on the power play. He’s worked real hard in the last 12-18 months to get himself strong enough to be an NHL player on a consistent basis.”
“He knows what kind of player I am,” Nestrasil said. “I think it would be way tougher to go somewhere where no one knows me or knows what kind of player I am. I’m really happy he’s the head coach here.”
Though there is some common ground between Nestrasil and Peters given their history with Detroit and its systems, his first practice with the Hurricanes was a bit different.
“I was lost, to be honest with you. I was totally lost,” he said with a toothless grin. “The coach wants to keep the pace and do everything quickly, but if you’re the new guy, you just go stand in the line and watch what everyone else is doing. When you go, you just hope you don’t screw it up right away. There were some drills I knew and some that I had no idea what I was doing.”
Speaking of his toothless grin, Nestrasil said he lost his front tooth at the beginning of last season.
“I would like to give you a great story how I blocked a shot or something like that, but we had a power play, I fell in the corner and when they tried to clear the puck, it hit me right in my face,” he said, adding in true hockey player fashion that it didn’t hurt. “I have a fake one, and I wear it on some occasions, like when I have suit. People in Detroit really liked the no-tooth look, so I just kept it going. It’s more comfortable to not have it.”
Peters said on Thursday afternoon that he plans to insert Nestrasil , who will wear No. 15, into the lineup on Saturday against Colorado. Nestrasil’s father flew from Prague to Detroit to see his son play in his first two career NHL games, and tomorrow night, though he won’t be in Denver, he will certainly be watching – even when it’s 3:30 a.m. local time.
“Of course. My dad wakes up every night to watch games,” Nestrasil said. “He just texted me that he’s going to get some rest and go for a jog in the morning to stretch out so he’s ready for the game. He’s really pumped.”