From the archives: Skating through life
It's Friday, the Caps are on vacation and this hockey town is kind of quiet. So with that in mind, let's take a trip back to February of 1999, when the local ice hockey team had an entirely different set of speed-loving young guns and Rachel Nichols was just a newspaper reporter.
Skating through life: It's all fun and games for young Capitals
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 12, 1999
It happened after a win last season, when the Washington Capitals were tired and the bus ride back to the airport was quiet. Except for young forwards Jan Bulis, Richard Zednik and Yogi Svejkovsky, who are never quiet. Chatting in their usual rapid-fire mix of Czech and Slovak -- a sound that assistant coach Tim Hunter once described as "three guys trying to drown: blub-blub-blub" -- the trio suddenly broke into hysterical laughter.
Most of the rest of the players on the bus had no idea what was so funny, but the sight of the threesome consumed with giggles started a few of them laughing anyway. Then a few more cracked up. Pretty soon, the whole bus was in hysterics.
"People are always asking me what they are saying, and I can't ever really explain," Slovak right wing Peter Bondra said, shaking his head. "It's just that they really are kids and they have such a good time with each other that they laugh at really simple stuff. Like they see a car, and one will go, Look at the color of that car,' and then it's Hey, can you believe the green on that car' and then all of a sudden they're just cracking up on the bus."
With speed and offensive gifts to spare, the 20-year-old Bulis, 23-year-old Zednik and 22-year-old Svejkovsky may well be the future of the Washington Capitals. They already alternate on the team's second line, combining with steadying force Steve Konowalchuk, and it is their presence that has helped loosen the grip of opposing defenses on veteran stars Bondra, Adam Oates and Joe Juneau.
All three are firmly aware they have futures heavy with expectation, but none seems to be burdened by his destiny. Young, talented and rich in America, they are stopping to smell the roses, the auto dealerships and the designer clothing houses, all with huge, enthusiastic grins plastered to their faces.
"They've got their hands in everything and they're just really happy all the time, happy to play together or just be together," Oates said. "When I was in St. Louis, Brett Hull and I were like that. We roomed together on the road, we lived a mile apart from each other at home -- we did everything together.
"The three of them are just the same way. Even before a practice, they're all out there just cruising around and laughing with each other, like they are on Cloud Nine. And really, that's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it? You should be pumped up when you are playing like that and you're that young. Look at Buli -- he's 20 years old, and he's got the world by the tail."
Bulis, a Czech native, likely would agree. He sped down a street near Piney Orchard after a recent practice, his cherry-red 1999 Corvette convertible purring happily as he accelerated toward the motorcycle shop that is custom-building him a Harley-Davidson, the same place that is putting the finishing touches on Zednik's bike. As he easily exceeded the local speed limit, he said that he is going to take the car back to the Czech Republic this summer, where he can drive around 200 mph and the police won't stop him. He's going to buy a big Mercedes to drive here. He thinks.
Zednik, a Slovak, has a silver BMW and a sport utility vehicle he purchased with money from his first contract. Svejkovsky, who is also Czech, also has a Corvette and an SUV. His Corvette is also a convertible, also red, but it is a 1996 model, and he takes some ribbing from the group about it being passe.
Of the three, Svejkovsky probably spends the least money on clothes and cars. He is the most serious of the trio -- although that is a relative term in this group. He has not succumbed to the motorcycle bug that has recently hit his running mates, partly because he's not that into Harleys and partly because his mother doesn't think they are safe, and "if something is really important to your mother, you have to respect her."
Svejkovsky also has the unfortunate distinction of being the most injured -- also a tough feat in a group that has given new dimension to the Capitals' injury curse. After missing 43 games with a sprained ankle last season, Svejkovsky sprained his other ankle in just the seventh game of this season, knocking him out for another 37 games.
He returned to play at the end of last month and looked good on a line with Bulis, even recording a goal and an assist in the last two games he played. But his injuries have put his development behind that of Bulis and Zednik, and when Zednik recently returned from his own injury, a groin strain that knocked him out for 19 games, Svejkovsky was pulled from the lineup to make room for his friend. He has watched the Capitals' last three games -- all wins -- from the stands as a healthy scratch.
