Pueblo Bulls’ Ondrej Blaha finding himself and his game thousands of miles from home
(Photo of Blaha, right, by Michelle Holcomb, Dallas Snipers)
After a two hour practice, Ondrej Blaha stands looking over the ice of the Pueblo Ice Arena, blood dried around his nose and a cut around his eyebrow.
But the pain is only temporary since Blaha’s heart and mind are on ones sitting thousands of miles away.
Blaha, who is a forward for the Pueblo Bulls hockey team, came to America from the small town of Kadan in the Czech Republic, and describes his passion for hockey which began at a young age.
He recalls learning how to skate at 3 years old with his father and beginning to play hockey at 4 years old.
“I really love it, from the first day I was always smiling at other kids, like when someone would fall down,” Blaha said. “My dad would say, ‘I am curious how many times you will fall down,’ and from then on I really try to be humble.”
Now, 15 years later, Blaha is capturing the attention of Pueblo hockey fans and the rest of the Western States Tier II Hockey League.
But for Blaha, it’s not about all the goals scored or screaming fans.
Instead, he’s in the Steel City to continue a dream and make the ones he loves the most, proud.
Coming to America
“It’s an advisory firm that wants to get players who want to continue playing hockey in North America and get a college degree,” Bulls coach Chris Wilhite describes. “Their purpose with Search Sports, it’s not just you’re a hockey player, it’s trying to be a bigger picture type of person.”
Blaha said his interest in playing for a team in the United States began last fall, and thanks to a connection between Wilhite and Blaha’s agent, he was able to take advantage of an opportunity to play for the Bulls.
“I started being interested in playing on a team in the USA in August, so it was really late,” Blaha said. “I was in contact with my agent and he played with the coaches here, so I’m really glad they played together and that I can be here.”
Prior to coming to the United States to play for the Bulls, Blaha played a couple games of professional hockey in the Czech Republic. With that knowledge, Wilhite expected Blaha to bring a sense of leadership to the team, but what he didn’t know was how much Blaha would exceed those expectations.
“I knew he was going to work hard, I knew he had some pro experience in the Czech Republic, so I was expecting him to come in with that type of leadership and experience,” Wilhite said. “I didn’t expect him to come in and be this type of guy. I expected him to be a leader type more just with the experience.
“But he came in, he’s being flashy, getting points, he’s being a team player and getting assists. So it’s not like it’s just give me the puck, give me the puck. He is trying to create opportunities for the team to get better.”
“They gave me a chance and I was really grateful for it,” Blaha said. “Now I’ve got a lot of experience with hockey and now here I can play with a calm mind.”
Taking the league by the horns
(Photo of Blaha, #25, by Michelle Holcomb, Dallas Snipers)
Blaha’s first game with the Bulls ended with the Czech scoring a hat trick.
Since then, he’s scored 32 goals and tallied 33 assists.
As the fourth highest scoring player in the league, one might think Blaha would thrive on the recognition.
However, Blaha is the first one to keep the focus on the team’s results rather than his own stat line.
When asked what it feels like being in the position to be the highest scoring player on his team, Blaha said it builds his confidence, but it isn’t what is most important to him.
“I want to be a good leader, that is my job,” Blaha said. “I told the coaches I’ve never played playoff hockey, so my goal for this year is to play playoff hockey.”
Coach Wilhite said having Blaha on the ice gives the rest of the team an advantage to play their game.
“It definitely helps going throughout the season,” Wilhite said. “It makes it a little easier because I know the other team is going to match against him, try to shut him down, which gives our other lines a little bit more freedom to play their game and play the game they want to play.”
Teammate Nic Pedersen, who is also a forward for the Bulls, spoke to Blaha’s humility and contribution to the team.
“The first weekend that (Blaha) came to play with us was our first road trip in Dallas,” Pedersen said. “Some kid got a dirty hit from behind and he immediately went over to protect him, and he didn’t even know these guys, he didn’t even speak English yet. If you want a guy in your corner, (Blaha) is it.”
Pedersen also spoke about how it is having a teammate who has accomplished as much as Blaha.
From Czech to Puebloan
Cultural differences between the Czech and the U.S. have been a fairly drastic change for Blaha. Wilhite recalls one of the first experiences he had with Blaha.
“He told me in the Czech Republic it’s very rude and weird to ask how you’re doing unless you know someone,” Wilhite said. “So he went to a gas station to get a Gatorade and the lady was like, ‘Hey how are you?’ and he just went ‘I’m good, how are you,’ just very confused. He came up and told me and I was like, ‘No, Ondrej that’s good, that’s being polite, people want to know how you are.’ He was like oh okay.
“So the next day he was like ‘Hey how are you, hey how are you,’ just being so nice and such a polite kid.”
Pedersen, who is a Colorado native and Blaha’s roommate, couldn’t help but poke fun when asked what kind of a person Blaha is.
“He’s a Euro so he’s kind of weird, but we love him that way,” Pedersen said. “Being his roommate I just hopped right into it. I was like, this is America, this is what you’re going to get, let’s go get fast food. I mean, he likes it here.”
(Photo by Michelle Holcomb, Dallas Snipers)
“I got worried when I was in the Czech because I’m coming here a stranger,” Blaha said. “If you are a stranger in Czech it’s like, everybody is scared of you. But the first day the guys were like ‘Hey do you want to go hang out?’ Everyone here is always talking with me, and I really like it.”
Coming to America and being surrounded by the people he is, Blaha said makes it feel as if he can finally be himself.
“I think, I’m really myself here,” Blaha said. “I make a lot of jokes, it doesn’t matter if it’s the guys or the coaches, I’m just a funny guy. When I was in the Czech, I was sometimes scared because the guys didn’t understand what I meant. But here, I’m making jokes with everybody and they really like it. I’m just like, yea, I can be myself here, and I really love it.”
Blaha was on the phone with his family soon after practice.
“He’s always on the phone talking with family,” Pedersen laughs. “But his brother is here right now so I think that helps.”
“I was at the ice rink every day,” Blaha said. “So, I have to thank my dad and my whole family from the Czech because they supported me the whole time. My dad came to every practice from when I was 4 years old until I was 16, and they never missed a game.”
Blaha said one of his biggest aspirations is going to college to further his education, because his family is highly educated.
“I have a lot of options and I’m thinking about college,” Blaha said. “My parents, my brother, everyone from my family are really highly educated. I have something in my head so why not use it.”
Being on the ice in front of the fans here in Pueblo is something that makes Blaha truly happy.
“I really like it, I feel like a superstar here a little bit,” Blaha said. “If I’m going to warm up there’s little kids waving at me like ‘Ondrej, Ondrej,’ screaming at me, ‘Can you throw me the puck,’ and I’m like, “Yea I can.′ So, you know, I really like it.”
Despite the notoriety, Blaha is simply a young man who takes on any challenge, welcomes opportunity and is driven by his family’s support.
“It’s my family, my dad and my brother,” Blaha said. “It’s just my family. I’m playing for them all of the time.”