Sunday, 19 July 2015

Valábik to bolster the Blaze blue-line

Valábik reached the Kazakh Final with Arlan last season,
scoring 20 points in 33 games in the process
Last week the Coventry Blaze got pulses racing when they announced the signing of 29-year old Slovak defenceman, Boris Valábik. The Nitra native, who stands a mightily impressive 201cm joins the Blaze with 80 NHL games to his credit as a member of the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, before returning to Europe in 2012. Most recently, Valábik plied his trade for Arlan Kokshetau in the Kazakh Championship, where he was signed as a replacement for Ben O'Connor (not directly, obviously), whilst also being a team-mate of former much-heralded Blaze blue-liner Dustin Wood.

Anyone with an internet connection has probably already seen some of Valábik's fight videos on YouTube, and that's not really my interest in this article here. I tweeted quite extensively on the day the Blaze signed Valábik. See below:

I watched Valábik a number of times whilst he played for Kometa Brno in 2012/13, and even on the big ice, in an incredible quick league such as the Czech Extraliga, Valábik looked more than competent. The simple fact is, that a guy of his size, with his nose for physicality, would be playing in the NHL if it weren't for his skating. However, in the EIHL, a much slower league than the majority of other European leagues, coupled with the smaller ice surface which he will play on for the majority of his games, I think this signing makes sense. Often the Devils are praised for signing a hard-nosed team for the "small ice" of the Big Blue Tent. Why not the Blaze in the case of Valábik?

Now. Where am I going with this? I don't particularly want to go too in depth with my critique/thoughts as I haven't seen the guy play live for two years, whilst also, if my opinions were 100% correct, I'd be in the hockey business rather than writing on a blog. Additionally, I feel that it is a little terse to comment on Valábik before the Blaze have completed their defence line-up, and to see how he compliments Godfrey, Jorgensen, Quesnele, Chalmers and (when he's available) Clements.

However, seeing as the Blaze press release lacked an interview with Valábik, and I stumbled upon an interview in Slovak with the Nitra native on a Slovak hockey site this evening (link: dated 14/07/2015) which I thought would be a good read for Blaze fans, especially as it reveals some rather interesting information.

(Ed note: Before I start, a quick note of thanks to Tomáš Kmec [@Tomas_Kmec] for his help in interpreting parts of the article beyond my literal translation skills. This translation will be by no means 100%, and I will always go for a looser translation more to do with the tone of the article. My additions are within square brackets)

Hokejportal: During the last season, in an interview with Hokejportal, you described some wild practices in Kazakhstan with Karaganda. After a few days you asked us to withdraw the interview from the site. Can you say the reasons a few months later?
Boris Valábik: The agent, whom I worked with in Kazakhstan, asked me to withdraw the interview. I don't know why exactly, but he simply asked me, so I agreed. It certainly was not a good advertisement [for the Kazakh League], and I did not want to cause harm. It was a Latvian who works in Kazakhstan.

HP:You were not going to play in Kazakhstan this season?
BV: Not really. The financial capacity of the clubs has reduced significantly, closely linked to the financial crisis and the oil price. The teams there are highly dependent on oil, and the possibilities to finance sport are therefore reduced. They want to provide sport for people, but it does not matter what the league quality will be. They are not willing to give a player more money despite reducing the import quota. Now a team can only have five foreigners. Last season teams could ice 11 imports in each game, and I think there was one team with 14 imports on their roster. When all can't play, it doesn't make for a good environment in the locker room because there are significant bonuses for winning games.

HP: What in the end made you decide to sign in Coventry?
BV: I signed only on Monday [last week], and Coventry confirmed it very quickly. I was surprised because I signed an open contract*. Until the end of July, there is the possibility of finding something else, I can go. I debated moving home to Nitra and I am still thinking. But I wanted to have something in my hand, so I signed for them [Coventry]. They met all my requests so much so that it would have been stupid for me not to sign with them. What I desired, they fulfilled. Whether it be financial, or anything else.

HP: The terms were very good?
BV: My agent was surprised how good they were. I had no reason to say no. I know nothing about the British League. I have received some information from former team-mates from my time overseas. They told me that the level is higher than expected. A month ago, I was talking with another British team [seemingly Sheffield], but I said no. In the end I gratefully accepted Coventry's offer. I might surprise myself, but I am still searching for a team as the contract is open.

