Tomas Plekanec is seeing another side to the NHL lockout.
As soon as it became clear the work stoppage would keep him from playing for the Montreal Canadiens this fall, the veteran centre jumped at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For the first time in a decade, the Czech is playing in his hometown for HC Kladno, where soldout crowds that include parents Pavel and Kveta have flocked to watch the locked-out stars.
"It's very special," Plekanec said Monday in a phone interview. "It's been a good experience. I'm happy to play hockey—I'm a hockey player—and unfortunately we're not able to play in the NHL."
Plekanec is among the most successful NHLers playing in Europe, with eight goals and 16 points in 12 games. The Knights of Kladno, a team owned by Jaromir Jagr, were aggressive in pursuing locked-out players and brought over Tomas Kaberle, Jiri Tlusty and Marek Zidlicky to go along with Jagr and Plekanec.
The initial wave of excitement that accompanied their return to Czech soil has been replaced by higher expectations from the fans and media.
"When you don't score for two games, it's in the papers," said Plekanec. "Every team basically we play against, if they beat us it's like they won the Olympics or Stanley Cup almost."
Kladno, which was third in the league standings Monday, is hardly the only team to feature NHL players. David Krejci and Ales Hemsky are suiting up for Pardubice while Vladimir Sobotka and Roman Cervenka are playing for Slavia Praha.
As much as Plekanec has enjoyed the experience in Kladno, he's hoping for a return to the Bell Centre soon. The 29-year-old, who spent the last lockout in the American Hockey League, would be surprised if this one forced him to spend the entire year abroad.
"Obviously you read some news in Canada and the States, and you hear people say 'Oh we're going to lose the season,' but I don't believe that," said Plekanec. "I can't believe that we would lose all season. I'm sure that they will find a solution and we will start to play pretty soon."
If that happens, Plekanec expects to have a leg up on players who have been sitting idle. NHL teams will likely only hold seven-day training camps after a collective bargaining agreement is signed.
Plekanec feared that he might develop bad habits if he didn't find somewhere to play during the lockout.
"I would get sick of just training and do nothing," he said. "I can't imagine to be just sitting at home and going to the gym every day and go play just some scrimmages. I wouldn't be able to do that. I wouldn't be able to stay in shape for that long, not to play games.
"It's going to be really hard for guys that they're not able to play anywhere."
More than 150 locked-out NHL players have signed deals in Europe, with varying results. Here's a look at a few that are having success overseas and some that are not:
Danny Briere and Claude Giroux, Eisbaren Berlin (Germany): The pair of Flyers forwards lived together in Philadelphia last season and have made themselves right at home in the German capital. In just four games, Briere has three goals and 11 points while Giroux has three goals and nine points. Not surprisingly, the team is on a three-game winning streak.
Ilya Kovalchuk, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL): Despite joining the team after it had already played six games, Kovalchuk quickly climbed the KHL's scoring chart. He's among the league leaders with seven goals and 19 points in 11 games—all while wearing the captain's C for SKA.
Rick Nash and Joe Thornton, Davos (Switzerland): The dynamic duo has picked up right where they left off during the 2004-05 lockout, when they starred for Davos. Both are scoring at a point per game rate and Nash has seven goals in eight games overall, showing no ill effects after suffering a minor shoulder injury early in his stay. However, Davos is struggling, sitting 10th in the 12-team league.
Max Pacioretty, Ambri Piotta (Switzerland): It ended up being a short stop in Europe for the Habs forward, who sought a release from the team last week after a three-game stint in the press box. Details were murky—Ambri said Pacioretty had the flu—but the club endured a 10-game losing streak during his stay, with Pacioretty scoring once in the five games he suited up for.
Evander Kane, Dinamo Minsk (KHL): The only locked-out NHLer from Canada to join the Russian-based KHL so far, Kane still hasn't registered a point in six games. Wearing sweater No. 98, the Winnipeg Jets winger has made an impact on the scoresheet with 41 penalty minutes, including a game misconduct for checking to the head on Monday.
Ondrej Pavelec, Bili Tygri Liberec (Czech Republic): It hasn't been a happy homecoming for the Jets goalie, who is playing for the second-worst team in the Czech Extraliga. Through eight games, Pavelec sported numbers well below his NHL average, with an .891 save percentage and 3.64 goals-against average.