Red Wings defensive prospect Filip Hronek is learning English along with ways to improve his game.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Filip Hronek, the highly touted Red Wings prospect from the Czech Republic, listened closely to the question, leaning intently to catch every word.
Doing interviews at this point so early in his pro career is not his forte and, like his play on the ice, remains a work-in-progress, but he accepts the challenge without complaint and does his best with his limited linguistic abilities.
In fact, keep it simple may be good advice, as useful in speaking as it is in hockey. Why try to do too much with the puck when a quick pass will accomplish the same? Why use 20 words when one will do?
So his reply is succinct when asked what he needs to improve in order to play at the next level. “Everything,” he says. To fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL, he knows he must become bigger, stronger, faster and smarter – a process that won’t happen overnight.
It’s worth remembering that, a year ago, his grasp of the English language was virtually non-existent. Hronek had to call on the help of a fellow countryman, goaltender Matej Machovsky, to translate for him when he spoke with the media at his first Red Wings development camp during the summer of 2016.
By consenting to now do interviews on his own, Hronek is proving that his language skills have come a long way, and yet he knows he still has much to learn. That is an opportunity, not a problem. Hronek, after all, is still a teenager.
Chosen by the Red Wings with the overall 53rd pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Hronek won’t turn 20 until Nov. 2. He spent last season in North America, a move that was encouraged by the Red Wings’ director of player evaluation, Jiri Fischer, who felt it was critical that the young player begin the process of learning the new language and culture.
Hronek had been playing for teams in Hradec Kralove, one of the oldest cities (pre-13th century) in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, where he grew up playing hockey and soccer, the latter due in part to the fact that his father was a soccer coach.
A natural forward, Hronek changed to defense three or four years ago, a switch that he said was hard because he initially felt “confused” in the defensive zone. The adjustment required time and practice, but “nothing special.” “I”m still learning the position,” he admits.
In almost no time, he found himself playing at the highest non-professional levels. He has represented his country internationally several times, including twice at the World Junior Championship, first in Finland in 2016 and earlier this year in Canada. “To play against the best guys in the world was a good experience for me,” he said.
Hronek was captain of the Czech Republic team at the 2017 tournament, where he was his team’s leading defenseman with two goals and two assists in five games. “It was a great feeling to make the team the first time, but being the captain, I was in a different spot,” he said. “I was a leader.”
He felt the choice to play in North America last season was almost a non-decision. If he was going to play in the NHL, it was absolutely necessary for him to put aside any notion of staying in the Czech Republic for another year.
Playing in the Ontario Hockey League for the Saginaw Spirit last season, Hronek wasted little time in adjusting to his new confines, although he felt that he struggled early. “It was hard,” he said. “Being on the smaller ice, you must be quicker and faster with your decisions. You must make plays faster.”
Hronek showed his offensive prowess by tallying 14 goals and 47 assists in 59 games. He was voted the Spirit’s Most Valuable Player after finishing the season as the team leader in plus-minus as well as being the fourth leading-scorer among all defensemen in the league.
In truth, playing hockey was the easy part. Adjusting to a new lifestyle away from home was not so easy. “The lifestyle here from Europe was different and English was hard, but now it’s getting better,” he said, noting that living a language isn’t the same as learning it in school. “Hanging out and talking with the other guys helped,” he notes, although he couldn’t help but miss his mother’s cooking.
Still, he was thrilled to be one step closer to someday playing for the Red Wings. “It was a great feeling to get drafted by an Original Six team with a big history,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
Hronek joined the Griffins at the conclusion of the OHL campaign and saw action in 10 regular season games. “It was very important for my development,” he said. “Getting to play with guys with NHL experience like Nathan Paetsch and Brian Lashoff helps you learn what you need to do to become good.”
He even earned a spot for his name on the Calder Cup by playing in two playoff games, which was itself an eye-opening experience. “Everything happens so much faster and so much more physical that it’s harder to play,” he said.
Hronek’s introduction to pro hockey was helped by the fact that he was able to live with Tomas Nosek and could talk with Martin Frk, both of whom also hail from the Czech Republic. “We watched a lot of NHL games when we could,” he said. “You can learn a lot.”
He is a big admirer of Erik Karlsson, the Ottawa Senators’ two-time Norris Trophy winner. “He plays 30 minutes a night, so when you watch, he can teach you,” he said.
Hronek also feels that he will benefit from a Red Wings organization that puts him under the tutelage of Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios as well as Fischer, a former Red Wings defenseman whose own promising playing career was cut short at the age of 25 due to heart issues.
“If they say something, you just watch and listen,” he said. “They played in the NHL, so they know what it takes.”
Closer to home, Hronek will be following the advice of Griffins head coach Todd Nelson, another former defenseman who played 12 pro seasons and knows a thing or two about what it takes to be successful.
Nelson sees plenty to like in Hronek’s game.
“He’s a player with a high skill set,” Nelson said. “He makes a good first outlet pass, can run a power play, and I like that he has an edge to his game. He plays with some ‘jam.’ Those are the things that are going to help him become successful.”
At 6-foot, 170-pounds, Hronek is hardly an imposing defender, but the Red Wings were attracted by his offensive instincts and hockey skills. With excellent on-ice vision and poise, an elite ability to move the puck and a powerful shot from the point, he offers the kind of scoring ability that is highly desired in Detroit.
“We saw him play in some games for us during the regular season and the playoffs, and we liked what we saw,” Nelson said. “If he keeps his game simple, his creative side comes out and he’s able to see his options breaking the puck out.”
The key for Hronek will be to continue to learn to play his position from a defensive perspective. His coach in Saginaw, Spencer Carbery, stressed that the youngster needed to focus on how to use his feet and skill to defend the rush better and win battles down low in the defensive zone, especially near the net.
Carbery felt Hronek’s development during the year was “impressive,” and Nelson hopes that he will make similar strides this season.
“When the other team has the puck in the defensive zone, he’s got to have his head on a swivel and find guys who are open in the slot or in front of the net and win those battles,” Nelson said. “A lot of that will come with experience.”
As a rookie, Hronek will inevitably make mistakes. He recognizes that he’s going to make his share, but he said he hopes to keep the mistakes to a minimum and learn from them. Like every prospect, he would like to be playing in the NHL. He knows the Red Wings prefer not to rush their talent.
“It’s usually a couple of years,” Hronek said, conceding that he will likely need to spend an extended stay in the minors. “Time will tell. We’ll see.”
Nelson will preach patience.
“Everything comes with maturity,” Nelson said. “It’s going to take some time with him, but he’s already improved so much from last season that we think he’s going to have a good year. So he’s trending in the right direction.”
All Hronek wants is the opportunity.
“Last year was good, but this is a new season,” he said. “Winning the Cup was a great experience, so I was happy I could stay in GR and stay with the team. I was very happy when the guys won. Now I get a chance. I need to be stronger, faster, make better decisions in the D-zone, everything.”
“I just work hard and we’ll see.”