Czech star makes waves in the ice rink
Matej Stransky skates across the ice between the blue and red lines before a Texas Stars home game against Stockton. From the stands, the warm up looks like a simple routine. But for Stransky, it’s another small step in a journey that has brought him 5,645 miles from his East European home.
The American Hockey League has 105 European players in the 2015-16 season. Just over a quarter of the 898 National Hockey League players are from overseas. At 22, Stransky hopes to become the first member of his family from the Czech city of Ostrava to compete in what is considered the best hockey league in the world.
“That’s all I wanted to do,” the 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound Stransky said. “I don’t know how I would feel.”
Stransky’s journey in hockey practically began at birth. His father is Vladimir Stransky, a professional hockey player in the Czech Republic; Matej strapped on skates at the age of 3. Soon, he was practicing and playing hockey three days a week at the same arena where his dad worked as an instructor.
Away from the rink, Stransky would spend his time playing street hockey with his younger brother, Simon, and his cousin, Vit. The 10-year age gap between him and Simon kept them from having a fierce competition, but the sibling rivalry would still heat up at times.
“It would get kind of scary sometimes because one of us would get mad and try to fight the other one,” Stransky said. “But it was fun.”
In third grade, Stransky joined HC Vitkovice, one of Ostrava’s two hockey clubs.
He was called up to the club’s Under-18 team in 2006 and, within two years, showed flashes of potential that could make him an international star. In the 2008-09 season, Stransky led the 14-team Czech U18 league with 40 goals en route to the league championship. That breakout year earned Stransky a spot on the Czech U18 national team.
Then, in the middle of the night on June 29, 2010, news reached the Stransky household that the Saskatoon Blades, of the Canadian Hockey League, had selected Matej in the second round of the draft.
“My dad woke me up and told me I was drafted by Saskatoon,” Stransky said. “And I was like, ‘Who?’”
Two months later, he made the flight across the Atlantic by himself at the age of 17. Neither he nor his team knew what to expect. Then-Blades head coach Lorne Molleken said he never saw Stransky play before the draft, instead trusting people he knew to make the pick.
“People talked a lot about the skill set that he had,” Molleken said.
When he landed in Saskatchewan, Stransky found the transition off the ice to be the most difficult. He knew some English, but the Canadian accent and the pace at which people spoke made it hard for him to understand them. It was a while before he was able to follow what his coaches were saying.
“I had a roommate that helped me,” Stransky said. After Christmas, he started attending English-language classes and began to become accustomed to living in Canada.
But the on-ice adjustment period was much shorter for the forward. He posted 14 goals in the 2010-11 season — his first in the Western Hockey League, a juniors league.
His success drew the attention of the Dallas Stars. Scott White, general manager for Dallas’s AHL affiliate Texas Stars, said they saw a “decent skill set” in Stransky despite concerns about his slower skating.
“He scored a lot of goals but his skating needed work,” White said. “That’s the risk you take.”
In the sixth round of the 2011 NHL draft, the Stars chose Stransky despite what he called a down year.
“I didn’t really expect it,” Stransky said. “It was a dream come true.”
He followed that up with 39 goals in the 2011-12 season and 40 goals in the 2012-13 season for the Blades.
After finishing that season in Saskatoon, Stransky signed a three-year entry level contract and moved to the Texas Stars.
But the jump from juniors to professional AHL turned out to be quite the task. Stransky now found himself competing against players who were bigger and faster and already used to the competition in the second-highest U.S. league.
Sean Shapiro, who covers the team for Austin American-Statesman, remembers Stransky looking out of place in the season opener on Oct. 5, 2013.
“I don’t think it was a coach’s decision,” Shapiro said. “He was slow and wasn’t adapting to the play.”
But Stransky continued to work on his game, especially his skating. He worked with assistant coach Doug Lister on and off the ice to get faster. He focused on his first five and six steps to be able to keep up with the older players.
His hard work paid off and he earned a consistent spot on the team’s fourth line, reaching AHL’s pinnacle when the Stars hoisted the Calder Cup in 2014.
“I never really won anything, so it was the first time for me to win something big,” Stransky said.
But he struggled the following season, scoring just seven goals in 70 games. He started this season watching from the crowd as a healthy scratch.
Head coach Derek Laxdal refused to call it a benching, but Stransky responded by using it as motivation. In 72 games, Stransky has tallied 22 goals and 16 assists — both career highs — and had a five-match point streak early in November.
“I’m pretty happy they did that,” Stransky said. “You shouldn’t be satisfied with your place on the team. You should always work for it.”
Despite the success, Stransky’s future remains uncertain. He is coming up on the end of his three-year contract and there’s no guarantee he’ll remain in the Stars system.
But Stransky’s dream remains beating those odds and finishing his journey in the NHL. Someday, he even hopes to hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“It’s different; it’s not the Calder Cup,” Stransky said. “It probably feels really good.”