Filip Zadina, the Red Wings’ highest draft pick since 1990, is making progress toward his goal of becoming a major point producer in Detroit.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Van Andel Arena does not have any books or desks, and although you might see a coach with a whiteboard, nobody is going to confuse the place with a classroom.
Still, the building currently serves as the site for the schooling of Filip Zadina, one of the Red Wings’ most prized prospects, while he learns the lessons of hockey and develops the skills that will allow him to graduate to the NHL.
When the organization selected Zadina with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, many Red Wings fans rushed to proclaim that his selection would pay immediate dividends in Detroit, overlooking the fact that the young center from the Czech Republic was only 18 years old.
He still has room to grow.
Thankfully, Zadina is beginning to make the most of his time with the Griffins. After sporadic success early in the season – he scored two goals in a game four times – Zadina had a four-game goal streak in mid-February and was riding a personal-best seven-game point streak when he was recalled by Detroit on Feb. 22.
The start of the stretch coincided with the arrival of his oldest teacher – his father – in Grand Rapids at the beginning of the month for an 11-day visit. Maybe it was a coincidence, or perhaps the previous weeks and weeks of instruction from coaches and advice from teammates were finally having the desired impact.
“I need to keep going and not think about points,” Zadina said after a practice during the streak. “I need to just focus on hockey and think about how I am playing and how I am trying to help the team. The points will come.”
Zadina tapped his front teeth with his knuckles, a sign of good luck in his native Czech Republic.
He came to North America from Pardubice, a city of about 90,000 that is an hour’s train ride east of Prague and happens to be home to Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek; right winger Ales Hemsky, who had a 15-year NHL career before his retirement last season; and former Griffins center Tomas Nosek, now playing for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Zadina’s father was a member of the hockey team in Pardubice during a long playing career that stretched over 17 seasons, primarily in the top Czech league with brief stops in the top Russian and Slovak leagues.
Now an assistant coach with the Ocelari hockey club in Trinic, Czech Republic, Marek Zadina made sure to point his hockey-playing prodigy in the right direction.
His son is grateful for the guidance.
“Since I was three years old, I would skate with him,” Zadina said. “I spent my whole childhood on the ice with him – all that time was huge for me. He taught me everything I know. Everything I can do, whether it’s shoot, skate, or pass the puck. He made me a good player.”
Much time was given, so much was expected.
“He loves hockey so he made sure that I did things off the ice, too,” Zadina said. “He was always strict with me. He didn’t put me under pressure, but he wanted me to play well every single game. That’s why I appreciate him. It’s why I know how to play hockey the way that I do and why I am here today.”
Zadina shared his father’s love of the game, so he was willing to accept the extra attention paid to training.
“He would make workouts for me and show me drills that would help me,” he said. “When I was 11 or 12, I didn’t understand why I had to work harder than the other players. Later I figured out that I had to do those things to be a better player. Eventually, I started to do things on my own because I love to play hockey, so the workouts were a good thing for me.”
Zadina had the raw talent to excel, but it was clear that he needed time to refine those gifts.
“When I turned 16, one or two days later, I played my first pro game,” he recalled. “It was a huge game because I was pretty young and we were playing our biggest rivals in the Czech Republic. It was a good experience for me, especially because I knew I wanted to play pro hockey in North America.”
As a 17-year-old, he played 25 games in the top Czech league. Although he recorded only a single goal and an assist, he showed glimpses of the untapped potential that would eventually have scouts debating about how high he might someday go in the NHL draft.
Zadina was faced with the decision of continuing to develop his skills in Europe or heading overseas to test his talents in Canada.
“I had to decide if I wanted to stay in the Czech Republic or move closer to my NHL dream and be drafted in the first round,” he said. “I talked it over with my dad, my agent and my mom. We decided it would be better for me to leave and get a taste of hockey in North America.”
He joined the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 2017-18 season. Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, the Mooseheads had helped shape the careers of a number of NHL players, including Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Nikolaj Ehlers, Timo Meier, and Nico Hischier – all Top 10 picks in the NHL Entry Draft since 2013.
Zadina tallied 44 goals and 38 assists for 82 points in 57 games for Halifax during the regular season, then added five goals and seven assists in nine playoff contests. He also recorded seven goals in seven games playing for the Czech Republic during the 2018 World Junior Championship.
“I had an unbelievable year,” he said. “I was happy that I was drafted by Halifax because they know how to develop their players and help them become better so they can be drafted in the first round. It was cool to play in Canada the whole year and I got to play on a good team with a good coaching staff,” he said.
Zadina lived with the same billet family that had hosted Hischier, the Swiss forward who was selected by the New Jersey Devils with the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
“My English wasn’t bad but I couldn’t understand everything because it was way different in North America,” he said. “The huge thing for me was being here all by myself. There was nobody from the Czech Republic who could speak the same language, so it meant I had to learn every single day, which was very good for me.”
