18 November 2008

Pavelec ponies up

Atlanta Thrashers prospect goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has been in the headlines twice in the past six months, once for backstopping the Chicago Wolves to the 2008 Calder Cup in June and second for refusing assignment to Chicago earlier this season. Pavelec and his agent, Allan Walsh, eventually relented, and Pavelec is once again toward the very top of the AHL statistical leaders in save percentage and goals-against average after deciding to report to Chicago for a second season. His stellar play, however, has already earned him recalls to Atlanta in early November.

McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey recently had the opportunity to talk with Pavelec the day before the Thrashers recalled him for the first time in 2008-09. Pavelec discussed his training camp and the subsequent holdout, his rookie season in the AHL, his two seasons in the QMJHL, the adjustments and improvements he's made along the way, playing in and for the Czech Republic, his respect for Martin Brodeur, and the Wolves' rivalry with the Rockford IceHogs.

McKeen's: You were one of the final cuts in Atlanta, with the Thrashers already having Lehtonen and Hedberg, but you're off to a great start in the AHL this season. What are some of the things you worked on over the summer?
Pavelec: I did the same thing as the summer before. I come to Montreal and trained with a trainer (Paul Gagne) there and a couple guys from the NHL. I spent almost one month there, and I did the same thing this summer. It was a short summer, it was a long season. So, I took a couple weeks off and then I started practicing, nothing special. It was working the summer before, so I didn't change anything.

McKeen's: When Atlanta assigned you to Chicago, what did they tell you?
Pavelec: Well, they told me it's better for me to play every game than sit on the bench. I think about it after that, and then I said I'm not going to go to Chicago. You probably read that story about me and my agent (Allan Walsh), what we did. It was simple, what we did before, I don't want to come to training camp next year and feel the same thing. I didn't have a chance to show how I can play. So, that's only one reason why we did that. But, I expect, before the season, I'm going to play one more year in Chicago. I just want to play more games, NHL games, that's why we did it. Like I said, I don't want to come to training camp again and have no chance to make a team.

McKeen's: I could ask a couple more questions regarding that, but I think I'll make sure I don't get you in any trouble. Now, last season, you put up some really good numbers and you helped lead the Wolves to the Calder Cup. What were some of the keys to your success last season and what were some of the things that improved in your game the most during last year?
Pavelec: Oh, I think it wasn't just about me, it was the whole team. We had a couple great forwards, and great defense. We had a great PK, that was a key, and we had the best powerplay. Me, I just tried to focus for every game. Now I have a little bit more experience with the games and with the playoffs. I think when they called me up, Atlanta, I spent two months there, I think it was a huge reason why we made the Cup, because it gave me a lot of confidence because I saw I can play in "The Show" and I can win the game. When they sent me down, I felt more comfortable in the net and, like I said, if you play more games, then you feel more comfortable. Last year, I played 90 games or so, so it was a great season.

McKeen's: With that, what were some of the differences you noticed after having played that two months in Atlanta and then in the AHL, differences in the play and how things work?
Pavelec: It's not a big difference. It's just the little things, especially for a goalie, I have to stop the puck anyway. But, I think it was a big reason (pauses), to make a mistake in the NHL, it's a goal, all of the time. It's just the little things. The players there (in the NHL), they know what they're supposed to do and they do it. So, it's not too many shots there, it's like 30 or 35 shots in a game, but it's not a big difference between AHL and NHL, for me. If you ask a player, they tell you it's a big difference with speed and stuff like that. But, for me, I just stop the puck anyway. Like I said, the big difference is if you make a mistake, it's a goal, and they have better shots as well.

McKeen's: It sounds like it was a situation where you got used to having to make no mistakes up there and then bringing that down to the AHL and things going very well, since AHL players and teams don't always capitalize on the small mistakes goalies make.
Pavelec: Like I said, I'll give you example. A couple games ago, we played in Quad City, and in the first period they had three times an empty net, and they missed it. Then we scored and we won the game 1-0. But, if we were in the NHL, and they had three times empty net, it's going to be 3-0 and no points. That, I think, is the big difference.

McKeen's: What you said reminded me of the Philadelphia/Atlanta game a little while back, 7-0.
Pavelec: I didn't see that game, I just saw the highlights. What I heard, it was a pretty bad game for Atlanta.

