He says it’s behind him, but he also admits to being nervous, and who could blame him?
It is exactly one year ago that Ondrej Pavelec took the literal approach to the goaltender’s common fear of “falling flat on his face” in an important game.
It was 2 minutes 25 seconds into the Atlanta Thrashers’ opening game of the season, at home to the Washington Capitals. The score was 0-0, the puck at the far end of the ice. Pavelec was set in his position: crouched slightly, pads slightly angled, stick set and glove up.
It was such a strange moment that the play-by-play announcers missed it. They were as confused as the baffled fans, as alarmed as the trainers and medical help piling out of players’ benches, the Capitals as well as Pavelec’s Thrashers.
It was only later that a long-pan camera shot found what had happened: Ondrej Pavelec set, Ondrej Pavelec suddenly falling straight back, crunching the back of his helmet in his own crease. He came to in the ambulance. He had no idea what had happened. The anthem, cheers, the drop of the puck, some scattered play – then darkness.
“All I know is that it happened,” the 24-year-old goaltender for the reborn Winnipeg Jets said after Thursday’s practice. “But I put it behind me. It was something I forgot right away and hopefully it’s never going to happen again.”
But no one knows. He says the doctors found nothing, that he had simply passed out, fainted, and had no recollection. Later they said the cause of his collapse was neurocardiogenic syncope, but that told him nothing in English or his native Czech. He knows he suffered a concussion when his head slammed into the ice, he knows his team went on to win the game 4-2 and he knows he was out of the hospital three days later but still missed a couple of weeks of hockey.
He will try not to think about it Sunday afternoon when he again starts a first game of the season – this one against the Montreal Canadiens.
There is every reason to believe this incident was a fluke. He passed batteries of tests, was cleared and went on to play 58 games for the Thrashers, winning 21. He would, if they would allow him, play every single game of the season. They will not let him – backup Chris Mason, a 35-year-old reliable veteran, will get his games – but they do expect Pavelec to be the horse that draws this middling team a few steps closer to the playoffs.
Pavelec is a player of enormous promise: a big goaltender (6 foot 3, 220 pounds) with the reflexes of a fox. His style is indescribable, partly butterfly, partly invention – his idol growing up in Kladno was the great Dominik Hasek – and it works. He won a gold medal playing for the Czech Republic at the 2010 world championship. He won a Calder Cup with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. He twice won the Jacques Plante Trophy as the top goaltender in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League while with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
But now he is a Winnipeg Jet. He and his teammates have gone from a city where they were barely noticed to a city where they can barely move without being noticed.
“Sometimes in Atlanta we’d play in front of 6,000 people,” Pavelec says. “It’s kind of different.”
There will be far more pressure, but he is convinced this pressure will improve this team that finished 13 points out of the playoffs last year and only ever made the playoffs once in franchise history.
“I think so,” he says. “You have no time to have a bad time or a bad game. You have to go out and play hard 100 per cent every single night.
“There’s always pressure. It doesn’t matter where you play. First NHL game was very special. Every game in the NHL is special, and I feel the same pressure every single night. I think in front of those crowds, of course there’s going to be a little more pressure, but I think it’s going to help us.”
He is aware of the challenges – the Thrashers were the second-worst team in the NHL last year when it came to allowing goals – but he says, as many goaltenders do, that he welcomes pressure and loves a challenge.
One day, if everything goes as he dreams, and if that awful freak fainting spell that downed him one year ago never returns, he might even be a Czech goaltender the hockey world talks about, just as they still do of Hasek.
Asked if he had ever met his lifelong idol, he sputters. Once … sort of … in a restaurant in Prague. Hasek was eating and Pavelec and a buddy went up to him and shook the Hall-of-Fame goaltender’s hand.
Did you tell him who you were? he is asked.
“Actually,” he says, eyes widening in disbelief. “No! Hey, what should I say? ‘I’m Ondrej. I play goalie?’”
Perhaps one day he won’t have to.