WINNIPEG - When Ondrej Pavelec moved across the Atlantic Ocean at age 17, barely able to speak a lick of English, he didn’t call his parents until two weeks after arriving in Nova Scotia to play for the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“I think the first time I gave them a call was after two weeks,” the Jets goaltender said Saturday. “I was really excited. I wouldn’t say I forgot, but actually my agent told me that it would be good to give them a call after two weeks. As soon as I called them they were crying already.”
After two weeks, some European players are already back home after deciding moving away to play hockey at such a young age is not for them.
The fact it took him a fortnight to even call home suggests one of two things: He is either really passionate about hockey, or he is excellent at dealing with his emotions.
Pick one or the other, because both are big reasons why Pavelec has kept Winnipeg in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Ask how many of Winnipeg’s remaining regular-season games he’d like to play, and Pavelec says all of them. He loved growing up in the hockey city of Kladno, Czech Republic, and that passion for the game is still in him today.
For instance, after the official part of Saturday’s practice ended he took off his glove and blocker, grabbed a regular stick and played a game of keep-away at centre ice with a few of his teammates.
The 24-year-old usually has a smile on his face and always has time for the media. And if things aren’t going well, you’d never know it; Pavelec has the ability to appear calm at all times, which he believes is an important trait for a starting netminder to have.
“If you show your team that you’re nervous or you are too low, it’s not going to work,” Pavelec said. “So of course from time to time I don’t feel good, I don’t feel confident. It’s hockey. It’s sports. It’s the same thing in life.
“I always try to stay positive. It’s not the end of the world. Look around at the things happening all over the world. If you lose the game of course it’s disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world.”
Perhaps that outlook has enabled the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder to set a career high with 24 victories and match another mark with four shutouts. He’s guided the Jets to victory in a handful of games they had no right winning and is the favourite for the team’s most valuable player award.
The Jets brass sat down with Pavelec at the beginning of the season and simply asked him to keep improving. That’s what he’s done, even though his goals-against average and save percentage are slightly higher and lower, respectively, than the career bests he set last season in Atlanta.
“He’s responded great,” head coach Claude Noel said. “He has great demeanour for me. He has a lot of poise, a lot of confidence. He’s not overly hard on himself, very balanced, and it shows in his game.”
Pavelec’s upbringing in Kladno, which is also the home of Jaromir Jagr, was much like any Canadian youngster’s. He became a goalie at age five when no one else on his team wanted to do it.
His dad, Vaclav, owns a construction company and coached Ondrej for eight years. His older sister played hockey. His mom, Marcela, has been a nurse at the same hospital for the last 35 years. He also has an older stepbrother and stepsister.
And even though he appears to have a resting heart rate of about 12, Pavelec said it wasn’t always that way.
“I wasn’t like that when I was 17 or 18. Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s a process. That’s how you grow up.”
He obviously fooled current Jets assistant coach Pascal Vincent, who, as Cape Breton’s coach and GM, went to the 2005 world under-18 hockey championship in the Czech Republic looking for a sniper. Instead, he found Pavelec and brought him to North America four months later to play for the Screaming Eagles.
“After the first period of the first game I saw him I went to see (Pavelec’s agent Allan Walsh) and I said, ‘I want him bad.’ He was outstanding,” Vincent said. “He was a big man already, and what really impressed me was his ability to read and react. But also, you could sense from the stands that he was a really good teammate. The guys really went to him, so lucky enough we were able to draft him.”
Seven years later, here he is.
Pavelec has carried the Jets this far, and no matter what happens the rest of the way he’s in line for a hefty raise this summer when he becomes a restricted free agent (his salary this season is $1.3 million).
Life couldn’t be better for the young man, who in his spare time likes to watch his favourite soccer team, Manchester United, and his favourite soccer player, Wayne Rooney. He’s also a big tennis fan.
“In the season I try to stay home,” Pavelec said. “It’s a lot of games and a lot of practices, so I’ll just watch a movie, go online, look at the Internet or call my parents — finally.”
Then he laughed.
— Born: Aug. 31, 1987
— Age: 24
— Hometown: Kladno, Czech Republic
— Position: goaltender
— NHL seasons: 4
— Drafted: 41st overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2005
— Notable: Had the lowest goals-against average in the QMJHL in both of his seasons with Cape Breton … was the QMJHL’s rookie of the year in 2005-06 … guided the Chicago Wolves to the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2008 … his goaltending idol as a teenager was New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur … he still keeps in touch with his billets from his junior days in Nova Scotia, saying they were a big reason why his transition to Canada was so smooth.