By HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r &
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hey arrive in North America each fall, starry-eyed teenagers who leave family and friends behind to move thousands of miles away to live in the homes of strangers and play hockey in a foreign land.
The "European invasion" of the National Hockey League began filtering down to the junior (20-and-under) ranks about two decades ago, and the Spokane Chiefs are just one of dozens of junior teams that have benefited. Former Chief stars include Russia's Valeri Bure, Maxim Bets and Dmitri Leonov, Austria's Michael Grabner, Slovakia's Roman Tvrdon and the Czech Republic's Jan Hrdina and Daniel Bohac.
Spokane's latest European standout is center Ondrej Roman from Ostrava, Czech Republic, an industrial city of 300,000 located near the borders of Poland and Slovakia and east of the Czech capital of Prague. Roman led the Chiefs in assists as a 17-year-old rookie last season, and coach Bill Peters' only complaint about Roman is a rare one: Roman won't shoot enough.
"Two years of telling him that!" Peters says with a smile. "The thing is, 'Romey' has a great shot. You'd never know it, because you never see it in a game!"
"He said, 'Shoot more pucks, score more goals,'" the soft-spoken Roman says in his slight accent. "I'll do my best."
Coming into the week, and after 73 games in the Western Hockey League, Ondrej (pronounced ON-dray) had just four goals to go with 48 assists.
"The European background," Peters explains. "They pass more over there."
"He never will [shoot a lot]," Spokane captain Chris Bruton says. "He's just a very unselfish guy."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Chiefs made a conscious decision to have the effervescent Bruton live with the reserved Roman in the home of Janet and Leo Green. The two players have become close friends.
"They'll be lifetime friends," Peters says. "It's one of those neat things to see as a coach."
"He's a guy you can't help to like," Bruton says.
Roman credits Bruton with helping him adjust on and off the ice last year. Roman initially spoke the halting English that he learned in grade school, but his game blossomed along with his personality once he began taking English classes.
"He's a totally different guy now," Bruton says. "He loves sports. Six or seven hours on a couch watching football is a great day for him."
Roman played for various national age-group teams back home, and he played six games in the Czech Republic's pro league as a 16-year-old. Like most Europeans, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Roman needed time to adjust to the bigger players, smaller rinks and more physical style of play in North America.
"He was timid, and his confidence was low," Bruton recalls. "He was shell-shocked. As the season went on, he started to adapt. He became very successful."
"The start was pretty hard," Roman says. "The players are so big and so good. The defensemen are just huge! Everybody's 6-3 and 200 pounds."
Roman wanted to come to North America last year to increase his exposure to NHL scouts heading into his draft year. His plan worked to perfection, since the Dallas Stars drafted him in the fifth round (136th overall) last summer.
Roman says he loves Spokane and Americans -- "People are a lot friendly [sic] than back home" -- but he hates all the traffic. Besides, he misses his girlfriend and his mother's cooking. Ondrej Roman hopes to solve both problems by making the Czech 19-and-under national team, the host for the World Junior Championships in December.
The Spokane Chiefs make their home debut at the Spokane Arena on Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7 pm against the Tri-City Americans. Tickets: $7-$17. Call 535-PUCK or 325-SEAT.