The Spokane Chiefs sent their sleek new import back to Europe for repairs, and Jakub Langhammer returned with a powerful new engine. Missing in action much of his rookie year with the Chiefs last season, Langhammer came back to Spokane bigger and better after engaging in a vigorous off-season training program in his native Czech Republic.
"It feels so much better; this year is much different," Langhammer says in his improving English. "I'm practicing much better, and [off-ice] workouts are better."
"His commitment is much better this year," coach Al Conroy says.
"Great kid, hard worker, big legs," sums up assistant coach Jamie Huscroft.
Langhammer scored both Spokane goals in a season-opening 5-2 loss to Tri-City last Saturday. The young, inexperienced Chiefs lack a proven big-time scorer, so Langhammer figures to be a key player all season at the Spokane Arena, starting with this Saturday's home opener against Tri-City.
Langhammer added 10 pounds of muscle since last season, so he now carries 190 pounds on his 6-foot-2-inch frame. Conroy, admittedly disappointed with Langhammer's play last season, has rewarded the left winger with a regular shift, more work on the power play and even some penalty-killing duties.
Conroy never would have trusted Langhammer to kill penalties last season. Like many Europeans new to North American hockey, Langhammer often appeared lost when the puck was not on his stick.
"I don't know what clicked," Conroy says. "He's a good kid. He gets along well with his teammates. Not getting drafted might have been a kicker."
Langhammer's excuses for his struggles last season are understandable: The language barrier, homesickness, adjusting to the smaller rinks, bigger players and more physical style of play in North America. Virtually everyone in the major junior (amateur players 20 years old and under) Western Hockey League dreams of a career in the pro National Hockey League, and Langhammer was bypassed in the 2003 NHL draft in his first year of eligibility.
"I think I have a better chance to play in the NHL if I'm here, where a lot of scouts are coming to the games," says Langhammer, who turned 19 on Aug. 17. "Here, everyone plays hard. The hockey is much better here than in Europe."
Langhammer, who has played on Czech national age-group teams the past three years, scored 12 goals and 29 points in 65 games with Spokane last season. He was named the Chiefs' Rookie of the Year, but that was largely by default: On a weak, injury-riddled team, the second-leading rookie scorer on the Chiefs (Slovakia's Miroslav Stolc) had just four points.
Stolc, who was not invited back by the Chiefs, was Langhammer's constant companion last season -- for better and worse. Langhammer spoke very little English when he arrived in Spokane ("Like 'food,' 'bathroom.' Actually, nothing"), so Langhammer and Stolc were drawn together as rookies speaking the same language in a foreign locker room.
"They hung around together all the time, to their benefit and detriment," says Conroy, a former WHL and NHL player who turned pro at age 20 as the only English-speaking player on his team in Switzerland. "It hurt [Langhammer's] English. He didn't get mixed in with all the other players as much as he could. Now he has to mix in with the players."
Langhammer hails from the steel town of Kladno, located 30 minutes outside Prague, the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. Langhammer played in the Czech Republic's top junior league his last two years at home, but he grew up playing at Kladno's only indoor ice rink, just like NHL superstar Jaromir Jagr before him.
The youngest of three children of a truck driver and an airport office worker, Langhammer lived at home before deciding to move halfway around the world after being selected by the Chiefs in the 2002 Import Draft.
"I knew nothing [about Spokane]," says Langhammer, who finished high school before moving. "I just checked a map: 'Where is this Spokane?'"
Langhammer, whose parents visited him at midseason after their son made a quick trip home during Christmas break, is living with the same host family in Spokane as last year. He's trying to save money to buy a used car -- former Chief defenseman and roommate Chris Heid drove him everywhere last year -- but it's tough on a WHL "salary," which doesn't cover a whole lot more than room and board.
In his spare time, Langhammer enjoys movies, shopping and music, often in the company of teammates. Langhammer says it took him a while to adjust to living in a "big city" like Spokane -- Kladno has about 80,000 residents -- but he says Spokane is a "nice city, and the arena's beautiful. It's a lot of fun when there are 10,000 people in the arena."
A little bigger than the junior crowds back home?
"We'd have, like, 20 guys," he says. "Just parents."
Unlike many Europeans, Langhammer says he likes the more physical style of hockey played in North America. Langhammer says he never fought in Europe -- where fighting results in an automatic one-game suspension -- but he claims to be 2-0 in fights in the WHL.
"I don't know; maybe I'm lucky," he says with a sheepish grin.
Langhammer knows it will take a lot more than just luck to achieve his goal of following Czech national hero Jagr into the NHL. Langhammer figures he didn't get any help this year from his agent, who "didn't turn in the papers for me" for the NHL draft.