By Helene St. James, Detroit Free Press
Martin Frk has a way of making people root for him. It’s his affability, his smile, his drive to get better.
Take Todd Nelson, who coached Frk the past two seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins: Nelson was among those thrilled to watch Frk excel through exhibition season and earn a job with the Detroit Red Wings.
“He gets to the rink first all the time,” Nelson said “If anything, we had to scale him back from his workouts. Just to see him progress over the last couple of years, it’s hard not for a coaching staff to be happy with his game right now. He’s got a great shot, we all know that. But it is the plays he is making on the walls, breaking the puck out, making smart decisions with the puck in the offensive end, that is rewarding to see.”
During the summer Frk considered continuing his hockey career overseas.Now he’s in the top-nine mix and on a power play unit in the NHL. He’s made the opening night roster for the Oct. 5 game Little Caesars Arena, incidentally Frk’s 24th birthday. Credit his determination: Frk expanded his dimension beyond that of his biggest asset, a right-handed shot so hard that Nelson said “there aren’t many takers” in practices to serve as a net-front screen for Frk.
But Frk showed during the preseason he can make plays along the board to spring Dylan Larkin, leading to scoring opportunities. The line, with Anthony Mantha on the other wing, was the Wings’ best of the exhibition season.
“I love playing with Frky,” Larkin said. “Obviously he’s got the great shot, but he works really hard. He’s fast and he’s got great hands. One thing I’ve noticed most in being a centerman is when he gets the puck on the boards, he is really good at the small pass where he finds the centerman in the middle. Playing wing that is a really hard play to make, but he seems to be doing a great job of it. He adds a huge dynamic to our line. And I think his speed is underrated.”
Opponents have to respect Frk’s shot. Even if isn’t always accurate, there’s a good chance for a rebound. And when it is on net, teammates like their chances.
“I would go on Frky’s shot over the goalie every time,” Mantha said.
It’s been quite a 12 months for Frk: Waived last year by the Wings, he got picked up by Carolina only to go back on waivers after a two-game audition. The Wings reclaimed him (they’d drafted him at 49th overall in 2012) and assigned him to Grand Rapids. What came next showed Frk’s character.
“He came back to GR and worked very hard on his game,” Nelson said. “We ended up winning a championship and he was a big part of that. It’s always a blessing in disguise when you go through things like that - he was disappointed to get sent down, but also he was able to refine his game.
“Marty has always had a good attitude. He’s always been positive. Yeah, he gets up and down like any player if things aren’t going well, but he is starting to learn to keep it even keel. This is a great opportunity for him and he realizes that. He is working extremely hard to do the right things and he looks very comfortable out there.”
Frk, a Czech native, was a restricted free agent this summer. Even as he had just added an AHL championship on his resume he wasn’t sure re-signing with the Wings organization was a good move because it didn’t look like there would be much of an opening on the 2017-18 Detroit squad.
“I was thinking of going back to Europe,” Frk said. “But I talked with my girlfriend and with my agent, too, and said, let’s try for one more year. You can make it or you will not make it. So far I make good decision. I did want to make the Red Wings for sure. It’s a great organization so I am really happy that I tried for one more year.”
By the time the preseason began, there was an opening as Andreas Athanasiou rejected a two-year, $3.8 million offer and did not report to training camp. Wings coach Jeff Blashill put Frk on a good line and on a power play unit, and by the end of September, the Wings told Frk to get a place on a month-to-month basis.
“I had Blash back in the AHL, and he always told me I have to be good on the wall, try to protect the puck and then find the center,” Frk said. “So I am trying to do that and help Larks so he can just pick up the puck and go full speed. I want to make sure I play good every game and try to help the team win.
“I am really happy I can be here. I was really excited about the rink - this is a treat for the players, for the fans, too. I am just enjoying it and trying to have fun on the ice with the guys as well. You know, just living a dream.”
Frk smiled as he talked about living his dream; it is part of why so many people have a soft spot for him.
“He’s got that funny smile, he doesn’t have a tooth,” Larkin said. “He gets pumped up when he scores which is something we need - he brings a lot of excitement in our locker room. It’s great to see.”