"It's just the way our lines are set up at the moment -- we have two scoring lines, a checking line and a bang and crash line," Coach Ron Wilson said. "He's a scorer, so there's nowhere to put him at the moment. Of course, our team has an unfortunate way of sorting these kinds of problems out with injuries. He just has to be patient. It's not that he's played poorly, it's that other people have played well and played a lot more.
"We put Zed back in on that line because we've seen a real chemistry between him and Buli. We haven't seen it all that much, because one of them has usually been injured, but when they were together earlier this season, it was unbelievable, and you can start to see it happening again."
Bulis and Zednik have combined for six points in Washington's last three games, complementing the more responsible Konowalchuk with their speed and enthusiasm. Bondra believes Bulis is the best young player on the Capitals' roster, even though he was drafted behind Svejkovsky, and Wilson describes Bulis as "definitely a future star; he's just a pleasure to watch." Zednik doesn't have the same kind of dimensions to his game, although his greatest assets -- a booming slap shot, a nose for scoring opportunities and an amazing strength on his skates -- lead many to believe he could be the Capitals' next Bondra.
Off the ice, the differences between Bulis and Zednik seem to melt. Older teammates joke that they share a brain, and while that might be an exaggeration, it is certainly not a baseless theory. On road trips, Bulis, Zednik and Svejkovsky hang out as a threesome, but at home Svejkovsky can usually be found with his longtime girlfriend, April. That leaves Bulis and Zednik to forage for fun on their own: driving their cars, poring over the latest looks from their favorite designers (Hugo Boss, Armani, Versace) and always, always laughing.
Unlike in the NBA, where rookies often roll out new cars and clothes -- and make more money than their hockey counterparts -- this is somewhat unusual behavior in the NHL, which values modesty over flash. Veteran teammates constantly give the threesome a hard time over their seemingly endless rounds of purchases, although all three also routinely send money home to their families in Eastern Europe.
When Bulis signed his $650,000-a-year contract, the money allowed his father, who worked cleaning trucks, to quit his job. Svejkovsky's father still works as a hockey coach, but Svejkovsky -- who is also making $650,000 this season -- is building his family a house in the Czech Republic, where he grew up in cramped apartments.
"I remember when I was 7 years old coming home all angry because my father was upset with the way I played in a hockey game," Svejkovsky said. "I stomped in to the apartment and told my mother that when I grew up I was going to be good enough to play hockey professionally and that I was going to make so much money I would build us a house. I never forgot that."
Part of the new generation of Eastern Europeans in the NHL, all three players came to North America as teenagers to play junior hockey. It's a much different path than that of an older Czech player such as Capitals center Michal Pivonka, who had to defect in order to play here and who jumped straight into the then-mostly Canadian NHL knowing no English.
But the open system has its challenges as well. Bulis left his home in Pardubice, Czech Republic -- the same town in which Buffalo goaltender Dominik Hasek used to play -- when he was just 16 years old. Landing in Canada when he spoke barely any English was difficult enough, but the real culture shock came with the lifestyle he saw as compared with his communist childhood.
"My dad was okay with me coming over, but my mom was worried about my education," Bulis said. "But really, you get a lot more from a life like this than if I had gone to more school back home. You live in another country, you learn another language, and the lifestyle, it's just completely different."
It is a lifestyle all three still are growing into. In Svejkovsky and April, teammates see the first hint of the threesome settling down, although it will probably take a few more years for any of them to fully assimilate to life in the NHL. They aren't in any real rush, of course -- why should they be, when there's this much fun to be had?
"The three of them just feed off each other, and in turn they bring this great enthusiasm to the entire team," General Manager George McPhee said. "It's very unusual to have three players of this talent level at this age basically from the same background. Really, I've never come across anything like them before. I'm not sure anyone has."
May 7, 2010; 6:18 AM ET
| Tags: Adam Oates, Capitals, Jan Bulis, Peter Bondra, Richard Zednik, Washington Capitals
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