McKeen's: Obviously, last year, coming into the AHL, you had played the previous two years with Cape Breton in "The Q." What were some of the biggest adjustments you faced coming into the AHL, and NHL, coming out of the QMJHL?
Pavelec: Well, it was a great experience in "The Q." I played there two years. Years before, in Czech [Republic], I'd play 50 games, maybe, in a year. Then I played 70-plus playoffs, so it was a huge difference. I think it was a good preparation for higher levels. Here, there are stronger players, they have a better shot in the AHL, smarter a little bit. Like I said, I think it's the same difference between "Q" and AHL and AHL between NHL. In NHL, there are stronger players, bigger players, quicker, smarter than in Q. There, you're playing against 18-year-old kids, so there's a little bit of difference.

McKeen's: While you were in Atlanta last year, you were going through the aftermath of coach [Bob] Hartley being fired. What was it like being up there for that?
Pavelec: I came in there after the game when they fired the coach, so it was everything new for the team. I think it was better for the team. Go up there, a couple guys, playing with the general manager as the coach, we played more defensively, I think. Like I said, I came in there the game after they fired the coach, so I think everybody showed how they can play even more. So, I came in there at a good time.

McKeen's: Yeah, everyone kind of has to pick their game up, because after the coach goes, players can easily go next.
Pavelec: That's right. Coach going first, and then the players going.

McKeen's: It's easier to change one coach than 23 players.
Pavelec: Right. You can change, maybe, three players, a couple players.

McKeen's: Going to a more cheerful topic, as we touched upon, you won the Calder Cup, which is why your season lasted so long. In that success, what were some of the highlights for you?
Pavelec: Best moment? I think all of the playoffs was unbelievable for everybody, but I've got two moments. One moment was in the second round against Rockford. We lost Game 5 at home, 6-1, so it was 3-2 for Rockford, and we went into Rockford, we'd never won there before, I think, and we won the game there, 4-3 or 3-2. It was a huge game for us. It was sellout in Rockford and we beat Rockford, and then we come home and we won Game 7. It was a big moment. The second, I think last minute in Game 6 in the Finals. Everybody knew we're going to win the Cup, so the last two minutes were amazing. So, that's probably the highlight, the last two minutes of the season.

McKeen's: Certainly. The realization of such a big goal is always exhilarating. Going back to your time in "The Q" you were the QMJHL Rookie of the Year, and obviously were on the All-Rookie Team, won the Jacques Plante Trophy twice, QMJHL First-Team All-Star, Legace Trophy winner, and more. With all of the success, you were obviously fairly well-prepared coming out of the Czech Republic, but what were the biggest adjustments coming from the Czech Republic to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League?
Pavelec: For sure. Before I made the decision I was going to Canada, I talked about it with my agent. We tried to find the right team for me, and we found Cape Breton in "The Q." I like "The Q," as a league, I think it's the best league for a goalie. Everybody's going to the net and it's a more offensive league. Everybody's shooting from everywhere. I think it's a good league for goalies, and another thing, I had two goalie coaches there. One goalie coach was Vincent Riendeau, he played a few years in the NHL, and there was a younger guy who was also a great coach. So, I had two goalie coaches there, and we worked every practice. Those things, I think, were what helped me.

McKeen's: Were there any particular changes you had to make to your style coming out of Kladno, after you were drafted by the Thrashers?
Pavelec: When I played in Czech [Republic], I wasn't that butterfly goalie. I just tried to stand up. But, coming to "The Q," they showed me some little things that can be better. I didn't play the puck well before I came into "The Q," so we worked on it every practice. I didn't change a lot, but I just changed little things, like playing the puck, and I just tried to be in better position. In the Czech [Republic], you don't have to skate too much, I think. When I came to "The Q," I had to skate, and face the play, and face a lot of shots. Like I said, it was a great experience, and I don't think I changed my style a lot, just the little things.

McKeen's: With skating less, did that come down to the wider ice in Europe, where players don't really charge the corners like they do here in North America?
Pavelec: In the Czech [Republic], it was bigger ice, huge ice there. So, I didn't have to play the puck too much. Then I come to "The Q," dealing with the smaller ice, the corner was, like, so close to me. The first couple games, it was hard for me, and we lost. But, after a couple weeks and a couple games, I was ready for it. Like I said, it was a huge difference with the goalie coach there. He said it's going to be a little problem for me the first couple games, playing the puck, but it was normal for a European goalie coming into Canada or the U.S. It's a little bit different. Like I said, it was a good choice to come to Canada, because if you play in Europe and then you have to play in the AHL, I think it's a big problem. I think the junior league was good preparation for me to play at the next level.

McKeen's: A good stepping-stone. With the puckhandling improvements, what were some of the tips they gave you or some of the skills you had to pick up or do slightly different?
Pavelec: They showed me how to stop the puck and they showed me if I'm going behind the net to stop the puck, I have to see before where the players are. So, I cannot go and stop the puck and have no idea where the players are. So, before I come in to stop the puck, I check the players, where they are, then I make a decision.

