Jakub Voracek’s ascension to NHL stardom in Philly had humble beginnings in Halifax, where he formed a lifelong bond with his devoted billet parents.
By Jason Buckland The phenom arrived in jeans and a T-shirt, all floppy blond hair, stepping out from a Ford Explorer. He was delivered personally by his GM. Stephen and Dawnelda Murray looked out and saw him, the teenager with the hype, the can’t-miss kid from the faraway land. It was the summer of 2006 in their quiet, middle-class neighbourhood in Cole Harbour, N.S. For years this had been Sidney Crosby’s town. Suddenly, a new No. 1 pick was on the scene. Jakub Voracek looked back and saw them, too, the big cop with the goatee, his bubbly wife with the smile that seemed to stretch clear to Halifax. Before him were two people he had never met and a house he had never set foot inside. For the next two years, it would be home. For the next two years, Stephen and Dawnelda would be Mom and Dad. “They are one of the big reasons why I am where I am right now,” Voracek said. “Every time I needed them, they’ve been there for me.”
Since 2001, the Murrays had been billet parents for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, roles that often seemed like full-time jobs but came with only a small monthly stipend and a few team tickets as compensation. For years they had housed some of the Mooseheads’ top junior players, teenage kids from out of town who found a warm bed and warmer home in a finished bedroom down in the Murrays’ basement. But Voracek was different from the rest. Long before the Czech forward became one of the NHL’s top players – a 2014-15 first team all-star who in July signed an eight-year, $66-million extension after a breakout year with the Philadelphia Flyers – he was a dream in the wind, a rumour passed across the Atlantic from hockey men in Europe who swore this was the kid you had to see for yourself. Marcel Patenaude first heard his name from Guy Lapointe, the former Montreal Canadien and Hall of Fame defenseman. “He told me about this incredible player playing in the Czech Republic,” Patenaude said. Patenaude, who was then the Mooseheads’ GM, needed a spark for his team. Halifax finished only two games over .500 the previous season. So Patenaude followed up with Petr Svoboda, the longtime NHLer who was now working as an agent and advisor to many of the Czech Republic’s most sought-after talents. Tell me, he said, about Jakub Voracek. Patenaude was sold, and after a trade with the Rimouski Oceanic, he secured for the Mooseheads the first pick in the 2006 CHL import draft. He would get his guy. Voracek was on his way to Halifax, but of course this was major junior, and in major junior a foreign player can star on the ice but not before his team can first find him a place to live. Patenaude had a long roster of billet parents to choose from, but Voracek was as prized an asset as his team had ever had. He needed a couple that could be firm but welcoming, kind but nurturing, too. He needed Stephen and Dawnelda. The Murrays were up to the task, though the assignment was unlike many that had come before. “This young boy was arriving in a different country, and if you’re listening to the Mooseheads, he was going to be ‘The Next One’ as far as the organization goes,” Stephen said. “I was looking at it as a pretty big responsibility. There was no question we were going to have to take on the role of surrogate parents here.” Voracek pulled up to the Murray home with one neatly packed suitcase and all the anxiety and worry that would accompany a 17-year-old in a new place. “I was flying to Canada for the first time,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect at all.” For the Murrays, apprehension by their new housemate came as no surprise. What was a challenge to them, however, was communication. Voracek knew so little English then that Dawnelda would have to feed the boy at first by opening the fridge and instructing him to point at what food he would like to eat. Little things helped the relationship grow. Another Czech Moosehead player, D-man Jiri Suchy, lived just down the street in Cole Harbour and would come over to translate and help Voracek acclimate to life in Nova Scotia. The Murrays believe they broke the ice best with Voracek when his sister and her daughter came to visit from the Czech Republic and stayed at the house for more than a week. “From the first day I stepped into the door, I knew how good of people they were,” Voracek said. “They welcomed me with open hands.”
Voracek’s English strengthened as he picked up phrases in the dressing room and on television, and with that he drew closer to Stephen and Dawnelda. He began to reveal to them the bright, charismatic kid he was in the Czech Republic. One evening, he devised a classic prank. After dinner each night, Voracek Skyped with his father, Milo, back home, and Stephen decided he wanted to be able to speak a little phrase to Voracek’s dad in his native language. No problem, Voracek said, so Stephen asked him to write out the proper way to ask of Voracek’s father in Czech, “How are you doing tonight?” Stephen practised and practised, and finally when Milo appeared onscreen Voracek retreated behind Stephen but kept near enough that he could be seen in the chat’s video window. Stephen spoke the line, but Milo and his son broke into hysterics. “What happened, Jake?” Stephen wondered. “Did I get it wrong?” He’d been had. Voracek had instead written out a phrase for Stephen that can’t be printed in The Hockey News. It was a small moment, but it told Stephen and Dawnelda they had in their home a young kid becoming much more than just a boy passing through. For the Mooseheads, Voracek was as advertised. He led them in scoring during both his seasons in Halifax, and it was clear NHL stardom would arrive quickly. During the 2007 draft, Voracek watched in the Murrays’ basement when the Columbus Blue Jackets selected him seventh overall. He was off but not forgotten. Stephen and Dawnelda, who have since retired from the Mooseheads billet program, have kept their uncommon bond with Voracek. They visited him in Columbus and, when he was traded to the Flyers in 2011, did the same in Philadelphia. Voracek, now 26, enjoyed his first truly great NHL season last year. His 81 points tied him for fourth in the league. Yet when he can’t connect with his real family, who still live in the Czech Republic, Voracek has another set of parents to dial. “He calls us ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ affectionately,” Stephen said. “Our conversations always finish up with, ‘I love you.’ ”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Season preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.