It is always a day filled with emotion for a rookie who scores his first NHL goal, but few players have experienced the kind of ringer that Libor Hajek was put through. His first came back in March at Madison Square Garden in just his fifth NHL game, when he skated onto a Chris Kreider pass, whistled one into the top shelf behind Cory Schneider and tied a game against the Devils 1:29 into the third period.
And then, not even 10 minutes later, he hit a wall, all too literally. A body check behind the net from New Jersey's Blake Coleman left Hajek with a separated shoulder, one that the Rangers knew almost immediately would end his season.
"I was very upset in the trainer's room," Hajek said on Wednesday in an interview with NYRangers.com. "I was upset also like two days after that. I was like, 'Finally, you made it, you are there.' And then you get hurt, you don't play anymore. So I was very upset. It was very frustrating."
Looking back now, he said, "It was kind of good and bad. It was good because I could now say, 'I know how it is in the NHL.' So I was preparing for that all summer, I knew what I was preparing for. That was the good."
It was one of the more uplifting developments out of the Rangers' Training Camp that, in spite of the shackles his injury put not only on his season but also on the start of his summer, Hajek never took a step back. On the contrary, he came to camp and won his roster spot, and now in the season's opening month has only continued to solidify his place on the left side of the Rangers' blue-line corps.
It was uplifting not only because Hajek was a coveted piece of the blockbuster 2018 trade-deadline swap with Tampa Bay that included fellow 21-year-old Brett Howden; it is also because the Rangers know Hajek to be, in his longtime friend Howden's words, "the nicest human around."
The right side of that defense corps was bolstered this past offseason by the trade for Jacob Trouba, which along with the acquisition of Adam Fox and the re-signing of Tony DeAngelo allowed the Rangers to ink in three righty shots on their blue line to open the season. The more open question was who would occupy the final spot on the left; Hajek was the frontrunner and seized the job, and now through seven games of the season, he has been Trouba's most frequent partner at 5-on-5.
On Tuesday night at the Garden, David Quinn sent Hajek over the boards for seven minutes in the third period of a tie game against Arizona, 19:18 in all, the second-highest total of Hajek's NHL career, which is, granted, only 12 games old - 13 when he and Trouba pair up again on Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres at the Garden.
"Libor skates well, he plays with a passion, he's in your face. When he's playing with confidence, he makes good plays," Quinn said on Wednesday. "He's good down below the goal line getting us out of our own end, whether it be making a good decision, or skating out of his own end. And I think playing with someone like Jacob will give him an opportunity to develop a little bit quicker."
Following his injury, Hajek had to hold off his summer regimen before he could ramp it up back home in the Czech Republic, two-a-days with a skills coach, before heading back to Connecticut to join his teammates in workouts with Ben Prentiss. He came into the Rangers' Training Camp feeling far more at home than in his first go-round, but harboring no ideas that he was anything like a lock to make the NHL roster.
"I knew I was working hard during the summer, but still that doesn't give me anything," Hajek said. "Every day I was trying to not think about making the team or not making the team. I was just working hard, just change what I can, and that's all."
Hajek was one of five players on the Rangers' Opening Night roster no older than 21, a group that includes Howden and Fox, all born within two months of each other in 1998. Given his age, and given the injury-curtailed debut season (he played 58 games for Hartford prior to his call-up), Hajek said this season's Opening Night felt like a second NHL debut to him. "I was maybe more nervous than last year," he said. "It was kind of weird, but yeah, more nervous.
"Now I feel like I've been here for a long time. I feel like I know what to do. I'm not loose like the first five games I played here last season."
Hajek wound up playing 12:20 and assisting on Mika Zibanejad's game-tying third-period goal - his first NHL assist - in that Opening Night win over Winnipeg, and his ice time has only increased in every game save for one, last Thursday's in New Jersey that included nearly 20 full minutes of special-teams play.
"I sense his confidence growing, as is his game," Quinn said, "and I think they go hand in hand, especially for him. He's very hard on himself; he wants to do so well. When he makes mistakes he says he's sorry, which you don't want to hear - just move past it, learn from it, and have your next best shift. I think he's learning that."
Trouba senses it too, and the signal for him is how the two talk to each other on the ice. "There's been more communicating, and a lot of it is about demanding the puck and being comfortable doing that with each other," Trouba said. "I think he's gotten more comfortable with that, which is really good to see, and will only continue to get better."
Hajek, who grew up tending horses and sheep on his family's farm in the Czech Republic, made an early transition to North America, coming to play his junior hockey in Canada with the Saskatoon Blades as a 17-year-old. He believed it was the best place to advance his hockey career, and looking back he believes he was right - the move helped him acclimate not only to a North American style of hockey, but to making his life on a strange continent.
"It was a step up from the Czech league, and also it helped me with my English and, I don't know, with everything here," Hajek said. "Because it's very different than in Europe - life, everything. The food is also different. People are different. Everything is different."
His presence in the Western League meant that he and Howden, a four-year centerman for the Moose Jaw Warriors, became frequent opponents, then teammates in the CHL Top Prospects Game. The two were selected 10 picks apart, both by Tampa Bay, in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, then were shipped together to Broadway on Feb. 26, 2018, along with Vlad Namestnikov and the first-round pick that became defenseman Nils Lundkvist. Hajek calls Howden "a great hockey player and a great friend."
"We were really good buddies on Tampa and all the development camps and everything. We went for lots of dinners when we were there," Howden said. "When we both got traded, we texted each other right away. We were both surprised. We both really didn't know that was coming, but now in the long run, we're both very blessed that happened to us.
"If anyone knows Libor, you know he's the nicest human around. He's just going to keep having more and more success and I'm really happy for him."
For a young man who grew up knowing farm chores and wide expanses, life in New York City is always going to take some adjusting. There are elements of home that Hajek admits he sometimes misses - the animals are among them - but at the same time he is embracing everything that comes with living across an ocean from home, including his role on the Rangers. "I love life here, especially in New York," he said.
"Here, the hockey is the best," Libor Hajek added. "That's why I am here."