Already one of the most defensively dependable players on the Griffins’ roster, Tomas Nosek has found his scoring touch this season to become a major offensive threat.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
The national flag of the Czech Republic is formed from a blue isosceles triangle that extends halfway into two equal horizontal bands, one white and one red.
Tomas Nosek has had the privilege of standing below that flag, representing his homeland on the ice. It is an honor befitting a young man who is building his reputation as a responsible player who models the two-way ideals treasured by coaches of excelling both offensively and defensively.
It’s also a tribute to the work ethic preached by his parents, who both work at a special high school for athletes in his hometown of Pardubice, a city of 160,000 located a little more than an hour east of the Czech capital of Prague.
“Behave… be polite… be respectful… be a person with good character,” Nosek said, recalling the ideals instilled by his father Miroslav, a track and field coach, and his mother Daniela, who teaches biology and physical education.
Nosek started skating when he was three or four, but his parents encouraged him and his older sister Michaela to explore all athletics (his sister was a competitive pole vaulter). Whatever the sport, their advice was the same.
“My father always said to me that if you want to be the best, you’ve got to work hard,” he said. “My mom was like every mom. ‘Do well in school.’ My older sister was so good in school that I didn’t want to be the bad child.”
At 6-foot-5, his father figured his son would likely be tall and athletic. “He prepared me to be an athlete,” said Nosek, who stands 6-foot-2. “He wasn’t pushing me, but I knew what I had to do. He gave me good advice. He knew what I needed to do, so it was good for me.”
Nosek loved hockey and excelled at the sport. “I never knew if I would be good enough, but I was always one of the best in every category,” he said.
He was good enough to play for HC Pardubice U18 as a 15-year-old, which would ultimately enable him to practice with the pros as a teenager and allow him to be enrolled in an independent study program reserved for elite student-athletes.
At 16, Nosek realized he would need to work even harder if he expected to continue to stay a step ahead.
“I was skinny when the other guys were so strong,” he said. “I wasn’t the worst, only OK, but I recognized that maybe it won’t be so easy. I worked hard every day and put on some weight. I focused on my game so that it helped my confidence when I started practicing with the top men’s team.”
Nosek was ignored by the NHL during his draft year. He injured his shoulder three days before the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup tournament, which might have showcased his talents for scouts. “I was there, but I didn’t play,” Nosek said. “Maybe if I had played, somebody might have drafted me.”
The injury sidelined Nosek for several months. As a result, he didn’t make the roster for the World Junior Championship because the Czech Republic coach cited his lack of international experience. “It was bad luck,” he said.
His father, meanwhile, continued to mentor his development. In fact, his father served as the Pardubice conditioning coach for a season after he turned pro.
“It was my first season in the top pro league and we won the championship together,” Nosek said. “It was great, but after that, it was like, ‘Wow, I wonder if I will win a title again,’ and I’ve been waiting ever since. Six years later, I’m still waiting.”
As a teen playing with men who were 10 to 15 years older, Nosek struggled to find playing time. “When you are young, you only get a little bit of ice time playing on the fourth line,” he said. “On non-game days, they sent me to the second highest league to get more ice time. It helped me because I played on the second line there along with the power play and penalty kill.”
In 2012, he finally got the chance to represent his country at the World Junior tournament hosted in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. His parents watched their son and teammates beat the U.S. and Denmark to advance to the quarterfinals, only to lose to Russia 2-1 in overtime.
“It was a special moment,” he said. “It was my first big tournament with the national team and first time in North America.”
Nosek, in fact, served as team captain. “I was so surprised,” he said of the honor. “I didn’t know if I would even make the last cut, so when the coach told me to come to his office, I was worried. He told me I was doing great and I would be the captain of the team. I was like ‘Wow!’ It was the best news I ever got.”
Two years later, Nosek went with the men’s national team to Sochi, Russia, for the Channel One Cup that preceded the 2014 Winter Olympics. Although Nosek didn’t make the Olympic cut, it was another opportunity to play against international competition.
Nosek signed a two-year free agent contract with the Red Wings in June 2014 after he blossomed during his third full season in the top Czech league. In 52 games, Nosek tallied 19 goals and 25 assists.
