by Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com
New York Ranger defenseman Tomas Kloucek can be a deceiving guy, says his coach, Ron Low.
"He's one of those guys, when he gets in his uniform doesn't look to be 230 pounds," Low says of his second-year defenseman, who is officially listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. "He's deceiving that way, because he is a huge guy, and solid."
That's why the deception only works until Kloucek hits an opposing player. Then the secret gets out quickly as the aggrieved player returns to the bench and spreads the word that Kloucek hits like a runaway freight train.
The 21-year-old Czech has put on a hitting clinic this year. Despite missing six games through injury, Kloucek already has 94 in 26 games, tops on the Rangers.
Many of Kloucek's hits have been of the intimidating kind, powerful checks that send a message to the other team and uplift teammates. Rugged players like New Jersey's Turner Stevenson, Florida's Joey Tetarenko and Peter Worrell and Montreal's Brian Savage have been shaken by Kloucek's bone-rattling checks.
"He's so big and physical that he needs to play that way," says Low, who has relied heavily on Kloucek since his earlier-than-expected return from a knee injury. "He's obviously a born hitter. He likes to hit, and he gets himself in a position to deliver hits."
Kloucek says hitting comes naturally to him. He enjoys it, enjoys the momentum a board-rattling hit along the wall or a crushing open-ice hit can give his team. But, he does not want to be known as the guy that injures people with his hits.
Stevenson hurt his knee after one memorable collision with the hulking Kloucek in a high-energy October game between the Rangers and New Jersey Devils.
"It's something that I have to do to stay here," says Kloucek of his propensity to play the body. "I don't try to put guys down. When some guy goes down, it's just part of (the game). It just happens sometime.
"I've always liked to hit and knew it had to be a part of my game. I don't work at it too much, I just let it come."
When Kloucek first reported to the Rangers on Nov. 12, 2000, he let the hits come too freely. Looking to make an impression on his coaches, Kloucek was often caught out of position while trying to hammer a player into the boards.
Such mistakes had Kloucek riding the shuttle to Hartford, the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate, for a good portion of last season. Finally, on Dec. 17, he rejoined the parent club for good, having mastered the ability to read the pros and cons of checking opportunities.
"That's the hard part about trying to hit somebody, you have to time it and pick your spots," he says. If you go there (to hit a guy) you have to hit that guy 100 percent. If you miss him, you are in trouble.
"When I came here last year, I was trying to hit all the time and I missed a few guys. I learned from that and I learned that I have to be more selective when I decide to hit."
If anything, Kloucek has proven to be a quick learner since he was taken in the sixth round (131st overall) in the 1998 Entry Draft, a moment that he considers the highlight of his hockey career to date.
Then he was a relatively unknown defenseman, playing for Slava Praha in the Czech junior league, showing a promising combination of size and mobility.
Sensing a legitimate chance to play in the NHL could be his, Kloucek picked up stakes and landed in Cape Breton, playing for the Screaming Eagles in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
His first year in North America, Kloucek scored four goals and added 17 assists with an impressive 162 penalty minutes in just 57 QMJHL games. He then made an impression at Rangers training camp, surprisingly landing in Hartford to start his second pro season. Kloucek didn't believe he would be staying in Hartford. In fact, he fully expected to be sent back to Cape Breton after training camp. But Rangers' management saw something in Kloucek and set upon developing it.
For the player, that year was an awakening. He suddenly found the confidence that would allow him to make the final step in his Progression as a hockey player. Plus, it didn't hurt that the Wolfpack won the Calder Cup as AHL champions during that 1999-2000 season. At the end of the campaign, Kloucek was named the team's outstanding rookie.
"My (first) year in Hartford was great," says Kloucek. "I was getting better and better each day. I didn't think I would stay in Hartford, but I did, and I was playing regularly, getting a lot of (playing) time.
Then, we won the championship, and that was awesome. I gained a lot of confidence because I thought that if I was going to stay there [in Houston], they think I can do it, so I thought I could do it, too."
Now others, especially those on the receiving end of his thunderous body checks, are also learning that Kloucek has the skills and desire to make the NHL his long-term home.
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