For Capitals goaltending prospect Vitek Vanecek, playing hockey in America has been a tremendous challenge. On the exterior, Vanecek has always been a jovial figure with an ever-present magnetic smile, but on the inside, few knew Vanecek was struggling with fears and doubt in dealing with his new hockey life in America.
Vanecek recently penned a very personal expose for Bez Frazi, a Czech publication that presents personal narratives from athletes and the obstacles they’ve overcome in their professional careers.
Vanecek’s essay is an extremely honest recount of the challenges he faced in coming to America. His story details his personal issues in dealing with and learning to overcome a language barrier, and the associated feelings and fear he dealt with in playing hockey in America.
In the end, Vanecek endured and overcame the fears and obstacles related to the English language. His story is one in which everyone can glean a healthy dose of understanding and inspiration.
The following is a translation of excerpts from his essay.
I had my phone buried somewhere, or maybe I didn’t even take it to the beach. So when my agent couldn’t call me, he dialed Dad’s number. He had a cell phone with him.
“What? Vítkek? Yeah, I’ll pass. ”
Dad handed me a phone call on the beach late in the afternoon, a call from an agent.
“Vitek, you’re drafted in the second round, Washington took you. I want to talk to you.”
At first I was afraid of what to tell them. I don’t know a word of English.
But suddenly I was standing on the beach in Croatia, stressed out that in a moment I would have to talk to the people from the NHL club management. With people in whose eyes I am one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and that’s why they bet on me.
I had no idea what to do. I was just afraid I’d be ashamed and they wouldn’t want me all of a sudden. Fortunately, the agent joined the conference call as well. He translated what they said to me while interpreting my answers. I just found it awkward.
Yeah, I’ll have to start learning English. Just a little bit. Within a few months of my eighteenth birthday, the direction of my career changed completely and I was not prepared for it.
The agent immediately arranged tutoring for me, but that still meant only a few hours a week with the teacher. It couldn’t be compared to what awaited me in the locker room of the hockey team. In addition, I continued to speak and think in Czech every day. At least my Liberec goalkeeper coach Martin Láska helped me a lot. He started giving me English instructions on the ice to get at least the most important expressions.
Glove. Slide. Push. Shuffle.
If an eighteen-year-old boy with ambitions of the NHL told me today that he was passing up English and somehow learning it on the go, I would show him my example. I’ll tell him I was the same. And I’ll tell him how I felt lost in America from the first moment. And that it was just my fault.
Right after the draft, I flew to Washington for a rookie camp, and although everyone knew right away that I didn’t know a word of English, I didn’t avoid talking to club television.
I immediately asked Jakub Varna to come with me and save my ass.
Vrána was in the draft before me and we completed our first trip to America together. Thanks to the fact that he had spent the previous years in Sweden, he already knew English, so I kept to him as best I could.
That conversation, where he was translating here and there, degenerated into comedy. The boys from the Czech Republic immediately teased me for it, we had a lot of fun. I laughed to myself, too, but at heart I felt stupid to look like this on the outside and someone else had to speak for me.
Vrána helped me far more often than just in this situation. But there were still moments when I was left alone. I often sat in the room, looking around and had no idea what was being said. The guys around wanted to talk to me, but quickly found out they weren’t talking much. If they said the biggest insults to my eyes, I would just keep smiling and nodding.
I was afraid to walk alone down the hall so I wouldn’t meet anyone and they didn’t want anything from me. I wasn’t stressed that I wasn’t good enough for this environment in hockey, but that I would have to show again that I didn’t understand. Especially so that no one would talk to me for God’s sake.
It so happened that maybe the coach wanted to tell me something – and I just looked at him apologetically.
The agent prepared me in advance for signing a contract with the Capitals. They say they’ve been watching me for a long time and it’s no coincidence that they took me so high. That’s why when I came across a general manager right at the first camp in front of the gym in the back of the hall, who was asking me to go to his office with him, I knew what was going on. And I knew I had to check the data and the amounts to see if everything fit.
I sat down in a chair, he started talking to me slowly, and I just nodded.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Clearly. I don’t even understand you. Put a pencil in front of me and don’t ask me anything.
That’s what happened, and I signed the contract. On the one hand, at that moment, I was warmed by the confidence that some two months after I was just an ordinary goalkeeper of the Liberec junior, (and now) I signed a contract with the NHL club. But I still felt kind of stupid. After all, if it said in those papers that I had just become a snowmobile driver in the training hall, I wouldn’t know it.
At the club, of course, they weren’t happy that I didn’t understand anything. They saw how uncomfortable I was whenever I walked two meters away from Vrána.
Mitch Korn, then coach of the goalkeepers and a great person in this field, started working with me the most. Great guy. Perhaps it helped that he had experience with Hašek, Vokoun or Neuvirth before and had an understanding for the Czechs, but his patience was admirable.
When I forgot that he showed me an exercise that I had never experienced anywhere before, he even carefully showed me everything, named it, and made fun of it.
