|Martin Havlat has a great passion for soccer, which he plays during the summer in a Czech recreational league with other NHL players.
There are times when the basement of the United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks
, can feel like a soccer pitch. While going through the doors and into the corridors outside the dressing room, sounds of squeaky gym shoes and lively shouts warn of a game in progress.
Right wing Martin Havlat, the Hawks’ big gun, is one of the aspiring soccer stars.
“It’s just a good way for us to warm up,” says the 26-year-old Czech Republic native, by far the biggest soccer fan on the team. “It’s kind of dangerous too, but it’s a good thing to warm up … if nobody gets hurt,” he adds with a smile.
Havlat isn’t too shabby in his own sport. He led Chicago last season with 25 goals and 57 points in only 56 games – he missed 26 due to injury. Havlat also led the team with a plus-15 rating, and reached the 20-goal mark for the fourth time in his six NHL seasons.
During the summer, Havlat heads to his hometown of Brno, puts away the pucks and brings out the soccer balls. He joins some of his friends on a recreational team that includes pro hockey players like Petr Cajanek, Jiri Hudler, Patrik Elias, Zdenek Blatny, and Tomas Vokoun as they kick the ball around against some of the town’s best players.
“I’m a forward there too, and I don’t have to run that much,” Havlat laughs. “And I like to score goals.
“We’ve got one team of my hometown and we always get together. There is one guy who is always trying to get some friendly matches against us and some soccer teams from lower-level professional leagues, so that gives us little chance against them. But it’s always fun in the summer.”
Havlat always has been passionate about soccer. He even flew to Germany last summer to root on the Czech Republic team in the 2006 World Cup – their first appearance in the tournament since the separation from Slovakia. The Czechs split their first two games before a 2-0 loss to eventual champion Italy sent them home.
”They didn’t win, but it was a lot of fun,” Havlat said. “It’s the biggest sport in the world for sure, because anybody can play the sport. I think it might be bigger than the Olympics, too.”
Though the NFL and Major League Baseball are the biggest draws for U.S. sports fans, Havlat believes the addition of international soccer star David Beckham to Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy will give the sport a boost in the United States.
”It’s a huge thing that he came to the L.A. Galaxy,” Havlat says. “It’s going to be great for the fans to see him and we’ll see if he has some influence. Maybe he will get some other players to come here.”
Havlat’s skills and good health will be vital to a young team that’s trying to win back Chicago fans. He was leading the League with 13 points in eight games last season before an ankle injury sidelined him for more than a month.
When healthy, Havlat is highlight material on YouTube. Perhaps his most spectacular was a shorthanded goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 11, when Havlat stole the puck from defenseman Bryan Berard, skated past the Jackets’ other defenseman, Rostislav Klesla, who hooked Havlat’s right arm, and ripped a shot past shot goaltender Fredrik Norrena.
His blazing speed earned him the nickname “Mach 9” during his first season with the Ottawa Senators, who drafted him in the first round in 1999 and brought him to the NHL a year later.
Havlat preferred “Mach 9” to “Kicking Bird,” a name mocking a bad experience at a hairdresser which left his hair unmanageable.
“Radek Bonk, my buddy, gave me that after someone put something in my hair and it was all straight and I couldn’t do anything, even if I put gel in it,” Havlat recalls. “It was long and I couldn’t do anything with it so I looked like the guy from Dances With Wolves. That’s why they gave me that.”
|Havlat has come a long way since his early days in Brno.
Havlat also likes playing tennis in his spare time and occasionally strikes a pose or two in Bikram yoga. He credits Bikram, better known as “hot yoga,” with helping him become more agile.
“I have done Bikram, but I didn’t do it so much last year, because of my injury,” Havlat said. “In Montreal, I did with Milan Michalek (of Jindrichuv Hradec in the Czech Republic, who plays for the San Jose Sharks). We did Bikram yoga which was about 40 Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit), maybe a little more. We did that two summers ago.
“It was kind of tough but great for balance. We did lots of hard exercises and breathing exercises, especially in that hot room, but you feel pretty good after that. But I just do it in the summer because it makes you tired a lot. I didn’t have a favorite pose, but all of them are really tough.”
Havlat was born in the Czech town of Mlada Boleslav, but considers Brno his real home after having moved there at age 2. He lived there until age 17, when he had to move to the city of Trinec to play in his first men’s-league team, Trinec Ocelari HC. Havlat, who has a half-brother and sister, Slava and Lenka, has come a long way from his days at Trinec, making his mother Hana proud, to say the least. He modestly recalls buying his mother a new home after signing his first contract with the Senators, calling the gesture a “little gift.”
“I bought my mom a house a little bit outside of the city,” he said. “We were living in a small flat the whole time, so it was a little gift that I could do for her. I was planning on doing this and we were talking and making plans for a long time. I was excited, and it was nice that I could finally do this for them.”
These days, Havlat’s home away from home is a newly constructed luxury condominium in Chicago’s Loop. His mom was able to visit for four days at the end of last season, and though it was her first time visiting her son in Chicago, she makes it a priority to “see how I’m living,” he laughs, and “catch a couple of hockey games” at least once a season.”
Havlat has a foot in two worlds. He’s an NHL player making millions of dollars and traveling around the world, but he’s still the boy from Brno who adores his mother, is crazy for soccer, and has the same friends he’s had his whole life.
His mom would be pleased.