Leafs' Kaberle has head start

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

With the NHL locked out last year, the world was Tomas Kaberle's oyster -- he could choose where he wanted to play.

Russia and Switzerland failed to entice the Maple Leafs defenceman to leave his home town Kladno in the Czech Republic.

However, home is where the heart is and Kaberle opted to stay in Kladno. And unlike many NHLers who went home, he signed up to play in the Czech Elite League to stay in shape and keep his skill level up.

"I preferred to play in Kladno," he said. "I was at home there and still hoping for the NHL and NHLPA to find a solution."

Kaberle also did the Leafs a favour by playing with Kladno because he got used to playing without the red line.

"Now that the NHL has adopted new rules, I have no difficulty adapting my game to them because we played without the red line in the Czech league," he said.

"One of the differences is that, at home, the referees call an offside as soon as the puck crosses the line and before anyone touches it.

"Actually, I enjoyed playing in Kladno because for about 15 games I played with (Jaromir) Jagr before he signed with a Russian team. I also played for most of the season with my brother, Frantisek, who left for MoDo in Sweden before the end of the season.

But what about turning down those offers?

"I can safely say that I have not regretted it," he said.

Kaberle is looking forward to playing under the new rules, which prohibit hooking and obstructing moving players.

"I think the new rules will help skating players," he said. "It will also help teams with effective power play units because there will be plenty of penalties before all players get used to the change. The new rules will also bring us closer to European hockey because they're almost the same, evening up the playing field."

So who does he prefer as a partner on the Leaf defence, I asked?

"I like playing with Bryan McCabe, of course," he replied. "We have been playing together for some time and we know each other's game and anticipate where the other guy is to receive a pass. Having said that, I can play with anybody if that is what the coach wants."

That would be Pat Quinn, who had some nice things to say about his bouncing Czech.

"I like how he thinks," Quinn said. "I also like his demeanour because he is calm and calculating on the ice. I just like what I see."

Kaberle signed a two-year contract with the Leafs before the lockout and, therefore, has another year remaining before he becomes a free agent. That, however, doesn't mean that he intends to move to another NHL team when the time comes.

"I would like to remain in Toronto because I like it here," Kaberle said. "It's my seventh year in the city and my wife, Ilona, who arrives from Kladno next Thursday, likes Toronto, too."

And what about the Toronto fans?

"Toronto hockey fans are the greatest," he said.

Wait, Tomas, for what the Toronto fans will do the year the Leafs win the Stanley Cup. It's been such a long time.

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