Red Wings prospect Martin Frk has a lot of what hockey scouts call upside. To realize his potential, he will have to listen, learn and labor his way through the development process.
Story by Mark Newman
People are not born hockey players any more than people are born artists, writers or doctors. Some people may be naturally more creative or think more scientifically than others, but ultimately it's experience – perseverance, practice and purpose – that allows one to rise in a chosen profession.
As a top prospect of the Detroit Red Wings, Martin Frk has a lot of natural ability. Ask Frk (pronounced ferk) about his cannon-like shot and he will tell you that he has no explanation for it, almost as if he was born with a hockey stick in his hands and could blast pucks through the back of the net at birth.
"I don't really know," Frk said. "I didn't do anything special – nothing at all. It just came like that."
Frk wasn't born with skates on his feet, but he came close.
Growing up in the Czech Republic, he went skating on a lake with his father for the first time when he was only 2-1/2 years old. His first practice was when he was three, and he didn't exactly embrace the notion of playing organized hockey.
"My dad said I didn't like it," Frk chuckled. "When my parents bought my first gear, they said I didn't like wearing it because I only liked skating in my pants, which is kind of funny now. Fortunately, I got to like hockey as I got older."
His skills continued to progress the more he played. One would assume his shot improved with time and strength, but Frk cannot specify anything out of the ordinary that would explain his ability to already shoot the puck with pro-caliber authority.
He admits that he spent a lot of time studying other players. "When I was in the rink, I liked to watch the older guys," he said. "It was fun for me to see what they did on the ice."
In time, others started watching Frk. At age 16, he was the leading scorer for HC Karlovy Vary in the Czech Extraliga and he skated for the Czech Republic in the Under-18 World Championship, drawing the attention of scouts from Canadian junior hockey teams. When the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League drafted him in 2010, he jumped at the chance to come to North America.
"I told my parents I wanted to go and try to someday make the NHL," Frk recalled.
The move wasn't the easiest. "I didn't speak English at all," said Frk, who on top of his linguistic liability lost a tooth after taking a snapshot in the face. "The first half of the season was kind of hard because I didn't know what to do." Still, he finished as Halifax's second-leading scorer with 22 goals and 50 points as a rookie.
His second season in 2011-12 presented a different challenge. He suffered a concussion when he was elbowed in the head during a preseason game while attempting a spin-o-rama. He missed almost half of the season, then took a while to return to form.
"I couldn't do anything for three months, so I wasn't in any shape to play," he said. "I found out really quick that I wasn't like I had been in training camp. Everything seemed way faster."
Fortunately, he showed no residual effects of post-concussion syndrome. He finished with 16 goals and 29 points in only 34 games, but the missed time dampened the enthusiasm of scouting reports that had Frk as a potential top-10 NHL draft pick.
Passed over by every team in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Frk was selected in the second round by Detroit with the Red Wings' first pick (49th overall).
Frk was determined to show the Wings that they had made the right choice. Everything came together last season, his third and final year in Halifax, when he played on the Mooseheads' top line alongside center Nathan MacKinnon and winger Jonathan Drouin. MacKinnon was the No. 1 overall pick by Colorado in this year's draft while Drouin went No. 3 overall to Tampa Bay.
"I played with probably the best two players in the Q league, so it was kind of easy for me," Frk said. "I couldn't have had a better year."
Frk had 35 goals and 84 points in 56 games during the regular season, many coming off his blistering shot that was often set up by Drouin (41 goals and 105 points in 49 games) and/or MacKinnon (32 goals and 75 points in 44 games).
Basically, the trio was unstoppable.
"I just tried to stay somewhere in the slot and wait for the puck to come to me," he said. "I would listen to them most of the time because I wanted to make them happy. When everyone is happy on the line, you're going to play better."
The Mooseheads won the President Cup as the playoff champion of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, sweeping all 12 games in the three rounds. Halifax absolutely dominated the first two rounds, outscoring its opponents 46-9.
Halifax went on to win the 2013 Memorial Cup, the four-team round-robin tournament that also featured the London Knights, champions of the Ontario Hockey League; the Portland Winterhawks, champions of the Western Hockey League; and the host Saskatoon Blades.
"We had a great team that played amazing the whole year," Frk said. "We never stressed about winning because we didn't lose too many games. Even in the playoffs, we only lost one game."
His highlights included setting franchise records with five goals and eight points in an 11-1 QMJHL playoff victory over St. John’s, then scoring a hat trick and an assist in a 9-2 Memorial Cup trouncing of London. "It was amazing," he said of his eight-point night. "When I started getting all those points, they just kept passing it to me so I could get more and more, and I had the best game of my life."
Still, Frk was often overshadowed by his highly touted teammates. He insists it never bothered him. "I didn't care," he said. "I knew they were good, and for me, it was just perfect because someday I will look back and be able to say I played with them."
Of course, Frk knows things may not be so easy this season, but his motivation has never been higher. "I'm very excited for my first pro season," he said. "It will be a big step from junior hockey, but hopefully I will do well and our team will do well, too."
He knows he has work to do. Although scouts have praised his tools – his shot, his hands, his vision, his strength on the puck – they feel he needs to improve his conditioning, his skating and his defense.
Frk was tired after a long season, but he went back to the Czech Republic this summer for only a couple of weeks before heading to Montreal, where he trained alongside several NHL players including skaters Martin Havlat, Milan Michalek and Michael Frolik and goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Ondrej Pavelec.
"I spent a lot of time in the gym," said Frk, who is striving to improve his core strength and foot speed. My legs don't always go like they're supposed to go. I have to be ready for the season."
His defensive play is likely to be a work-in-progress. "With the Mooseheads, we didn't have to worry too much about defense – it was all offense," he said. "Now I might be on the third line in Grand Rapids, so I will have to learn to play defense more. That's my job now."
Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill is confident that Frk is up to the challenge, but concedes it might take time.
"He's very competitive," Blashill said. "He wants to be a good player and with that, he's hard on himself. He will have to learn to work through the frustration that it's harder to have success in pro than in junior hockey."
Blashill believes the AHL will be a good test for Frk.
"He came from a line that had three great players and every night they had the puck all the time. Now he's going to have to learn how to create the same offense, but in tighter areas and against tighter checking, and that will be a process," Blashill said. "For Frk to improve, he's going to have to stay with it."
Like every AHL rookie, Frk will learn the value of forechecking and backchecking – in essence, the importance of playing both ends of ice.
"Everybody needs to learn to be a little bit better defensively as they move up every level, and he's no different," Blashill said. "He's highly competitive with lots of ability, and I think he's going to be a very good player in the end. How fast his adjustment will be, we'll see."
Frk hopes to be a quick study. "Everyone knows the Red Wings have the best organization. They know what they're doing with their young guys when they send them to Grand Rapids and let them play a couple of years here," he said. "I'm happy to be here. If the coach tells me to do something, I'll do it. You have to learn as fast as you can."