Pavel Kubina: Czech-ing In On The Canadian Dream
Like many youngsters harbouring dreams of hockey stardom, 19-year-old Pavel Kubina quickly realized the need to seek the best competition and left his hometown of Ostrava, Czech Republic in October 1996. Less than 24 hours later, he found himself in what seemed to him the middle of nowhere (geographically, it was southern Saskatchewan), playing defence for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League.
"I knew if I want to play in the NHL I'm going to have to go as a young guy to learn different life, different language and especially different hockey," Kubina recalled. "I was very nervous because I didn't speak English and I knew I'm going to miss my parents and my family and my friends. But I was also excited because my dream was to play NHL. You know, I was trying to make my dream come true."
At first it seemed like more of a nightmare. Kubina didn't know anyone in Canada, didn't know the language and didn't know what to make of the frigid Moose Jaw climate.
"I remember I saw a small town in the middle of nowhere," he said. "Snow everywhere. It was so cold outside and I saw their house and I just met them. And the first couple of days, I was almost crying because they were trying, trying to talk to me, and I didn't understand one word."
"They" were Kubina's host family - Cam and Marie King and their infant son, Zach.
"They were very nice to me, and anything I asked for, they took care of that," Kubina recalled. "And they always took me, like if they had a dinner with their family or friends or even if they go out, they took me with them. So, I was the younger brother or older son, and that's how they make me feel at home."
Despite his initial social awkwardness, Kubina always felt comfortable on the ice. The rangy defenceman scored a goal and two assists to lead the Warriors to victory in his first game, winning over the fans in his new home.
"And the first game I played well, and I can say, the people, they loved me right away," Kubina said.
While his Canadian comrades marveled at his imported puckhandling abilities, Kubina also learned some valuable lessons from his rough-and-tumble teammates.
"You know, I saw the guys, their intensity, even in practice," Kubina recalled. "You know, they worked hard in the practice, and they worked even harder in a game. And their intensity, their heart, they always played with a lot of passion, and they play like that's the last game for them."
Many overseas players learned a similar lesson, and by the time Kubina parlayed his rugged seasoning into a roster spot with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1997, European players comprised more than 20 per cent of the league's workforce.
Kubina continued to improve and adapt his game to the North American style over the next few years, and his hard work culminated in 2004, when he was named an NHL all star. Later that year Kubina lived out that most Canadian of dreams, winning the Stanley Cup with the Lightning. The day after, he phoned Cam King with a message.
"He said, 'You know, I just wanted to thank you and Marie, because if it wasn't for you guys, I would have gone home after the first week. I was so scared,'" recalled King.
Kubina's decision to stick it out through those rough first few days in Canada again paid off handsomely in the summer of 2006, when he signed a $20 million, four-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.