Dominik Uher crossed a large pond to further his deftness on a frozen one.
The dynamic 19-year-old Spokane Chiefs center, who hails from the Czech Republic, isn’t the first to do so. Uher follows a lineage of successful European players who came to America looking to raise the stakes in their own brand of game.
“You get sad moments, you miss home, but I think every European guy goes through this stuff,” Uher said. “But we pick hockey, and the best hockey is in America.”
Uher first moved away from home to play hockey at the age of 13. He lived in a hotel three hours away from his hometown.
Following a successful season back home as a 15-year-old, the Chiefs picked Uher in the 2009 Canadian Hockey League import draft, making him the youngest player selected from overseas that year.
“It’s a kid’s dream to play in (the CHL) – you don’t pass it up,” Uher said. “That was pretty emotional.”
He came to the United States later that year, just 16 years old, without knowing a word of English. He learned on his own and can speak the language with infrequent barriers.
“I have to say I probably have the best billets,” Uher said. “She is European and that helped. I remember our first few dinners at the table and all I could say was, ‘I’m good.’ I didn’t understand anything.
“Life is the best teacher, though. I don’t mind a challenge.”
It’s that upbeat attitude that makes Uher one of the most interesting and enjoyable personalities off the ice on this season’s roster. His impact on the ice is just as visible.
A Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, Uher has scored 10 goals and has 15 points in his last 12 games. He’s also scored several short-handed goals this season, more winners than any of his teammates, and turned in a rare four-goal performance in a Chiefs win at the end of January – a month in which Spokane tied a franchise record with 11 wins.
“You guys could see we were able to beat every single team in this league,” Uher said. “We played some great hockey in January.”
The same could be said for Uher.
It appears to be no coincidence that he has been showing up more and more on the score sheet (though he thinks scoring can at times be overemphasized) since returning from the IIHF World Junior Championships in December. He helped the Czech Republic to a higher-than-expected, fifth-place finish at the tournament and came back to Spokane with an extra spark.
“Sometimes you score two goals a night, sometimes you can’t score in five games, that’s just how hockey goes,” Uher said. “I can tell you I’m enjoying hockey more since Christmas and coming back from the World Juniors.”
Spokane Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz has a theory as to why that may be.
“That confirmed for Dom how he has to play the game to be successful,” Speltz said. “He played big and he played strong over there, but he’s not about points. If he’s scoring, that’s great, but he’s doing all the little things in the meantime.
“He’s so efficient without points. He’s a big, strong horse on the puck, and as well-rounded as anyone … and the kind of person you’re proud to have on your team.”
Uher, picked by the Penguins in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL entry draft, might be approaching his final days in Spokane. The Chiefs have 12 games remaining in the regular season before they begin their 2012 playoff campaign. Next season, Uher hopes to make an impression as a pro hockey player – especially after having a taste of the NHL at his first development camp last summer in Pittsburgh.
“To see the Penguins locker room and meet people you might play with someday, it was like living your dream,” Uher said. “Seeing all those guys – Crosby, Malkin, you know – you think they’re going to be big and then you see them in person and think, ‘Oh, I thought you were going to be bigger than that or something.’
“Then you see how much better, stronger and quicker those guys are, so there are a lot of areas I need to improve in. Who knows? I hope one day I play with them.”
This time he won’t have to cross an ocean to do so.