Rookie goaltender Petr Mrazek has sparkled during his first professional season.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
When Petr Mrazek won his debut in a Red Wings uniform, his Detroit teammates could hardly contain their enthusiasm.
“He's awesome," said forward Cory Emmerton, who was one of five Red Wings to score in the 5-1 road victory over the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 7. "I didn't really know what to expect, but he was great. He had no problem playing the puck. He looked very confident. He made huge stops.”
"Mrazek did a great job in net, very stellar, calm back there,” said defenseman Niklas Kronwall. "He never really panicked whatsoever. I thought he was square to the puck all night, kept control of the rebounds. I thought he looked really good.”
"He played well,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “He really handles the puck well. That makes it easy for the D. The other thing I liked about him is he didn't generate second chances for them. The puck wasn't coming off him. It was soft; it was under control. Good for the kid. It's not an easy league to play in.”
Mrazek, who was a week away from his 21st birthday, became the youngest goalie to start for the Red Wings since Chris Osgood was 20 years, 10 months, 19 days old when he made his 1993-94 debut.
He is just the third goalie under the age of 21 to play for the Red Wings in the last 30 years and is among the 10 youngest ever to suit up for Detroit. Only Mrazek and Bill Beveridge (1929) won their NHL debuts.
Mrazek, who was perfect in his first Detroit start except for a second-period goal by Alex Pietrangelo, became only the second goalie in history to win his ECHL, AHL and NHL debuts in the same season. He joined Alex Auld, who accomplished the feat in 2001-02.
His path from junior hockey in the OHL to the NHL covered just nine months and 11 days.
Mrazek has been well-groomed for the opportunity.
Very athletic with almost cat-like reflexes, Mrazek is a tiger of technique. He is aggressive on his angles and is strong down low. His side-to-side post coverage is excellent, his ability to absorb shots and to control rebounds most impressive. He usually handles the puck without hurting himself.
But it’s not his blocker, glove hand or even his pads that set him apart. For all his potential and propensity for proper technique, it is what is between his ears that makes him special.
“This kid has been the berries everywhere he's been – he just wins,” Babcock said. “Nothing seems to faze him. Grand Rapids was (2-3-1-1) when he arrived there. And then all he did was win. All he did was come there and change the whole thing.”
Cool, calm and collected, Mrazek has had ice in his veins for as long as he can remember.
A native of Ostrava, Czech Republic, Mrazek credits his parents, Karel and Lenka, for pointing him in the right direction and giving him a solid disposition.
“I wouldn’t be here without my parents," said Mrazek, speaking from a hockey perspective. “They went with me to practice, whether it was 6 or 7 in the morning, or if they needed to pick me up from school. They were such a big part of my life and they helped me however they could.”
His father was a professional soccer player who enjoyed playing goalie in men's hockey leagues. “When the Czechs won (the Winter Olympics) in Nagano in 1998, everybody wanted to be like (Dominik) Hasek and I wanted to be in net, too.
“We had lots of leagues around our house, so I started to play hockey.”
Mrazek was blessed with natural athleticism, but his father made sure that he learned to stay humble.
“He was always trying to keep me focused if I won a big game,” said Mrazek. “For example, after my first NHL game, I never saw him so happy, but he told me, ‘It’s OK to celebrate today, but tomorrow is a new day and it can happen a different way.’
“Even now, he is always telling me on the phone: ‘You’re the hero now, but tomorrow might be different.' He is always telling me to keep my feet on the ground, and I’m happy for that.”
Mrazek remembers that he started playing in net when he was six or seven years old.
“I had great coaching when I was in the Czech Republic,” said Mrazek. “I started with one coach, Petr Bolek, and I stayed with him until I left to play in Canada. That was a big help for me.”
Having the same coach for the better part of a decade meant that the endless practices – the countless drills, the verbal reminders – started paying off. “When you’re younger, you don’t think that much about technique,” said Mrazek. “He tried to show me some things and over time we learned whether I liked them or not.”
When he was 17, Mrazek decided to come to North America to play junior hockey.
“I talked about it for six months with my agent and my parents, if I should leave school and all my friends,” he said. “I had played juniors back home, but I saw my future as an NHL goaltender, and so it was an easy decision.”
He played three seasons for the Ottawa 67s in the OHL, becoming a workhorse his final two years. As with Bolek back home, Mrazek developed a close working relationship with 67s goalie coach Tom Dempsey.
