After two turbulent seasons, Andrej Nestrasil is finally steering his career in the right direction.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
There is a pivotal point in a hockey player's career where he finally establishes himself, a time when he realizes it is his moment to shine and that if he doesn't grab the proverbial brass ring, he could lose his chance to make his mark.
For Andrej Nestrasil, that moment may have come at the end of the Griffins' triumphant Calder Cup championship run, but it wasn't on the ice. It was in the air. On a plane. With a microphone in his hand.
On the flight back to Grand Rapids, the 22-year-old Red Wings prospect took a leading role, stepping into the spotlight as he playfully interviewed many of his teammates for a local television station, taking charge of the post-game celebration by injecting a little extra excitement into a time that every player on the plane would remember for the rest of his life.
Nestrasil had practiced with the Griffins during the entire postseason run and had dressed for only one game, but it would be enough to get his name on the Cup. In the end, he had experienced the whole process. There was no way that he was going to let down his teammates at that moment.
"I know that if I had played a bigger role, I would have enjoyed it 100 times more than I did, but I was so happy for the guys," Nestrasil recalled. "I loved every single one of those guys, and so when Game 6 was done, I could see all of them were so drained and so tired, but I didn't want them to fall asleep. I wanted them to enjoy themselves and have a good party on the plane. They will always remember the game and raising the Cup, but I wanted to make sure they remembered the party afterwards, too."
It may be symbolic, but someday he may look back at the celebration as the moment his career took off.
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Andrej Nestrasil has had a zest for hockey as long as he can remember. Born in Prague, one of the great cities in the world, he learned to love life at a young age. His family may not have had much, but they had each other.
The second oldest of five boys, Nestrasil started playing hockey at age three, following in the footsteps of his big brother, Boris.
"When we were young, we lived in a really small apartment because we were really poor," Nestrasil said. "My older brother and me actually slept in the same room with my parents. We had actual beds, but my mom and father slept on the floor in the same bedroom on tiny mattresses.
"When my father came home from work, he would move the mattresses and set up a net and we would play every day for three hours. We'd play best-of-7s, and whoever won got three hockey cards and whoever lost – and it was always me because I was two years younger – would get only one. But at least I had some."
Nestrasil may have been too young to remember, but home videos document that Boris never babied his little brother. "He would cross-check me and pin me against the wall," he said. "My mom was always recording us when we played, and you could see he was just killing me."
Eventually the family moved to an apartment outside the city where there was a hockey playground next to the apartment complex. "Those were the best of times," he remembers. "We didn't have Xbox or PlayStation, but guys would bring their sticks over to our house, and we would play street hockey or play on roller blades until our mom called us home for dinner."
Prague was the perfect place for a boy with big dreams.
"Most of the people who live in great cities, they don't appreciate what they have," he said. "When I'm back home now, I love to go downtown and just walk around, stop somewhere and have a coffee because it's absolutely magical. I just love the history.
"Many of our buildings are a lot older than America. You guys just found the land and we already had our city for hundreds of years. You walk down these tiny streets and see the restaurants, the galleries, the artists and all the tourists. It's unbelievable. I've been to Paris and some other European cities, but Prague is my favorite of all time."
His nostalgic feelings are colored by his memories.
"My father would always record NHL Power Week on Sunday mornings. It was the only time we could actually see NHL action," Nestrasil said. "When we were growing up, school was always No. 1. As long as we did well in school, we were allowed to play hockey. We were raised that the dream was to play in the NHL."
Nestrasil played both soccer and hockey growing up, but his future started pointing seriously in the direction of hockey when he was chosen for the Czech Republic national team in U16 international competition. "To get drafted by the NHL, I knew I either had to play in the highest Czech league or play junior hockey in Canada," he said.
"There was no chance I was going to play in the highest Czech league at 17. I might be able to practice with the team, but then nobody would see me play. I had to go to Canada. It was hard, but every major decision like that is hard. The worst part is that there is no way to know if your decision will be good or bad. You've got to take the leap of faith."
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say – Nestrasil felt the opportunity was worth the risk.
Nestrasil wanted to play junior hockey in either the Ontario or the Western leagues. "I told my agent I just didn't want to play in Quebec," he said. Of course, he ended up playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was drafted eighth overall by the team in Victoriaville, a small provincial city located between Montreal and Quebec City. Although he initially didn't want to go, it was a proverbial blessing in disguise.
