Filip Chlapik hits the ice in Prague while waiting for NHL season

by Daniel Rainbird

Filip Chlapik was pleased to go home to Prague, but now the Czech capital isn’t quite the way he remembered it.

Prague is where he played in the under-20 Czech league with his older brother Adam.

He won silver for the Czech Republic at the 2014 world under-18 championship. A medal that felt as good as gold because the final was against a USA team with Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews.

“We knew there was no chance to beat those guys,” said Chlapik, who recently re-signed a one-year deal with the Ottawa Senators. “Getting a medal when we beat Canada in overtime was just terrific.

“Doesn’t happen too much for Czech so it was great.”

With Senators training camp and NHL resumption still well out of sight due to the pandemic, Chlapik temporarily signed with his hometown team HC Sparta Praha at the end of September.

The Czech Extraliga season was underway and Covid-19 seemed under control. He could picture the roar of 10,000-plus fans in Sparta’s O2 Arena, including some family.

There was one relative he especially wanted to see in the stands.

“My grandmother hasn't seen me [play] since I was 14,” said Chlapik. “I was really excited to play in front of the fans, play in front of the family.”

That never became a reality, the coronavirus had other ideas. A lockdown was imminent just three games into his season as the Czech Republic had been, and still is, suffering from the second wave more than any other country.

“It was so exciting playing games and I started to feel good,” said Chlapik. “And then, after three games, you go back to where you were before. Definitely sucks.”

Now the place he grew up in is barely recognizable. No more going out for coffee, lunch, or drinks in the social city of Prague that he loves. Instead, he’s worried about where things are headed.

“It really just sometimes feels like a prison,” said Chlapik. “If you go somewhere it’s kind of like a ghost town.

“And Czech is not the richest country, so the economy is really bad now. There’s going to be so many homeless people and people without jobs so it’s kind of a scary thing here.”

Chlapik and HC Sparta Praha have kept some sense of normalcy, having the privilege of training at an outdoor ice surface in Dobris.

Sparta’s sports manager, assistant coach, and all-time leading scorer Jaroslav Hlinka said having a player of Chlapik’s caliber around is priceless for the team.

“He’s been a role model to our young players,” he said. “It was very beneficial for them to be able to observe him and his routine around the locker room.”

The four-time Czech Hockey League champion and former member of the Colorado Avalanche had more praise for Chlapik, impressed with the confidence and shooting ability he’s gained over the years.

“You can very well see how much progress he’s made overseas,” said Hlinka.

Chlapik, 23, still has more work to do. He’s on the cusp of becoming a full-time NHL player, but hasn’t yet taken his place. Last year he split his time between Ottawa and its American Hockey League affiliate in Belleville, Ont., scoring six points in 31 NHL games, and 22 points in 37 AHL games.

With a new contract under his belt, Chlapik hopes to make the NHL whenever the season starts, full knowing the kind of challenge that lays ahead. The players are smarter, faster, stronger, and he’s struggled with the change in ice-time from one league to the other.

Not only is it harder to get in rhythm with less play, the pressure of performing well in the beginning of each game becomes paramount.

“If you play six or seven minutes a night, you get two or three shifts a period and it’s hard to get in the game,” said Chlapik. “It’s just so hard mentally to get ready for those games when you know you have to have a couple good first shifts or otherwise you won’t play.”

Chlapik wants to spend more time in the city of Ottawa as well, saying his brief time there reminded him of Prague. He’s having trouble wrapping his head around playing without the encouragement of the fans, but working towards his childhood goal will be motivation enough.

“It’s every kid’s dream to play in the NHL,” said Chlapik. “If I play there with no fans, I’ll still be happy.

Photo: Courtesy HC Sparta Praha