Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Imported beef on the blueline
by JIM SWANSON, Citizen Sports Editor
It’s like that old Johnny Carson schtick. That Vladimir Mihalik, he’s so big… how big is he?
Well, for starters, on Tuesday the six-foot-eight, 234-pound defenceman spent about an hour trying to add lengthy wooden plugs to the top of two of the new electric-blue Easton Synergy composite sticks he and the rest of the Prince George Cougars will be using this season.
Cut off a stick to get it down to size? Nah — might need to chop down a telephone pole to find lumber long enough. To fit Mihalik in hockey pads, the guess is that the team will have to dig in the back of the equipment room for Derek Boogaard’s old gear. Or Zdeno Chara’s.
Chara — that’s a name Mihalik, the 19-year-old Slovak acquired from Red Deer in the summer, has had mentioned in his presence often since the Tampa Bay Lightning first-round draft choice (30th overall, 2005) landed in the WHL last fall. But after hearing the two players — Chara, a one-season Cougar, is now an elite blueliner in the NHL with the Boston Bruins — once shared the same agent, that may be where the comparisons end.
“He’s not Zdeno Chara, last time I checked, and we have to be careful about comparing players to other players,” said Cougars head coach Mike Vandekamp, with Mihalik and rookie import defenceman Patrik Vrana standing over his shoulder, about 25 feet away, outside the Cougars dressing room.
“Right now we have a big, young defenceman with potential who we hope to develop into an NHL player. Just because you’re extra-large doesn’t mean you’re going to be punishing, but getting him to learn to use his size, his stick and his reach to advantage are things we’re going to work on.
“I’m looking forward to seeing if these guys can play. Vladdy’s been through a season in the league already, we’ve seen him play and we have tape and we know a bit of what we have there. He’s a first-round NHL draft pick and we’re excited to work with him.”
The unsigned Mihalik, who will head to Tampa Bay’s camp on Sept. 6, would love to earn the comparison to Chara.
“People always say I look the same on the ice like Chara, and I hope to be as good as him,” said Mihalik. “I’ll try to do better. I hope to get a lot of ice time, and I know I have to get faster and stronger, a better skater.”
Mihalik, who had three goals and nine assists in 62 games for a Brent Sutter-coached Rebels team that finished tied for dead last in the WHL last season, said the chance to come to Prince George was welcomed. Mihalik, with 89 penalty minutes and a respectable -12 plus/minus on a club that gave up 54 more goals than it scored, hinted that the mood around the Red Deer Centrium last winter was frostier than the wind-whipped, desolate winter prairie.
“It was my agent who told me I was traded, and I thought it was a good thing,” said Mihalik, who speaks Slovakian, Czech and workable English.
“I want to be here. I was surprised, but not that much because last year was not a good year (in Red Deer) and they will have almost a whole new team. I didn’t play very good in the second half. But I like it here.”
Vrana is a 17-year-old defenceman who will be given time to get his feet wet. There’s no need to rush the Czech with a blueline featuring Mihalik, Kalvin Sagert, Ty Wishart, Jesse Dudas, Curtis Patterson, overager Curtis Cooper and sophomore Chris Vanduynhoven.
“I want to make the team, and I have a year to go before I am drafted,” Vrana, who arrived in Prince George on Monday, said through his towering translator, Mihalik. When he was chosen 35th overall in the CHL import draft, Vrana was listed at six-foot-four and 215 pounds, though he appears a tad shorter and lighter. Vrana, who turned 17 on June 11, does not speak much English, but was enthusiastically attempting to use his limited vocabulary on Tuesday.
Vrana’s so eager to be a Cougar, he flew to Slovakia this summer to meet up with Mihalik and grill him about life in Canada and the WHL.
“I have no problem being this far away from home. I started learning some English in January, and I’ll work hard at that,” Vrana said.
Vandekamp wants to see the two new projects on ice before offering an opinion.
“Patrik, we know less about him. He’s a younger player doing this for the first time, so his adjustments will be different than for Vladdy,” said Vandekamp.
“Patrik is coming from an exceptional program in the Czech Republic, one of the best in their country, and he looks like a hockey player. There will be challenges, like the language barrier. It will be interesting having two defencemen and that will give (assistant coach Stew Malgunas) a big job to do.
“It will be a challenging year for defencemen in the league, more than any other position, because the rules (going to NHL standards) are going to be different. The coaches will be pulling their hair out, and the defencemen have to adjust.”