"It was actually a good thing," he said. "All of the guys there speak English, but they don't speak as fast as people in the U.S., so it was easier for me to learn. I already knew the basics because I had been studying English since I was 6 years old, but until you live in the country, you don't really learn."
Nestrasil lived in the beautiful home of the team president and his young family. The house was big enough that it had its own hockey rink in the basement. "The rink was like 20 meters long by 5 meters wide, and it had synthetic ice that you could skate on, along with boards, a scoreboard and even locker rooms. It was unbelievable."
He played well in Quebec but was reluctant to attend the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in Montreal. The NHL's Central Scouting Services ranked him the 133rd skater in North America before the draft, which meant it was possible that he would be not chosen until a late round, if at all. "My billet said I should go, but I didn't want to go all the way there and make my father pay for the plane tickets and then not be drafted."
Red Wings European scout Vladimir Havluj recommended that Nestrasil attend. He listened. In the end, Detroit selected him in the third round with the 75th overall pick.
"It was one of my best moments in my early career," he said. "It was so cool to see all of the people there, but now I realize that the draft doesn't mean anything. Getting drafted doesn't guarantee anything. The team doesn't even have to sign you."
But Detroit did sign Nestrasil to a three-year entry-level contract. He started his pro career in Grand Rapids, but was sent to Toledo, only to return a week later to the Griffins. Playing with Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, he had two goals and an assist in his first three games. Then he was bumped off the line and went 19 straight games without a point.
"I had never played fourth line in my life," Nestrasil said. "I had always played first or second line, and the fourth line is a whole different story. I struggled."
Nestrasil ended up playing the majority of his rookie season in Toledo, then ended up back in the ECHL for the first half of his second season. He eventually stuck in Grand Rapids in mid-February 2013, registering three goals and two assists in the last 19 games of the regular season.
"My first year, I was so frustrated. I was not enjoying myself. I was not happy playing hockey," Nestrasil said. "My second year, I figured there was nothing I could do about it, so I said to myself, 'Let's just enjoy it and have fun and let's get better every day.’"
It worked. Or, more appropriately, he worked.
"I've been impressed with Andrej's perseverance dating back to two years ago," Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill said. "Nick Vitucci in Toledo felt that from Andrej's first year to second year, he was by far the most improved player. That had a great deal to do with us bringing him up here and ultimately keeping him here.
"Andrej showed how much he cared and how much he was committed to becoming a good hockey player. The other thing that speaks volumes for Andrej is that we asked him to be prepared to play center, and he worked really hard with (assistant coach) Spiros Anastas to make sure he improved, and he's done a good job."
Nestrasil has spent the entire 2013-14 season thus far with the Griffins. He has enjoyed playing on a line with Mitch Callahan and Triston Grant. "I finally made peace with myself that the fourth line was going to be where I played this year. That's my role," he said. "Now I even have power play time, and I'm so happy. But that's hockey. Things go up and down. You've got to be ready and take advantage of any chance that you can get and make the most out of it."
He speaks from experience. Nestrasil was a healthy scratch during the entire Griffins' playoff run until one of his teammates became ill before a game.
"Even though the chance that I would play was very tiny – like slim to nothing – I had to be ready in case something happened, so I practiced with the team, then practiced again with the other (young) guys. It was rough. Nobody likes sitting in the stands. Then one day (Jan) Mursak has diarrhea. What are the chances that because one guy is stuck on the toilet all day, my name is going to be on the Cup? It sounds kind of funny, but that's how it goes in life."
And so now Nestrasil is content to keep working hard. "I'm just happy for every opportunity I get," he said. "What I learned over the past couple of years is that you can't let the little things disturb you. You've got to be confident that you're a good player, no matter what line you play. You've got to believe in yourself and go out and just do it."
He feels the Griffins will have the opportunity to do great things in the playoffs again. "We know we have a great group of players and a great coaching staff. We can do great things, but we need to make sure we come out on the ice every night and play like we want to win the Cup. That's the goal – to win the Cup again."
Nestrasil hopes he will get the chance to play a bigger role this time, and if the Griffins accomplish the ultimate, he knows how he will celebrate.
"If we win, I promise I'll do a few more interviews," he said.