After spending the first six years of his NHL career in passionate, but small, hockey markets like Buffalo and Edmonton, Ales Kotalik signed a contract this past summer with the Rangers that will afford him the opportunity to play in one of the world’s biggest cities in front of the intense Garden Faithful.
|Ales Kotalik saw at least one familiar face in Rangers captain Chris Drury when he entered the MSG Training Center to prepare for training camp last month. |
And he is more than ready for this next phase of both his life and career to begin.
“Now I’m going to experience life from the other side, playing in a big city and a big, big sports market,” said the 30 year-old Kotalik after taking part in an informal workout with his teammates late last week. “It’s a good life experience to be on the other side, and I am looking forward to it.”
Not that playing, and living, in smaller cities was a bad experience for Kotalik. He thrived on the ice, recording 20 or more goals in four of his six NHL seasons, while also becoming deeply embedded in the communities where he played.
“Those cities were smaller hockey markets, but they had honest, hard-working people, and I was treated very well by the people in both cities,” said Kotalik, who spent more than five years with the Sabres before being traded to Edmonton last March. “Buffalo became my second home, and I will have friends there till the end of my life. But it was time for a change, and I have always been a fan of New York City and respected the history of the Rangers, so I was happy to sign here.”
The addition of Kotalik -- along with Marian Gaborik
and Christopher Higgins -- this past summer will bring a storng offensive punch to the Rangers lineup this season. Solidly built at 6-feet-1-inches tall and 227 pounds, Kotalik is a powerful skater who possesses a wicked slap shot.
Last year Kotalik notched 20 goals while splitting the season with the Sabres and Oilers. Nearly half of those goals – nine -- were scored on the power play, an area that the Rangers have worked hard to upgrade for the 2009-10 campaign.
His best NHL season came in 2005-06, when Kotalik skated on a line centered by current Rangers captain Chris Drury. Kotalik recorded a career-high 25 goals and 62 points that season, and helped Buffalo reach the Eastern Conference Finals by netting three game-winning goals during the post-season.
Before Kotalik signed a free agent contract with any team this summer, he turned to his good friend Drury to find out more about New York and the Rangers.
“We had friendly conversations because we had become very good friends in Buffalo, and he told me all about the city and the organization and that just made my decision to come over here a lot easier,” said Kotalik.
Like Drury, Kotalik was a member of the Sabres team that outlasted the Rangers in an exciting Eastern Conference Semi Finals series in the spring of 2007. His memories of that series remain vivid, even as he has now crossed over to the team he helped vanquish in six epic games that spring.
“It was one of the best playoff series I have ever been in,” said Kotalik. “It was electrifying. I remember that it could have gone the other way, but Chris (Drury) tied the game in the final seconds and then we won Game 5 in overtime, and that really turned it for us. Playing in the playoffs in New York made it all the more special and exciting for me as a hockey player.”
Certainly the Rangers are hoping that Kotalik will be part of the group that helps lead the Blueshirts deep into the playoffs next spring, and for many years after that. One of the ways he can help the club reach the playoffs during the regular season is to continue his tremendous success in shootouts.
Kotalik was successful on eight of his 13 shootout attempts last season -- and delivered five game-deciding goals along the way. In fact, since the shootout was adopted in the National Hockey League, Kotalik is tied with Slava Kozlov for the most game-deciding goals with 11.
With the start of training camp only days away, Kotalik is becoming more and more excited for his new beginning as a Ranger. And he is also looking forward to playing for his new head coach John Tortorella.
“I heard a lot of good things about him, and at the same time he is a demanding coach,” Kotalik said of Tortorella. “I’ve been in this kind of system before, with Lindy Ruff as my coach in Buffalo, so I don’t think it’s going to be anything too different for me.”
Whether it’s different for Kotalik or not, the talented Czech winger is ready for his new life experience to begin.
“Being with the Rangers, there is nothing that compares to that in the hockey world,” he said. “I am excited to be a part of it.”