ESTERO, Fla. — They began with one new term each day, introduced by the goaltending coach with the gift for gab, taught to the pupil without any prior understanding of the foreign language. But Vitek Vanecek was living stateside now, far from the comforts of his native Czech Republic, and in some way his survival in the Washington Capitals organization would depend on how well the former second-round pick grasped English.
So they started at square one. Simple stuff at first, mostly connected to hockey, and then more complicated phrases. Blocker. Pad. Stay tight. Catch glove. Good morning. Patience. Later, they typed everything onto a double-sided cheat sheet, for frequent consultation. They found a tutor, a woman from Slovakia, and she came each night to the team hotel during development camp this summer, bringing workbooks and lessons for the 19-year-old netminder. They plan to do the same once training camp begins later this week.
“Word by word by word,” Mitch Korn said.
Climbing the professional hockey ladder can be challenging enough without language barriers, but for Vanecek and many others, hurdling those obstacles can become just as critical as anything happening on the ice. After the Capitals made the 39th overall pick in 2014, Vanecek made his first North American trip for development camp, where teaching proved difficult.
“Can’t communicate, you can’t correct,” Korn said. “Can’t communicate, you can’t advise.”
Between the pipes, Vanecek appeared for three Czech teams last season, bouncing around his organization though mostly staying in a second-tier league. He struggled in three games at the under-20 International Ice Hockey Federation world junior championships, finishing with a 4.31 goals against average, and later joined the Hershey Bears for a brief training stint, where once again a tutor awaited. Any effort to improve Vanecek’s goaltending began with ensuring he knew what was being said.
Over the summer, as Vanecek trained back home, he sometimes received e-mails from Olie Kolzig, the Capitals’ professional development coach. They were written in English, because Kolzig wanted to see what came back. Korn also reached out to Jan Lasak, a former Nashville Predators draft pick now playing for Bili Tygri Liberec, Vanecek’s club in the Czech Republic, and also developed a relationship with Vanecek’s goalie coach Martin Laska, even inviting him to training camp. Lasak will arrive in D.C. on Thursday and stay for the next week, joining Korn on the ice for goalie practice, serving as the translator between him and Vanecek.
Until then, those duties fell to Vanecek’s countryman and fellow 2014 draftee, forward Jakub Vrana. An equally bubbly teenager who began learning English after joining a Swedish team four years ago, Vrana often served as one of the designated shooters for Korn’s goalie-specific workouts over the past few weeks. He and Vanecek are often seen latched at the hip around the team’s practice facility, frequenting their favorite American restaurant, Chipotle, and any interview with Vanecek requires Vrana nearby for assistance.
“I don’t want to say big-brother, little-brother,” Korn said, describing the relationship. “More like twins. But certainly brothers.”
Faced with his own set of challenges, like transitioning into a full-time American Hockey League role for Hershey this season, Vrana had no problem accepting the side job of personal translator. After all, he understood what Vanecek was going through. When Vrana moved to Sweden to play for Linkopings HC, he entered a locker room where English was the universal tongue. By osmosis alone, Vrana picked up more and more over time.
“It just get into me,” Vrana said, smiling. “I don’t know how I learn English, actually.”
Soon enough, the tether will be cut and Vanecek, in Korn’s words, will go “cold turkey on Vrana” in South Carolina. Projected to develop there for at least 2015-16, while Vrana might even see NHL time this season, Vanecek knows he won’t have the nearby lifeline anymore. But the Capitals still plan to station a tutor there for regular lessons and have Kolzig and assistant goaltending coach Scott Murray pay regular visits. Otherwise, they’ll bank on Vanecek learning to paddle in the deep end, building on the progress already made.
“It’s part of being a pro,” Kolzig said.
Sunday morning, the day after Vanecek inspired confidence with a 22-save outing against rookies from the Florida Panthers, the Capitals held their morning skate here at Germain Arena, readying for their second game of the 2015 Lightning Prospect Tournament, for which Vanecek was scheduled to sit. Five times during the session, Korn gave Vanecek instruction then asked if he understood. Each time, Vanecek replied, “I understand.”
After they left the ice, Vanecek and Vrana stood inside a quiet hallway for an interview. Sometimes, Vanecek shook his head when he didn’t understand the question, turning toward Vrana for help or confirmation. By the end, though, he answered in Czech without delay, relying on Vrana only for the translation into English.
“He say he understand what you said, so he understand when someone ask him something,” Vrana said. “He say he’s getting better, he just don’t know how to answer. Otherwise, he understand what you say.”
Word by word by word.