“Sticks,” he pointed to the gap between the concrete, for example, then added in a funny tone, “No sticks!” Just let me put my legs closer together. Or when he instructed us to have a drink, I was the only one left standing. Not that I was so stubborn that I wouldn’t understand this, but I just didn’t want to drink.
“Vitek, vodka, vodka,” Mitch shouted.
Olaf Kölzig, a former great goalkeeper who is in charge of the development of young players for the club, wrote me a basic glossary of hockey things. From the parts of the equipment to the instructions I need to know as a goalkeeper.
“You have a player on your back.”
“You have a puck between your legs.”
Everything word for word. I was grateful to him, because thanks to that I learned to work on the ice without any major problems as soon as possible.
But life doesn’t just happen between the boards on the hockey ice.
The second year I flew to America alone, I had a message from an agent that someone from the club would be waiting for me at the airport. But I didn’t get a bag of equipment, so I called him at four in the morning his time to see if he could help me. I was far from able to talk to the person at the counter.
The guy who had been waiting for me to take me all the time then said, “How are you?”
And that was all. I didn’t know the answer to anything else. The year of tutoring took hold very quickly. The driver soon found out that we wouldn’t talk much. I had no idea where we had a hotel or where I should be.
I called Vrána right away.
I handled the car in the same way, with the phone on my ear and the agent on the other side. When I found him with a spiked wheel once that year after training, I said to myself that I could handle it and I would not call anyone.
But after a while I realized that I need to find out what the wheel is called…
I went to the car show, where the lady apparently told me – as I understood in retrospect – that they didn’t have the type I needed. That I will either have to wait a few days or they will give me something close. So what about me, she asked.
“Yes. Yes. ”
She quickly realized that I was completely out, she gave it to me more expensive, I paid and left with a new bike.
She reacted in the same way as a policeman, who stopped me at the time because I was speeding. Fortunately, only a little, but still, he tried to explain something to me. Only when he saw that I didn’t understand did he simply give me a symbolic fine and let me go.
On the way to the apartment, where I was to live with two other teammates, I repeated my words in the car. I wondered how I could handle it. I was driven by a native Czech who lived an hour’s drive from North Charleston, where I started my first overseas season in the ECHL. The guy whom the club arranged to be at hand if needed.
I didn’t want him to help me too much. More like it when I was in trouble. That’s why I prepared myself for the welcome.
But as soon as the boys started speaking this helper of my assistant in fluent English, my whole idea was in the bag. “It’s over,” I realized.
As soon as the Czech left, I unpacked my things in my room and my roommates wanted me to go with them. They tried to talk, but gradually we came up with a proven method.
We put together what I am, where I come from, if I have a girlfriend… And when I needed to find plates, cutlery, find out who’s who and if I should buy my own dishes, how we share the washing machine, but also the password on the wifi, I just wrote a message to the Čzech and then had it read to the boys.
They were great in the end. They understood, so they tried to communicate with me as much as possible to talk me out of it. They took me everywhere with them. When I didn’t understand that we were going to the pool, they showed swimming and said, “Swimming.” They also took me to a restaurant, where I didn’t know what to eat, and when I deciphered something from the menu with the help of the boys, the waiter started talking to me anyway and I didn’t catch on. He just asked how I wanted to make a steak. I ate it at first. And also salmon, rice or potatoes.
That’s how I started to really discover the language. As soon as the goalie coach wrote to me, I immediately translated the words I didn’t know and tried to memorize them. Word cards also helped me. Ordinary sticky notes on which I wrote Czech words on one side and English on the other. I turned them over and step by step I got translations in my head.
I was advised by a teacher, a Slovak, who was arranged for me by the club. I studied with her for an hour or two a day by skype. I had my mouth full after training and I didn’t want to, but I knew it was necessary. That the sooner I understand and be able to speak, the sooner I will feel better about myself.
Thanks to this lady, I finally found out that English is not so complicated, a lot of things happen again. All you have to do is learn the basics and a few important words, the rest will come gradually, when you are not afraid to speak and grasp familiar things in the other’s language. The secretary of my American agent was also nice. We were dealing with something on the phone, and when I stuttered with her about English, she offered to call me for fifteen minutes every day to talk to me in English.
I couldn’t ask for that, but it just showed how great Americans are in principle and trying to help.
I also knew it in the locker room in Charleston, where I had Mark Dekanich, an experienced player and a great partner, next to me as my second goalkeeper. He helped me with everything.
And then there was David Pacan, our best player. With him, they put me alone on trips.
Honestly, I felt sorry for him. Although I tried my best, he just didn’t talk to me much. I told him about the Czech Republic, we talked about cars as much as possible, but while the other boys were kidding together, David didn’t laugh much with me. I saw that sometimes he was upset when he shook me again.
I called him Dad. To see how much I appreciate his efforts to talk to me.
This also helped me. I’m not a grumbler, I think I have a cheerful nature. And that’s what Americans appreciate, too. Although I didn’t speak English at first, I didn’t sit in the corner. I tried to live with others. The way I liked it at home. By the end of my first season, I started talking here and there.
