They joked this summer at a camp that maybe — as fellow countrymen and North American Hockey League players — they would find themselves on the same team in the future.
Months after that first encounter their casual prediction came true as the two athletes from the Czech Republic became part of the first-year roster for the NAHL’s Chippewa Steel.
Filip Dusek and Tomas Vochozka have each traveled around 4,500 miles from home and now find themselves as roommates and important pieces for the Steel as they look to pursue their dreams. Those dreams include playing collegiately in the U.S. and later on professionally.
Dusek hails from Prague, the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic and Vochozka comes from České Budějovice located in the southwest region of the country.
Dusek made the decision to come to North America to get an education and play hockey simultaneously. In the Czech Republic pursing both an education and a hockey career at the same time is a challenge.
He had previously come to North America for a year, going to school in Toronto, Canada to improve his knowledge of the English language in preparation for playing hockey in the U.S.
A year later Dusek participated in a tier I United States Hockey League showcase impressing scouts and head coach Scott Langer enough to be added to the tier II NAHL’s Aberdeen Wings roster. After two seasons with the Wings, Dusek was traded to the Steel.
Vochozka spent a year with the USHL’s Cedar Rapids Roughriders before a promotion to the Coulee Region Chill and this year moving with the team to Chippewa Falls.
The two players have found a different type of mentality in North American hockey compared to what they would have encountered by staying home.
While the highest level of hockey in the Czech Republic is very good, the strength of the developmental leagues is lacking with many of the best young athletes heading to Sweden, Finland or North America in search of better competition.
“The competitors here, I feel like it’s a different mindset,” Dusek said of U.S. hockey players. “Here everyone wants to work harder. Most of the guys here they want to go to college so they’re fighting for a spot. Back home it’s more like playing pro after, and some guys know they’re not going to play pro so they don’t try as hard.”
Even with all of the options available to young hockey players competition for spots on rosters can be stressful. This is the 20-year-old Dusek’s final season in junior hockey and if he is to get a commitment to a college hockey program it would likely need to happen before next summer.
The defenseman Dusek had set his goal on an Ivy League program but he said there are plenty of good academic institutions with solid hockey programs he has interest in, with many of them in the Northeast.
“I have to get better in every practice. I have to be ready for every game,” Dusek said. “You never know who is watching. The scouts don’t tell you if they’re coming to the game sometimes, so you have to be on top of your game all the time.”
While Dusek knows he must make an impression this season Vochozka — a forward — has two more years of junior league hockey, although getting notice by scouts at a younger age can only be beneficial.
With all the stress that comes with playing developmental hockey so far away from home in a new country, Vochozka and Dusek agreed they are lucky to have each other on the team.
“I feel like the Euros just understand each other a little more,” Dusek said. “It’s a little different mentality, culture I would say, but at the same it’s great to have Tomas in the same billet house. Always someone to talk to in your own language so you don’t get lonely.”
Dusek and Vochozka are joined by Grisha Gotovets from Belarus as European players on the Steel roster.
Leaving home to pursue hockey across the globe wasn’t an easy decision for both players. Having the support from their family made it much easier.
“It was for sure the biggest the decision of my life, to leave home and go and play hockey here,” the 18-year-old Vochozka said. “My parents just wanted me to be happy.”
The players have been able to stay in contact with family and friends through FaceTime and other forms of technology. Dusek said his first few years being away from home were the most difficult and he’s been able adjust at time passed.
“I got a huge support from my parents because if you just play hockey you have your ups and downs. The downs when you just play hockey and don’t do anything on the side it can be really detrimental to your psychology, mentally, so my parents were there always for me,” Dusek said. “They helped me so much and I am really fortunate for that because I don’t think I would be able to do it without them, I definitely wouldn’t be able to.”
Dusek also had to endure the unknown of being traded in his last year at the junior hockey level when so much of his future in the sport is on the line. That adjustment has proved to beneficial for Dusek though. While unable to impress college scouts enough to earn a coveted spot on a Division 1 collegiate team in two seasons in Aberdeen, the change in scenery has allowed him to refocus and give it one last run in the NAHL.
“I would say it was the best thing that could ever happen to me in my junior career,” Dusek said. “It gave me a lot of new energy, new motivation and I feel like it really helped my play, so I am really fortunate for that.”
Steel coach Al Rooney said having international players on the roster brings a different aspect to the team. Playing on the larger Olympic-sized rink in Europe leads to a different approach to training as well as strategy in games.
“They definitely bring — if you want to paint with broad strokes — (European players) bring usually a little bit more skill, patience and poise with the puck,” Rooney said. “The rinks are bigger there so what they preach growing up there is possession and regroups and not just sending it in and playing physical.”
Dusek has used his experience in the NAHL to become a leader for the team. Rooney said Dusek — as an assistant captain — has filled a role as a communicator between the players and coaching staff, while Vochozka is starting to find his groove and become more consistent under the new staff and having to adjust to a different style of play with the Steel.
Rooney said the two Czechs bring a high level of skating and puck skills to the team. Vochozka and Dusek also bring a positive energy that is helpful over a long season.
“They’re two great guys that I love having on the team, not just on the ice with what they do for us, but off the ice they’re always smiling, good guys to have around so it has been pleasure to have them,” Rooney said.
Although the wins haven’t been there for the Steel this season at 3-8-2 and at the bottom of the Midwest Division with eight points, Dusek and Vochozka still believe they can right the ship and find a lot of success this season.
“We are not doing well right now, but I still really believe in this team. We need one win and we will be back on track,” Vochozka said as the Steel open a weekend series with the Austin (Minn.) Bruins on Friday and Saturday. “We have a younger team, but a really good team. We have a lot of talent here.”
“So much talent, it’s crazy,” Dusek added. “I feel like in the middle of the season we’re going to be moving really high up (in the standings). We’ll be one of the top teams in our division I feel like.”