HP: People say that the British League is poor
BV: They say that, but I don't listen. What people say is secondary for me. I cared when I was 18, but not now. Even when I played in the NHL, I found people swore at me. Whether I was at the World Championships, winning in the AHL, I always found some who saw something bad in me. If I gave in to what people said, I would never be drafted, I wouldn't have played in the NHL and would have been sitting in an office somewhere today. If I paid attention to the words of people, my life would have taken a completely different direction.

HP: You mentioned interest with Nitra, can you elaborate?
BV: I am still in touch with Miroslav Kováčik and we will certainly talk. I'm not denying that at all. I know a lot of the guys on the team right now, and Miroslav seems to me like a man in the right place. England gives me a better financial offer, but I'm at home in Nitra, playing in the Champions League. Everything has its pros and cons, I still have to decide.

Reading this first interview, I was intrigued about Valábik's contract situation and the concept of an "open contract". What I presume this to stand for is the typical two-week notice period that Valábik could, if he so chooses, hand in his two weeks notice, seemingly before the end of July, and sign with Nitra if they match the financial offer. It seems to be a bit of a strange scenario, but it remains to be seen. Clearly, this article is for a Slovak audience, so this perhaps explains the continued discussion of the option of moving to Nitra.

Valábik scored 1+2 on his debut for Piešťany in 2013,
including an overtime winner
Photo: TASR/Č
However, thankfully conducted another interview with Mr. Valábik at the time of the signing which provides more information about this "open contract", as well as who he snubbed in the lead up to signing in Coventry.

Pravda: Why did you decide to sign in Coventry?
Boris Valábik: The first word that comes to mind is stability. One month ago, I declined an offer from the Nottingham Panthers. However, I still kept the EIHL in mind. I began to take an interest and my former team-mates gave it praise. People from their club called me every day and convinced me that they wanted me. Most importantly, the club always pays its players on tie, the full amount.

Pravda: Were there other teams competing for your services?
BV: There were, and are still offers. I have a clause in my contract that if I receive a better deal I can leave. Currently I am debating an offer from Nitra. Playing at home is a massive draw. However, at my age, it is mainly about the money. I look at hockey pragmatically, I want to restart my career.

P: What do you know about the British EIHL?
BV: Firstly, I was surprised that a few hours after signing the contract, I received calls from my friends Branislav Mezei and Ivan Čiernik. The marketing is at a good level there. They immediately wanted me to have a Twitter account so I could interact with the fans. I heard that the league is physically tough, there are many foreign hockey players, and I won't shy away from fighting, although I have slightly calmed down. But I have always been the type to provoke things on the ice.

P: How will you remember your season in Kazakhstan?
BV: It was an interesting experience that opened my eyes. I went to Kazakhstan purely for the money. I went through three clubs. The whole sport and life in the country is linked to oil. As its price dropped, there was less money for sport and it has made a big impact on the league for next season.

P: You have had injury problems for a lot of your career, how do you deal with it?
BV: It's challenging. Few people know that I played almost my entire NHL career hurt. Torn pectoral muscle, shoulder sprains, a sprained ankle, which I convinced myself I could play with. Within five years I had six operations. I appreciate my health more now, especially now that I am healthy and I don't have any problems at present.

P: Have you reconciled with the enforcer label that followed you in the NHL?
BV: I was a defensive defenceman. I did not score a lot of points, so therefore the media only reacted when I fought. I was not a typical enforcer. I always defended team-mates when it was needed. I never started a fight over an argument or during the warm-up. I admit that maybe I was not able to concentrate on my normal game as much whilst I had such a reputation

[Ed: The interview goes on to ask a number of more questions about his NHL career, but I've limited it to just what I think is relevant for Valábik's time in the EIHL].

Obviously the picture is a little clearer with the help of that second interview. Valábik, like I think a large number of players in the EIHL has a clause (typical two-week release clause) which allows him to leave for a better offer. Therefore, I don't think this is anything for Blaze fans to get too worried about.

All in all, Valábik looks like he will be donning a Blaze jersey come September, and I can think of many of the Skydome faithful who will be delighted to see that, especially if he puts in performances like his debut for Piešťany in 2013/14. Two assists and the overtime winner:


Vítame vás, Boris. Veľa šťastia v Anglicku!

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