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Spanish youngster playing well in Finland

by Bill Meltzer
Imagine you're a standout teenage hockey player from a country in which the game is a secondary sport. Your skill level is superior to many players who are several years older than you. To continue to progress, you need access to higher-level coaching and a better grade of competition. But to get it, it means moving far away from your family, to a foreign country where the native language is nothing like yours.

That's the situation 18-year-old forward Alejandro "Alex" Pedraz is in. The native of San Sebastian, Spain, plays for the famous KalPa Kuopio junior program in Finland. He's been in Finland for three years and has thrived, on and off the ice. Pedraz joined the KalPa program at 15 and has done remarkably well for such a young man in making the on-ice and cultural adjustments.

In the meantime, he has shined for the Spanish national team. In the recently completed 2009 Under-20 Division II World Championship in Logrono, Spain, the host nation managed only a single victory (5-1 against China), but lost to Great Britain (6-0), Croatia (5-4), the Netherlands (4-2) and Mexico (3-1). Pedraz's play, however, was a bright spot for the Spain as he led his team in scoring and ranked among the tournament scoring leaders with 5 goals and 9 points.

Pedraz was the only player on the Spanish roster currently affiliated with a high-end European development program. Of all the junior programs within Finland, KalPa Kuopio has been the most active in recognizing promising young talent from Spain.  So far, the organization has given three Spanish players the opportunity to join the KalPa junior program while living and studying in Kuopio. Pedraz has been the most successful.

"When Alex was 15, he came to play for Juniori-KalPa Ry," said program manager Markku Keinänen. "He advanced to our second team and then to our 'A' team. He played well, and his scoring skills helped the team to succeed. One thing he needed to improve was his temper, which sometimes hurt the team."

In a nine-game stretch last season with the equivalent of the J18 team, Pedraz racked up 14 goals and 19 points. However, he also compiled far too many penalty minutes (53). That has been a regular pattern in his young career.

At the 2007 Division III World Under-18 Championship, he dominated to the tune of 17 goals and 26 points in five games, but he had 29 penalty minutes. A few months earlier, at the U-20 Div II tournament, he spent 29 minutes in the box in just four games.

Last season, Pedraz played for Spain at the 2008 Division II Group B World U-20 Championship in Tallinn and for the senior national team at the 2008 Division II Group B World Championship in Australia. At the U-20 level, he had 5 goals, 3 assists and just eight penalty minutes in five games. With the senior national team -- playing against grown men -- he had 1 goal, 3 points and 18 penalty minutes.

Pedraz turned 18 on Sept. 4, 2008. According to Keinänen, the youngster is a fast learner off the ice as well.

"After six months in Finland, Alex could already speak Finnish fairly well," said Keinänen. "He's succeeded in his high school studies. Nowadays he's in sports high school and, in addition to his team training, he participates in the academy's morning sessions. His Finnish is now very good."

At the start of the 2008-09 season, Pedraz was promoted to KalPa's A-level junior team (what would generally be called J20 in other countries). The team is aiming to play in the first division, which is the second-highest level in Finnish 'A' junior hockey. According to Keinänen, it could be just the beginning for the youngster.

"If Alex's development continues at the same pace, he has an opportunity to play even in the SM-Liiga for KalPa or a Mestis team in the future," he said.

Pedraz's teammate on Spain's U-20 squad, Juan Munoz, also played in the KalPa junior system last year, totaling 3 goals and 6 points in nine games. He subsequently returned to Spain and now plays for FC Barcelona.

Now Pedraz is not the only youngster from Spain in the KalPa program. This season, 15-year-old Bruno Pujols has joined KalPa C 93, the Kuopio program's team of players born in 1993.

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