“He had worked with Marc-Andre Fleury and helped send him to the NHL, so I was very thankful to be able to work with him,” said Mrazek. “When I first got there, I wasn’t the starting goaltender, but I worked with him every day and he helped give me a great chance to play every day.”
Mrazek was 33-15-3 in 52 games with a 2.84 GAA during the 2010-11 season and 30-13-6 in 50 games with a 2.84 GAA last season. Playing nearly every game proved beneficial to his development.
But his real breakout came last season during the World Junior Hockey Championship in Alberta, Canada, where his performance included a 52-save effort in a 5-2 win against the U.S. and ended with an overtime quarterfinal loss to Russia. He was named the top goaltender of the tournament.
“He was the goaltender of the tournament,” said Jiri Fischer, the Red Wings director of player development. “He was the guy who took all the spotlight and at the same time wasn't affected by the media, all the hype and 20,000 people at the games. He loved it. He thrived in that environment. He couldn't get enough of it.”
His performance was so highly regarded that the Czechs later named him their No. 3 goalie for the World Championship in Sweden.
It set the stage for his arrival on the pro scene, a step that would see him start this season in Toledo while Tom McCollum and Jordan Pearce battled it out in Grand Rapids.
Mrazek took the assignment in stride. In his eyes, he was just beginning his journey to play for the Red Wings, the team that had selected him in the fifth round (141st overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
“There’s a little luck in terms of who will pick you in the draft, but I am happy that I was drafted by the Red Wings,” said Mrazek. “They have one of the greatest histories in the NHL, and when you see how many great players have played for the Red Wings, you see why a lot of players want to be drafted by Detroit.”
Mrazek’s professional career started with a 2-1 record in Toledo, where he posted a 2.02 GAA.
“I went there thinking, ‘I have to go there and do my best, play every game hard and we’ll see what happens, if I will get called up by Grand Rapids.' I was happy when I got the chance after only two weeks into the season.”
Recalled by the Griffins, Mrazek proceeded to set a franchise record by winning his first six starts.
“Every goaltender wants to have a good start because it helps build your confidence,” he said. “With six straight wins, it was a great start. It showed that I could play here.”
He proceeded to get even better. In his seven starts during the month of December, Mrazek never allowed more than two goals. He posted a 1.71 GAA and an equally impressive .937 save percentage.
Registering the win for the Western Conference in the AHL All-Star Game on Jan. 28 was the start of an incredible week that saw Mrazek record his first pro shutout (1-0 vs. Abbotsford on Feb. 2), earn his first recall to Detroit (Feb. 3) and be named the AHL’s Player of the Week (Feb. 4).
Despite his success, he didn’t expect to earn a promotion to Detroit so early in his career.
“My dream was to play at least one NHL game – that would be very nice – but I wasn’t thinking about Detroit. I just wanted to get in some professional games here in Grand Rapids.”
The opportunity to make his NHL debut came when the Red Wings decided to give a night off to Jimmy Howard, who had started the first nine games of the season.
Mrazek, who stopped the first 14 shots he faced, didn’t look out of place.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he admitted. “For me, it was a dream come true and I wanted to enjoy every minute and have fun. I was just really excited to step onto the ice.”
He confessed he did get a little anxious in the closing moments of the contest.
“I felt comfortable the whole game, but the last 5-10 minutes when we were up 4-1, I kept thinking, ‘Make a couple more saves and the game will be over and you can have your first win.’ It was the best feeling.”
Mrazek experienced a bit of a sinking feeling in his second start 10 days later in Minnesota. After being kept off the scoreboard for nearly half of the game, the Wild scored three goals in a span of about four minutes to rally for a 3-2 victory.
“That was a tough few minutes,” said Mrazek. “We got up 2-0 and they got a lucky bounce and the game changed.”
Mrazek recovered and blanked the Wild the rest of the way, but Detroit was unable to get the equalizer.
“Every game is different. You can win 5-0 one night and lose the next one 3-1. If I give up four or five goals, I don’t panic. I try to stay focused. My job is still to stop the puck.”
Mrazek returned to Grand Rapids, not knowing if he would get another start this season with the Red Wings, but certain that he still had plenty of work to do.
He feels that he is continuing to improve under the tutelage of Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard and goaltending development coach Chris Osgood.
“They’re both really good goalie coaches, too, and I’m happy that I can practice with them,” said Mrazek. “You can learn something in every practice, from skating to how to handle the puck.”
Asked to single out the one area that he needs to improve the most, Mrazek declines. “I’m still working on it, so I’m not going to tell you,” he smiles. “There is always something to work on."