Soudek settles in to new hockey home

Off-season addition Robin Soudek looks to bring a solid two-way game to the Chilliwack Bruins. The Czech import was acquired from the Edmonton Oil Kings in April.

In a different time and place, Karel Soudek might have come to North America to play professional hockey.

He wanted to, and the Vancouver Canucks wanted him to.

In an alternate universe, Soudek may have become one of the all-time Vancouver greats, talked about in the same way locals talk about Mattias Ohlund, Jyrki Lumme and Doug Lidster.

But taking your talents overseas was out of the question in communist Czechoslovakia, so Karel stayed home. By the time he was finally free to cross the pond, Karel’s window had closed.

The NHL dream was gone.

Listed at five-foot-11 and a slight 176 pounds, Karel persevered, carving out a lengthy career as a mobile defenceman.

He split 17 years between the Czech, Austrian and German leagues before finally calling it a career after the 2004-05 season, at 42 years old.

Robin Soudek was born in 1991, two years after the Velvet Revolution facilitated the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. The political considerations that hindered his father’s career were non-existent as Robin grew up.

The youngster lived in the locker rooms of Karel’s teams, soaking up the sights and sounds of professional hockey.

“I was at the rink all the time, running around after every practice,” Robin said with a grin. “Getting a chance to talk to the big dogs on the team. I talked to those guys like they were my friends, my best buddies. It was really cool.”

It was also cool having direct access to his father’s hockey knowledge. From the time Robin started playing hockey, he could always rely on Karel to supply timely advice.

“He watched me a little different than the other dads did,” Robin explained. “He was more able to point out bad habits and tell me what I was supposed to do. He helped me a lot and he’s still helping me.”

In the summer of 2008 Robin was offered the opportunity that Karel never had. Selected by the Edmonton Oil Kings in the CHL Euro Draft, Soudek was soon on an airplane, heading for the Canadian prairies and the Western Hockey League.

“We (Robin and Karel) talked about it for a while and we agreed it would be the best step for me,” Robin said of a decision that wasn’t all that hard to make.

Off the ice, the transition was not an easy one.

First off, Robin had to leave behind his hometown of Ceske Budejovice, a place he describes as the most beautiful city in the Czech Republic.

“Everything important that happened in my life happened in my city,” Robin said. “The first year is tough for everyone. But I talked to my family on Skype a lot, and there were less tears this year than when I went away the first time.”

Robin’s older sister, Andrea, taught him some simple English phrases to get him started. But the language barrier was daunting.

“I listened to the guys talking in the dressing room and I had English-speaking billets, so I picked up a lot that way,” Robin said. “It was tough at first trying to figure out what the coach was saying. But you have to learn, so you learn.”

Robin could have let it get to him.

Bruins fans certainly remember the cautionary tale of David Hoda, a young defenceman who came to Chilliwack in the summer of 2007 and was gone by Christmas because he couldn’t overcome the culture shock.

But Robin battled the homesickness and found refuge on the ice, playing 63 therapeutic games in his rookie season. He played another 61 last year, setting career highs in goals (11) and points (24).

On April 29, the Bruins acquired the 19-year-old from the Edmonton Oil Kings in exchange for a sixth round pick in the 2011 bantam draft. The same day, they cut ties with Swede Alexander Wiklund, anticipating similar play from Soudek, who is one year younger.

Getting traded is always a shock, but Soudek was thrilled with the move.

The Oil Kings finished second-to-last in the league last year with a dismal 16-43-4-9 record. The Bruins finished 32-33-2-5 and appear poised to ascend into the WHL’s upper class.

“Where I fit in, you’d have to ask (Bruins coach) Marc Habscheid,” Robin said. “But I think this is a team that is getting better and better and I’m glad to be here to try and help them.”