Skip to main content

Calder Cup Champions -'13 '17

Official site of the Grand Rapids Griffins

Libor Intensive

Defenseman Libor Sulak is working hard to show that the Red Wings made a good decision when they plucked him out of the Czech Republic.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

When Libor Sulak made the Detroit Red Wings’ roster out of training camp, it was like Christmas came early.

An undrafted free agent out of the Czech Republic, the 24-year-old defenseman received the news of making the NHL with the joy of a boy who got what he always wanted. It made him think of the happiness he often experienced as a kid when his family made the one-hour trip into Prague for the holiday.

In fact, his NHL debut was a gift of sorts, as his first game landed on the birthday of his father, who stayed up late – it was 1:30 a.m. back in Sulak’s hometown of Pelhrimov – to be able to watch his son play against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the season opener at Little Caesars Arena.

“I think he was more nervous than me,” Sulak said. “I was nervous for the first game, but I think that’s normal. Once they threw the puck onto the ice, the nerves went away and I just play.”

Sulak, who played six games with the Red Wings before he was sent to Grand Rapids, had made a favorable first impression when he recorded a pair of assists in his first preseason game this past fall. He continued to impress Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill during the course of the exhibition schedule.

“His skating is elite,” Blashill said. “His body and strength and reach are elite. I think he’s got to learn a number of things in positioning to make sure that he is on the right side of the puck so he’s not giving up easy chances. The good thing is he seems to want to learn it. He seems to have a capacity to learn it.”

Sulak had first come to the Red Wings’ attention through Jiri Fischer, Detroit’s director of player evaluation, who splits his time between Europe and North America scouting potential free agent acquisitions as well as draft-eligible players.

Detroit inked Sulak to a two-year, entry-level contract after scouting him at the 2017 IIHF World Championship tournament in Europe. “I like that he’s 6-3. I like that he can skate. I like that he continues to improve,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said at the time of Sulak’s signing. “Obviously, Jiri Fischer knows him as a person, what makes him tick. We feel like there’s the potential for some upside that he could play in the National Hockey League.”

The Red Wings’ faith was rewarded when Sulak earned an extended look in Detroit after quickly making an impression.

“I didn’t know much about him (but) I like him a lot,” Red Wings forward Thomas Vanek told the assembled media after seeing Sulak in his preseason debut. “He’s really good, the way he skates, the way he battles. He’s not afraid to take shots; he’s not afraid to jump up in the play. I wish I had a quarter of his speed.”

Coincidentally, Sulak played two seasons with Orli Znojmo, a Czech team that competes in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, the top professional league in Austria, which is Vanek’s home country. Sulak was the league’s rookie of the year during the 2015-16 season when he tallied six goals and 12 assists in 51 games. His numbers were even better in year two with the team, as he recorded 10 goals and 18 assists in 54 games.

“There are a lot of imports playing in the Austrian league, so it was good hockey,” he said. “There were guys from U.S. and Canada, too, so it was a little faster. It helped me with my play because I got so much time on the ice. It gave me the experience that helped me become a better player.”

The Red Wings knew that Sulak was going to play last season abroad in the Finnish Elite League, where he was a member of the Lahti Pelicans. He had nine goals and 23 assists in only 42 games, good enough for second-best in the league for points per game by a defenseman.

“In Finland, it’s the same rink (like Austria), but the guys are even faster, so there’s more pressure and more skating,” he said. “It felt like a level up.”

He joined the Griffins near the end of last season, but he only appeared in two games after his audition was cut short by a groin injury and a puck to the mouth that required 16 stitches to repair.

“It was my first time in the U.S., but it was perfect because it was the first time I got to meet with an NHL organization,” he said. “Learning to play on the smaller ice was different for me. Everything happens quicker. You get quicker pressure, you react quicker, you have to be ready every time.”

A natural defenseman – it was his father’s idea that he play on the blue line when he was young – Sulak uses his size, skating ability and hockey sense to set himself apart.

“He really likes to carry the puck and move the puck, so the efficiency of his passing and the timing of his passing is going to be an adjustment for him when he bridges to North America, where everything is smaller and there’s less room,” Fischer said. “But his skating makes him special. Plus, he really has the ability to battle and use his physical strength to bump players off the puck.”

Although he didn’t make the Olympic team, Sulak has represented the Czech Republic in other world tournaments. His last appearance was at the 2018 IIHF World Championship in Denmark last May when his team lost 3-2 to the USA in the quarterfinals. It was the second year in a row that he represented his homeland.

“I felt better the second time,” he said. “I played a lot and it gave me more confidence. I felt good there. It was perfect except that we didn’t make it past the quarterfinals – we lost to the U.S. – but I felt like I played well.”

Sulak is thankful for any and all advice at this stage in his career. Fischer, who was general manager of the Czech national team, offered a few pointers. “He talked to me about the things I need to do,” Sulak said. “Like playing hard, using my legs to keep skating, being careful in the ‘D’ zone and making sure nobody gets behind you – just normal stuff.”

He came into this year excited at the prospect of playing his first full season in North America. That he is now in Grand Rapids rather than Detroit does not seem to have fazed him any. “I don’t care where I play,” he said. “I just have to play.”

Sulak is happy that he is now reunited with his young family. His wife, Martina, and 2-1/2-year-old son, Libor Jr., flew over from the Czech Republic and joined him in Grand Rapids after he was reassigned to the AHL team.

“I still miss my parents and my brother, but my wife and son are here and they are happy. My son doesn’t care where he is. He just loves hockey. He got skates from Santa – and helmet and gloves, too. He wants pants and elbow pads, but I said this is good (for now).”

While adapting to the North American rinks and style of play has been an adjustment, the biggest challenge has been learning English. “The more I talk with the guys in the locker room, the better,” said Sulak, who is also learning away from the rink. “I watch a lot of Netflix with my son and we learn together. He’s learning Czech, Russian and English.”

Sulak feels more comfortable every week, both on and off the ice, but he knows that he still has plenty of work ahead. Having gotten his first taste of the NHL, he hopes to get another look in Detroit but is going to patiently go about the business of brushing up his skills in the meantime.

“I don’t want to think about whether I am going to get up there again or not. I just have to play better here,” he said. “If I improve, maybe I will get another chance. I don’t want to think about it. I’m good with this (playing in the AHL).”

Things could always be better, he knows, and so he is more than willing to do whatever it takes to improve and show that he can be a solid two-way defenseman in the NHL.

It took him 28 AHL games to score his first goal in North America – it was a highlight-reel tally – but he hopes there will be many more to come.

“So far so good, I think,” Sulak said.

Get tickets, live scores, stats, highlights, player interviews & more!