Tomas Plekanec is seeing another side to the NHL lockout.
As soon as it became clear the work stoppage would keep him from playing for the Montreal Canadiens this fall, the veteran centre jumped at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For the first time in a decade, the Czech is playing in his hometown for HC Kladno, where sold-out crowds that include parents Pavel and Kveta have flocked to watch the locked-out stars.
"It's very special," Plekanec said Monday in a phone interview. "It's been a good experience. I'm happy to play hockey – I'm a hockey player – and, unfortunately, we're not able to play in the NHL."
Plekanec is among the most successful NHLers playing in Europe, with eight goals and 16 points in 12 games. The Knights of Kladno, a team owned by Jaromir Jagr, were aggressive in pursuing locked-out players and brought over Tomas Kaberle, Jiri Tlusty and Marek Zidlicky to go along with Jagr and Plekanec.
The initial wave of excitement that accompanied their return to Czech soil has been replaced by higher expectations from the fans and media.
"When you don't score for two games, it's in the papers," Plekanec said. "Every team basically we play against, if they beat us it's like they won the Olympics or Stanley Cup almost."
Kladno, which was third in the league standings Monday, is hardly the only team to feature NHL players. David Krejci and Ales Hemsky are suiting up for Pardubice while Vladimir Sobotka and Roman Cervenka are playing for Slavia Praha.
As much as Plekanec has enjoyed the experience in Kladno, he's hoping for a return to Montreal's Bell Centre soon. The 29-year-old, who spent the last lockout in the AHL, would be surprised if this one forced him to spend the entire year abroad.
"Obviously, you read some news in Canada and the States, and you hear people say 'Oh, we're going to lose the season,' but I don't believe that," Plekanec said. "I can't believe that we would lose all season. I'm sure that they will find a solution and we will start to play pretty soon."
More than 150 locked-out NHL players have signed deals in Europe, with varying results:
Danny Brière and Claude Giroux, Eisbaren Berlin (Germany): The pair of Flyers forwards lived together in Philadelphia last season and have made themselves right at home in the German capital. In just four games, Brière has 11 points, while Giroux has nine.
Ilya Kovalchuk, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL): Despite joining the team after it had already played six games, Kovalchuk quickly climbed the Russian league's scoring chart. He's among the leaders with seven goals and 19 points in 11 games.
Rick Nash and Joe Thornton, Davos (Switzerland): The dynamic duo has picked up right where they left off during the 2004-05 lockout, when they starred for Davos. Both are scoring at a point per game rate and Nash has seven goals in eight games overall.
Max Pacioretty, Ambri Piotta (Switzerland): It ended up being a short stop in Europe for the Habs forward, who sought a release from the team last week after a three-game stint in the press box.
Evander Kane, Dinamo Minsk (KHL): The only locked-out NHLer from Canada to join the Russian-based KHL so far, Kane still hasn't registered a point in six games.
Ondrej Pavelec, Bili Tygri Liberec (Czech Republic): It hasn't been a happy homecoming for the Jets goalie, who is playing for the second-worst team in the Extraliga. Through eight games, Pavelec sported numbers well below his NHL average: .891 save percentage and 3.64 goals-against average.