WINNIPEG – There’s a simple reason why Ondrej Pavelec wanted to be a goalie.
“I was on the ice all the time,” the Winnipeg Jets netminder said with a smile after Saturday’s practice. “In a game, that’s what I like, to be part of it all the time.”
Pavelec has logged plenty of ice time this NHL season with his 3,120 minutes seventh among goalies after Friday’s games.
Along the way, the five-year veteran has played in 54 games and has a career-best 24 wins (24-21-7). With 16 games remaining on the Jets’ schedule, he should eclipse the career-high 58 games he played for the Atlanta Thrashers last season.
That’s a lot of hockey for the 24-year-old, who first stepped on the rink in his hometown of Kladno in the Czech Republic when he was about five or six years old.
“I went to the rink a couple times and I tried to learn to skate and I pushed the chairs (down the ice),” Pavelec recalled. “Once they didn’t have a goalie and they brought the hockey gear into the dressing room and asked everybody who wants to try it. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was trying it and I stayed with it.”
His father, Vaclav, who owns a home construction and renovation company in the city of about 70,000 near Prague, soon became his coach.
“He didn’t take it easy on me, for sure,” said Pavelec, who has a 2.77 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.
He credits his father and mother Marcela, a nurse, with helping him achieve his hockey goals by driving him to practices, games and school.
“You need the support from your parents because it takes a lot of time, takes a lot of money, as well,” Pavelec said. “It’s not easy. I knew a lot of guys and they were good hockey players, but they didn’t have that luck. The parents were too busy and they didn’t have the time for them.”
In 2005, he left home to play two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“I think it was more harder for my parents than me,” he said. “But it was my choice and I was excited.”
With only a smattering of English he’d picked up at school, the first year was tough, although he had a Slovakian teammate on whom he relied for translation.
Drafted in the second round (41st overall) by the Thrashers in the 2005, Pavelec has steadily improved his English and his game.
He won a Calder Cup championship with the AHL Chicago Wolves in 2007-08 and started getting regular duty with Atlanta in 2009-10.
But it was a moment away from the action that thrust Pavelec into the spotlight.
Just two minutes into a game against Washington on Oct. 8, 2010, Pavelec was standing near his crease as the play was at the other end of the ice when he suddenly collapsed backwards.
Unconscious, he was taken off the ice on a stretcher and sent to hospital by ambulance.
He was awake when they arrived and doctors never did find out the cause of the fainting spell. He watched a replay in the hospital to see what happened.
“I just remember the national anthem and then I woke up in the ambulance,” he said. “It’s something I don’t want to see anymore.”
His health has been fine ever since and he’s enjoying both work and play in the Manitoba capital.
It was a mutual interest in soccer that led Pavelec to become friends with Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov.
“We’re always talking about soccer,” Burmistrov said. “He’s a really nice guy, just friendly and nice to everyone.”
“Nice” is a common word used to describe Pavelec.
Jets backup goalie Chris Mason has seen a lot of goalies during his 10-year career and said Pavelec’s strength is his personality on and off the ice.
“We all love him in here,” Mason said. “For him to have learned that kind of calmness and coolness at such a young age, especially at this level, I think it’s wonderful.
“He’s just ahead of his years, in my opinion, with his mental side of the game now.”
Mason also sees Pavelec’s maturity when they go out to dinner and fans come up to them.
“He talks to everybody,” Mason said. “He’s just a pure nice guy.
“I’ve played with guys and they maybe get a little big-headed because they’re a hockey player. But he has none of that. He’s just a normal guy and he comes across like that to everybody.”
Jets coach Claude Noel didn’t know much about Pavelec when he took over the club this season, but he’s grown to like him a lot.
“He has great demeanour,” Noel said. “He has a lot of poise, a lot of confidence. He’s not overly hard on himself, very balanced, and it shows in his game.”