He was already familiar with the lore of the Red Wings. Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek, who won two Stanley Cups during his four seasons in Detroit, also hails from Pardubice.
Nosek practiced with Hasek when the legendary goalie was contemplating an NHL comeback before the 2012-13 season. “We met in the locker room every day,” he said. “He’s so competitive. He wants to stop every single puck, even in practice.”
When asked if he ever managed to slide the puck past Hasek, Nosek answers in the affirmative. “After practice, we would have competitions where you would get one shot and one breakout from the hash marks and a couple of times I scored, which made him so mad.”
Nosek came to Grand Rapids in the fall of 2014 at the age of 22. It was a big adjustment.
“I was thinking I knew English well from school, but I didn’t,” said Nosek, who had studied German as well as British-style English. “Most things I could understand, but the first three or four months, it was hard for me to say anything.”
To make matters worse, Nosek cut his hand in a freak household accident a couple of weeks into the season. He was trying to open a package with a kitchen knife when his hand slipped and the blade pierced his hand, cutting 50 percent of the tendons.
“It was bad luck, but it was good luck, too,” Nosek said, pointing to the fact that it could have been worse. “The doctor thought I might lose the ability to move my fingers, but everything came back.”
He missed nearly two months of the season. In retrospect, the injury might have been a blessing in disguise, because the mishap gave Nosek time to move into his apartment and become more accustomed to American life. “Sometimes bad things happen for a reason,” he said.
Playing hockey in the U.S. was not going to be easy. “I had never been away from my family or outside of my house, so it was hard,” he said. “My girlfriend (Eliska Chocholovsova) came after two months, and that helped because I had someone to talk to.”
Nosek started to feel more comfortable last season when he appeared in 70 games with the Griffins, notching 15 goals and 15 assists. He also appeared in six games with the Red Wings, making his NHL debut in Nashville the day after Christmas.
“It was the best Christmas gift ever,” said Nosek, who was happy that his girlfriend made it to the rink in time for the start of the second period. “I was so excited to play my first NHL game. I wasn’t really nervous.
“I was nervous when I was little. For my first game in the Czech men’s league, I was nervous. I was probably the most nervous for my first game for the men’s national team in Prague. It was sold out. There were 17,000 people to watch Czech against Finland. All those experiences helped me.”
Nosek did his best to approach it as just another game.
“I told myself to just enjoy every shift I got,” he said. “I tried to enjoy the atmosphere and every moment. We won the game. That was the most important thing to me. I was so happy. Nobody wants to lose their first game.”
After building a reputation as an ace penalty killer, strong defensive player and excellent faceoff man, Nosek has added another dimension to his play: he has become an offensive threat, netting eight goals in a nine-game stretch to assume the team lead in goals.
“Last year I had some problem with scoring,” he said. “I would get chances, but I couldn’t score. Now they’re going in. That’s how it goes. Sometimes you can score from everywhere, sometimes not. If you don’t score for 5-10 games, it gets into your head.”
Griffins head coach Todd Nelson is happy to see that Nosek is being rewarded for his efforts.
“He’s a very complete player at both ends of the ice,” Nelson said. “He’s a very good two-way centerman. We count on him to play both the power play and penalty kill and we rely on him a lot. He’s heading in the right direction to move up to the National Hockey League.”
Nosek takes great pride in being a solid two-way player, a habit that he developed when he was a young player in the Czech Republic.
“When you play fourth line in the top Czech league, if you allow a goal in a game, they never put you back in,” he said. “I tried to never allow a goal when I was on the ice. Where guys on the first line are hungry to score, I was the opposite and never wanted to give one up.”
Nosek was a plus-30 during his rookie season in the AHL, which tied for the league’s best in the category that measures the times a player is on the ice for even-strength and shorthanded goals versus those surrendered.
“I want to be a complete player,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as just a good offensive player or be a player who is known only for defense. I want to be the type of player who can be used wherever the coaches want me.”
In order to play in the NHL – “the best league in the world” – Nosek knows he will have to continue to improve.
“I will keep working hard and try to do my best every time I am on the ice,” he said. “When I was in Pardubice, I tried to work harder than all of the other guys. That’s what brought me here, and if I can continue to work hard in Grand Rapids, that’s what will bring me to Detroit.”