McKeen's: It's kind of like the defensemen in front of you, if the puck's lose and they're skating back, they'll be taking a look or two on their way back.
Pavelec: Yeah, and another thing is the communication between me and the defense. I think I improved a lot over two years ago, but I still work on it.

McKeen's: With the communication, how much English did you know before coming to Cape Breton?
Pavelec: Well, I knew just a few words, like numbers and days. That's all. I didn't speak English before. But, it wasn't that hard to remember a couple of words. The communication between me and the defensemen was important and it's helped me a lot since.

McKeen's: We've talked a lot about improvements, but what would you say are your strengths already as a goaltender?
Pavelec: It's hard to answer. You have to ask my coach, or the goalie coach. But I think my glove, it's ready for the first shot. Everything, you have to improve everyday. There's nothing perfect. If everything's perfect, I am in the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup. Like, every goalie has little things to work on every day.

McKeen's: You've represented your country on a few occasions, at the U-17 World Junior Cup, U-18 World Championships, and the World Junior Championships. What were some of the highlights of those experiences for you and are there hopes to once again represent the Czech Republic again, be it at the World Championships or the Olympics?
Pavelec: Every player will tell you if you can represent your country, it's a huge thing. If you put the Czech jersey on and you come in on the ice, especially in front of your fans, it's amazing. When I was 17, 16, I had the Czech jersey on, and it was a special time, not just for me but for my parents. It was a good experience. The junior league in Czech [Republic], I don't want to say it's bad league, but if you played for the national team, it was better. You know what I mean? The players shoot better and you play against the better players. So, it was a huge thing to play with the Czech jersey.

McKeen's: As far as representing the Czech Republic in the future, who are some of your fellow Czech netminders that you think you'll need to beat out to be able to represent your country once again?
Pavelec: Well, for sure I have to beat Tomas Vokoun. In Czech [Republic], we have a couple great goalies there, in the league, and in Europe as well. In the NHL, it's Tomas Vokoun, he's the number one goalie for sure for, I think, a couple more years. So, it's going to be hard, and for me it's going to be a huge thing if I have a chance to play again with the Czech jersey.

McKeen's: Now, going way back to your youth, when did you first start playing hockey, how did you get that start, and when did you first start playing goalie?
Pavelec: Oh, I think I was five years old, my first step on the ice. Why I started playing hockey? I think my sister, she played hockey as well. She's a forward, and she said one day she had a little brother at home, so the coaches said bring him to the rink and have him try to play. So, the first day, I come into the rink, it was the greatest. I remember that day. So, it was huge. Then I started to skate with the chair on the ice. When I skate without the chair, they gave me the goalie gear to go to the net, so I had no choice.

McKeen's: So you've been goalie the entire time.
Pavelec: (Smiles) I've never scored a goal.

McKeen's: I guess if you work on your puckhandling a lot…
Pavelec: Maybe. One day. One day.

McKeen's: (Chuckles) Growing up, who were some of your favorite players and why, and who would you like to equate to today?
Pavelec: I don't have a goalie that I like for style, but I like Martin Brodeur. How he plays the puck, as well, how he plays 17 years in the NHL, and he plays almost every game. He won the Stanley Cup three times, the Vezina Trophy, and to be the number one goalie 17 years, it's huge. That's why I like him.

McKeen's: On the other side of that, to the degree a job in the NHL can suck, one of the jobs that sucks the most is being Martin Brodeur's backup goalie. It's like, "Maybe I'll play ten games this year."
Pavelec: Yeah, it's a hard job to have. But…

McKeen's: You are getting paid to play hockey, though.
Pavelec: Yeah, it's alright. But, I think he's a great person as well. You have to be a great person if you win the trophies like that, and year by year, he plays 80 games. It's unbelievable.

McKeen's: Lastly, with a full season of AHL hockey under your belt, who have been some of the opponents you've faced in the AHL that have impressed you the most and why?
Pavelec: Why? It's not between me and another goalie and other players, but it's between Chicago and, I think, Rockford. When we play there, the people are going crazy there, the fans. Every time, it's a big game against Rockford.

McKeen's: Is there any added competition with you being in Chicago, roughly, and Rockford being the Blackhawks' affiliate team, and there having been nights in the past when the Wolves and Blackhawks played on the same night and Wolves outdrew the Blackhawks? Does that Chicago competition add anything?
Pavelec: Not for me, no. Maybe for the GM or the coaches, it's a little bit different than for me. For me, I just play to beat Rockford. But, you can feel the difference in the games.

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