“He’s a pretty sharp-dressed guy”, Kris Knoblauch says with a chuckle. Knoblauch is the Head Coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Erie Otters and he’s referring to defenseman Erik Černák. “Our Euro players tend to be a little more so than our other players.”
It’s no secret that Europeans tend to dress better than their North American counterparts. Černák may only be 18-years-old, but Europeans are born and raised in a culture that fosters well-dressed behavior both on and off the ice. “One thing that separates Erik is – as coaches, we want our players to be pro whether it’s their rest, nutrition, practice, spending time in the weight room… Erik is a pro with his leadership,“ Knoblauch tells The Hockey Writers.
He’s 6-foot-3, weighs 203 pounds and plays defense for the Erie Otters. Crossing overseas from Slovakia to play hockey, Černák’s size clearly isn’t the only thing that makes him stand out. The Los Angeles Kings drafted him at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft during the second round at No. 43 overall. Whether or not they noticed him for his undeniable fashion sense or for his hockey talent, someone in that organization noticed him and that’s all that matters.
European Defenseman Defies Stereotype
Černák played his first game in the OHL on October 28, 2015, against the Barrie Colts at the Molson Centre and I happened to be there that evening to watch. In all honesty, he seemed pretty nervous, but that didn’t stop the opposition from falling to their knees every time they tried to check him. “There’s a lot of stereotypes about Europeans being less physical and focused on the offense,” says Knoblauch. However, ever since the first day Černák stepped on the North American ice surface, he’s been proving that this is indeed just a stereotype.
Speaking of North American ice, why did he decide to play overseas anyways? European players who get drafted into the NHL have a number of options to choose from when deciding on which league to play in before they make an NHL appearance as a defenseman. Some decide to stay in Europe, as seen by Gabriel Carlsson, who was also drafted in 2015, but by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Going in at No. 29 overall, the Swedish defenseman is currently playing for Linköping HC in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). “I think the important thing about the OHL is it’s a good bridge to the AHL,” Knoblauch tells The Hockey Writers. “The game is very similar and it’s a very physical game… it’s more of a stepping stone for the AHL.”
Futa Pick Meets the NHL’s Market Demand for Defensemen
In May 2014, Michael Futa was promoted by the Kings to VP of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel. Before that, he served as their Director of Amateur Scouting for seven years. He’s a veteran scout with a diverse understanding of today’s NHL market demands and he’s well aware of the rising value that European players bring to the ice surface.
Černák has Futa pick written all over him and in a recent interview between Futa and the LA Kings Insider, he told them that it’s been really good for Černák to come over and play the North American style, but that he also needs to get more consistency. He also said that his A-games and A-shifts are outstanding, but there are some dips… what does he mean by this, though? “I’m just talking on speculation here and Erik has been pretty consistent for us… I think maybe playing with an older league last year and with him being younger, there’s more dips and big mistakes,” Knoblauch tells The Hockey Writers. “He is a rookie, but plays like a veteran because of his talent.”
In fact, he played in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland from December 26, 2015, to January 5, 2016, for team Slovakia, as well as the 2015 IIHF World Juniors. For the 2016 tournament, he served as Slovakia’s Alternate Captain, leading their defensive corps.
— IIHF WJC (@iihf_wjc) December 25, 2015
Easing the Transition to the North American Ice Surface
Černák isn’t the only Futa pick currently playing on Erie’s roster either. Jake Marchment plays center, but was drafted a year before Černák was. His role with the Otters isn’t just to play center. He also acts as a role model for Černák while he tours the OHL. Knoblauch says the two are roommates and that “it worked out really well. We have an LA prospect who’s been here for two seasons. It’s a good transition for Erik. It’s somebody to help Erik feel more comfortable.”
While Marchment continues to prove himself as a King’s asset off the ice, Černák too continues to prove himself an asset on the ice. “I just think they (the Los Angeles Kings) wanted him to play in all situations… to be one of our key players for our team – he’s played a really big part of our team this year,” Knoblauch goes on. Like the other King’s prospects currently playing in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), Černák is also working on his 200-foot game. “I think it’s really good. He’s really used as a shutdown defenseman a lot,” says Knoblauch.
In terms of what Coach Knoblauch would like him to work on, “offensively, I think he can chip in more,” he continues to tell The Hockey Writers. “I think he’s a tremendous skater. As big as he is, his skating is really a strong asset for him. He’s on his way to becoming a pro.”
Černák is certainly well on his way to becoming a pro defenseman. Where he lacks in speaking English, he makes up for with his wardrobe. Constantly communicating professionalism with every move he makes, Černák serves as an excellent role model for both European and North American hockey players aspiring to play hockey professionally. Furthermore, the person who drafted him into the National Hockey League is a testament to his character, making it come at no surprise to hear the amount of respect that his major junior coach Knoblauch has for him.