Absolutely lousy, of course, but I made fun of it, sometimes I deliberately used garbled words or vulgar words and tried to return the forums that were aimed at me. Because I gradually began to understand. So when someone wasn’t yelling at the turned on radio or the journalists were not yelling at each other in the crowd.
The main thing was to dare and finally say something too.
The second year in Hershey in the AHL it’s like I’m starting all over again. Over the summer, I dropped out of English again and my teammates didn’t know me, so at first I was just someone with whom they didn’t have much to say. They didn’t even want to take me to dinner because I was just sitting and watching. They said it was pointless.
I mainly talked to Vrána, with whom we met again on the team. But the teammates didn’t mind that we spoke Czech, and they shouted at us that we were in America to speak English. They looked at us to see if we were apologizing. Defender defended me, he’s a great boy. And I climbed after him like his tail. That’s why our brothers called us.
Vrána helped me with everything. Even to impress the coaches. When we saw someone approaching us down the hall, he quickly told me what to tell him. Deliberately, let him see that I already speak English.
I remember a moment from my second season in America, when a coach entered the room and gave a speech to the team. What and how to play, what we want on the ice.
I understood everything at once.
I was so happy that I immediately wanted to shout it to the world. Tell that to all our teammates. I felt completely uplifted.
I went to my next year with the knowledge that I could still speak English. I was able to have fun with the coach, not just nod and tell him what the word was. Even in civilian clothes, I solved what I needed. Car, housing. Instead of writing text messages, people started calling me right away and I wasn’t afraid to take it, as it happened to me in my first seasons. When the boys laughed, I was laughing just to join them, but because I knew what we were laughing at.
And most importantly, I could finally talk to everyone. I didn’t feel repulsed, unwanted. I started thinking in English so I could be myself. To be the kind person that my friends from the Czech Republic know me. Part of everything.
Sure, I don’t speak grammatically correctly. To this day, I have a problem timing correctly, I usually say everything in the present tense. But everyone already understands that.
When someone points this out, I have a message ready that I live in the present.
When I mess up words or say something different than a native speaker would say, it’s just a trifle. I can handle myself, I don’t panic. I can handle those camera conversations too.
To this day, I’m not proud of how I started in America. To states where I have called home a few times with the feeling that I am completely lost at the end of the world, where I do not understand anything or anyone. But at the same time, knowing that this is a chance I have to hold on to, that I have to overcome it. Do it yourself.
Hockey naturally taught me that obstacles need to be tackled and not broken.
At first, I was afraid that I would be sidelined in Washington because of English. In fact, yes. That they would give it up with me after I showed up at the first camp. This is the NHL. A league where they can choose anyone from all over the world. So why would they mess with a Vítek from Havlíčkův Brod, for whom they are not sure that he understands how to say right and left.
But they tried to help me instead. The self-confidence that I was probably not in vain as a goalkeeper was given to me by the draft itself, and it only intensified how they treated me in Washington from the beginning. That they gave me the opportunity to fight for my dream to the fullest.
And so it happened that suddenly Vrána and I are walking down the corridor at the main Capitals camp and Alex Ovečkin shouts “Whores!” In Czech to us.
I, who was then knocking on the beach in Croatia with a phone to my ear, knocked out what was going on.
Suddenly I get dressed up before the NHL game.
Suddenly, I stay on the ice for a long time before the pre-game skating to catch the rushes by the trio Ovečkin, Oshie and Bäckström. Or Ovie shoots his elusive shots at me without training to practice them before he really leans into them in the evening, giving him another of his many goals.
By the way, I once caught it on the face from him, and while it feels bad from someone else, it’s like a slap, it’s a punch from him. I couldn’t bite that day. It hurts enough.
When I realize where I really am – and that I can talk to everyone here and I can hack and make fun with others – I feel great. As I couldn’t even imagine in my beginnings in America.
I feel full of confidence not only as a hockey goalie, but also as a person.
To each of the young hockey players, but actually to anyone who has a chance to look at the world one day, I want to say one thing:
Learn English in fact. Don’t mess with it. When that happens, you’ll be much better.
By Vitek Vanecek
Vitek Vanecek has been a pleasure to cover as a reporter. I actually ran into Vanecek and Vrana several years ago during one of their first visits to MedStar Capitals Iceplex (then known as Kettler). I remember extending a simple greeting to the ‘Czech mates’ as we all waited for an elevator to arrive. Jakub graciously replied, but it was clear that Vitek had no idea what I was saying. It’s been pleasing to see him gradually find his place.
Personally, I’m continuously amazed at how players from other countries come to the US and succeed in a sport at its highest level, all while trying to learn a new language at the same time. Think about taking a new job where everyone in the office sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, and you are expected to take instruction and achieve at the highest level.
It’s a unfortunate Vitek felt shame and shouldered blame for not knowing the English language, but that’s what makes him who he is. He’s a good-hearted, humble soul, and that’s refreshing.
Vitek, thank you for sharing your story. We are lucky to have you in the Capitals organization. Please, never change.
By Jon Sorensen