Projected to be the third-best player available in the 2018 NHL draft class, he was as surprised as anyone when he fell into the good fortunes of the Red Wings. Zadina was famously quoted as telling his agent that if the Canadiens and Senators passed on him in the third and fourth slots, “I’m going to fill their nets with pucks.”
He chuckles at the memory.
“I was pumped and excited because it was a huge day for me, but that’s what I said,” he admits now, a bit sheepishly. “I was probably more confident than I needed to be, but I want to prove to Detroit that they made a pretty good decision.”
Although he had hoped to start the season in Detroit, his play during the Red Wings’ exhibition games suggested that some time in the AHL would be beneficial to his development. It didn’t take long for Zadina to see that the decision was in his best interests.
“It was pretty tough to play here at the start of the season,” he said. “Obviously, I’m now playing against men and it’s tough, maybe tougher than I expected, but I know how to deal with it and I know it’s going to make me a better player.”
Zadina has come to understand the meaning of the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“That’s my motto right now,” he said. “Many players have come through the same situation. It’s all part of the hockey process. Only the mentally strongest players make it early in the NHL, so it’s normal. Why be upset when you can play and have fun? You have to play better to get the chance.”
He continues to communicate with his father, frequently turning to him for advice.
“To be honest, he watches every single game,” Zadina said. “It started last year in Halifax and now he’s doing the same thing with the Griffins. I usually wait for his message after the game. He will tell me his overall opinion of the game and how I played and what I need to do better. Sometimes he makes me mad because I felt like I played very good. But what he says is true.”
He has finally settled into a routine. He is now in his own apartment after living with Griffins assistant coach Mike Knuble and his family during his first month in Grand Rapids. “It helped that I didn’t have to be all by myself at the beginning of the season,” Zadina said. “He helped me adjust to the city and the pro lifestyle to the point where it’s now way easier for me to live alone in my own apartment.”
Cooking is still a bit of a challenge, although he has become adept at rice, pasta, sweet potatoes and chicken. “It’s not a big deal because I know I can do it,” he said, although he admits that he sometimes takes the easy way out and orders meals through Uber Eats.
It’s also been a little easier for Zadina to adjust to Grand Rapids because his teammates here have included Filip Hronek, Libor Sulak and Martin Frk from the Czech Republic, as well as Patrik Rybar from Slovakia. “It’s a huge advantage to have other players on your team who can speak the same language,” he said. “We all live pretty close to each other, so it’s nice when we can hang out together and talk.”
Griffins head coach Ben Simon has been impressed by the progress that Zadina has made this season.
“It takes time to figure things out and I think he’s done a tremendous job so far,” Simon said. “There’s a ton of pressure on him and for a 19-year-old kid, he’s done a great job of shouldering that burden.
“He was the best player in the Quebec Major Junior League and he was able to succeed on his raw skills alone. Now he’s learning to use his teammates and play within the parameters of the team system as well as dealing with the general day-to-day process of becoming a pro.”
Best of all, Zadina has kept a good attitude.
“Filip is no different than other top prospects who become bonafide NHL players,” Simon said. “They are very self-driven. They take pride in what they do and they care about what they do. Every single day since day one, Filip has come in with the attitude to improve. He works extremely hard on and off the ice, plus he has those intangibles that will allow him to enjoy success.”
With each game, Zadina has grown more comfortable with the pace of the game. He’s still trying to create more space for himself in a tight-checking league, but he’s learning to play on the smaller ice in North America.
“I feel more comfortable with the puck and I’ve started to create more scoring chances,” he said. “When I am playing my best, I am keeping the game simple, whether it’s skating, making the quick pass or shooting the puck. It’s pretty easy when I’m doing that. Where I need to improve is all over the ice. I can’t say I am bad or good in one zone or the other.”
Meanwhile, his father continues to share his advice.
“He tells me that I need to shoot the puck more and that I need to skate to the scoring areas where I can score more,” he said. “He thinks I should sometimes hold onto the puck a little more. He tells me that I shouldn’t be scared to play with the puck.”
Zadina has been on a steady learning curve this season. His reward was his first promotion to Detroit, and he made his NHL debut on Feb. 24 against the San Jose Sharks at Little Caesars Arena. His audition was expected to be limited in duration; after more than nine games, he would lose his exemption from being protected during the next expansion draft in 2021.
“I still want to play in the NHL as soon as possible,” he said while he was awaiting his debut. “When you get your first game in the best league in the world, obviously you will be nervous, but I will be excited and enjoy my time on the ice.
“I’m still working hard. I believe I can stay there next season. I’ll do anything for it.”