You have to hand it to Daniel Vladar: he didn't let anything stop him from starting his career in North America early.
The Czech national is one of the top-rated goaltenders in the 2015 draft, but because of the position he plays, he is not allowed to play major junior – the CHL banned European goalies, beginning with the 2014 Import Draft. Major junior has since been aging out import stoppers, with Germany's Marvin Cupper (Shawinigan) being the last ever to see action.
So instead, Vladar will take his talents to the United States League, where he will suit up for the Chicago Steel.
“I know that Chicago is such a nice city," he said. "Next month I’ll fly there for camp and I’m so excited about it. I will do my best for team success.”
Vladar will be greeted by a former NHL goalie in Peter Mannino, who was recently hired as an assistant coach by the squad, plus a pretty good 2015 NHL draft prospect up front in Tanner Laczynski, an Ohio State commit and USHL second All-Rookie Team member this season. The Steel also add Minnesota high school hot-shots Jake Jaremko and Max Zimmer full-time.
Back home in the Czech Republic, Vladar got some excellent experience, suiting up against men for eight games with Kladno, the iconic team that has fallen down to the nation's second division recently. But that doesn't mean the squad is devoid of familiar names.
“Of course it was a very nice experience for me," Vladar said. "I played in Kladno with very good players from the NHL like Tomas Kaberle and Jan Hlavac. I saw what they do before games and practice and I learned a lot.”
The most famous NHL connection in Kladno is actually the owner, however: Jaromir Jagr. Needless to say, interactions with the sure-fire Hall of Famer were also precious for the young goaltender.
“He’s always training with us in the summer," Vladar said. "He’s our Czech legend, like a god. When I see him I just open my mouth (in awe). What he is doing is amazing. He’s a really good person and a really good player.”
Vladar is looking like a pretty good player himself. He more than held his own with Kladno, registering a .933 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average in those eight games, while also playing a bunch of games for Kladno's junior squad. At 6-foot-5, he has that enviable monster pro frame and that's not all.
“He's super-athletic," said Chicago assistant GM Matt Moran. "Laterally, he's very strong. He's a little lanky, but we think with a more regimented workout routine he'll add that bulk."
Vladar would still like to improve on his rebound control and puckhandling and he'll get plenty of opportunity to do that in Chicago. Though many USHLers go on to play college hockey – including Europeans – Vladar is ineligible for the NCAA, thanks to those eight games of pro he played.
But he would be able to play in the AHL or ECHL in 2016-17, should the NHL team that drafts him prefer to see what he can do against men over here.
Vladar will be part of a growing Euro cohort in the USHL, as fellow Czech and 2015 prospect Ales Stezka is bound for Sioux Falls, while Slovakian prospect Adam Huska already saw action this season with Green Bay.
"The import ban has really helped us," Moran said. "We're lucky to have him."