Feature photo courtesy of Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades.
Any teenager would find living in another continent that’s over 4,000 miles away from their home and family to be daunting, maybe even terrifying. However, 17-year-old Czech native Libor Hájek is taking it all in stride.
This past summer, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound defenseman relocated to Canada to play for the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL. Now he’s projected to be a first or second round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in June.
Hájek was born in Smrček, Czech Republic, where hockey and soccer are considered the two biggest sports. Smrček is a very small town with a population of just 111 people, about 67 miles east of Prague.
Hájek said he credits his father, David, for introducing him to the sport of ice hockey. His father taught him how to play the game when he was just four-years-old. He played an important part as his son progressed as a player. Hájek is still very close with his father today, he said. David still lives in the Czech Republic, but makes sure to watch all of his son’s games online.
“My dad got me into the sport at age four, and I instantly loved it,” Hájek said. “He taught me everything about the game.”
Hájek started playing in the Czech minor leagues when he was just 12. By 16, he was playing for HC Kometa Brno in the Czech Extraliga, the most competitive hockey league in the Czech Republic. However, Hájek elected to enter the CHL Import Draft in June 2015 because it offered him the best opportunity to improve his game, he said.
“The level of hockey in Canada is so much better. The competition is so much better,” Hájek explained. “It’s a lot faster. I also prefer the smaller rinks in Canada.”
Hájek was selected second overall by the Saskatoon Blades. He was selected ahead of expected 2016 NHL first round picks Mikhail Sergachev and Alexander Nylander.
Hájek said the transition from the Czech Republic to Canada was tough at first. His only family in the country is his grandparents, who reside in Toronto, which is nearly 2,000 miles southeast of Saskatoon. But Hájek said he has adjusted well to the new culture and more challenging hockey league. Language continues to be a difficulty, but he is working on it.
“In the beginning it was difficult. I really missed home and my family,” Hájek said. “But now I love it here. I love the people here.”
The NHL hopeful expressed that he is very satisfied with his performance this season. Hájek has recorded two goals and 11 assists in 19 games this season. His overall play has helped propel the Blades to the thick of the wildcard race a quarter into the season, a turnaround from their last place finish in the league one season ago.
Stats aside, multiple scouts view Hájek’s strength, stickhandling and hockey sense as his finest assets. They observe how he’s able to read plays before they take place and is patient enough on offense to let play development. They stress how he’s difficult to play against because he’s willing to use his body and is more than capable of winning puck battles against opposing forwards. Scouts certainly took note of Hájek’s reliable play and puck control in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup U18 this past August. The Czech native excelled in competition with many of the best young players in the world.
Hájek said he considers himself an offensive-minded defenseman. He said he models his game after Los Angeles Kings’ defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup champion Drew Doughty. Hájek said he believes his skating and shooting abilities are his best skills.
Hájek explained that he does go back home to the Czech Republic every summer to see his family and to train. He focuses on running and skating to stay in shape, along with plenty of shooting practice. He also enjoys playing tennis when he’s home. And like most teenagers, some of his favorite activities are sleeping and playing video games.
The young defenseman acknowledged that he plans to enter the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. He revealed that he has been in contact with scouts from the Chicago Blackhawks, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In fact, Hájek stated that the Leafs are his favorite team, and that he would relish an opportunity to play for them one day. He also dreams of playing in Rogers Place, the new arena that is under construction in Edmonton, and will soon serve as the home of the Edmonton Oilers upon completion.
The 17-year-old is ranked as the 25th best hockey prospect by hockeyprospect.com, 27th by Future Considerations and 30th by ISS Hockey. Those three rankings would indicate a late first round selection in the upcoming NHL draft. NHL.com and draftsite.com project Hájek to be drafted in the early second round.
Hájek is always trying to improve his game, he said. He is determined to adapt to the competitiveness of the NHL the same way he acclimated to the WHL – with hard work and tenacity.
“I will continue to listen to what my coach tells me,” Hájek emphasized. “I will work hard at practice.”
Links to scouting reports of Hájek:
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