Jakub Vrana (Richard Wolowicz/HHOF-IIHF Images)
A resurgent Czechs squad will lean heavily on international hockey “old-time” Jakub Vrana to guide his nation to a medal at the World Junior Championship.By Pavel Barta Jakub Vrana goes by the nickname ‘Raven,’ while the literal translation of his family name in Czech is “Crow.” But when it comes to circling international competitions, Vrana has been like a vulture over the years. The 2015 world juniors will be his third, and he doesn’t turn 19 until it’s over, meaning he’ll probably be back for a fourth go-round next year. Add in three under-18 world junior events the past three years and Vrana has played in six major international tournaments for the Czech Republic. Never let it be said Vrana hasn’t served his country. “I already have experience at events like this,” Vrana said. “I’ll make sure we’re well prepared.”
The Prague native is the undisputed leader of the contingent from the Czech Republic. He takes pride in that role because it’s his only opportunity to show his roots. The skilled right winger left his native country at 15 to play in Sweden because he liked the development program there. This is his fourth season playing for the Linkoping program (under-16, under-18, under-20 and now in the Swedish League).It wasn’t an easy decision for the dynamic point producer. Living by himself in an apartment complex at such a young age accelerated the growing process. On the ice, Vrana developed a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach. He typically finishes a season with more goals than assists, reinforcing his take-charge attributes. Czech coach Miroslav Prerost knows his team will lean on Vrana. “He is a cool sniper, but he also needs teammates to create room and scoring chances for him,” Prerost said. “Although he can get on by himself.” The Czechs were a baffling bunch at last year’s WJC in Sweden. They beat Canada 5-4, then lost 3-0 to Germany. The Czech Republic finished 2-2 in the round-robin before losing 5-3 to Finland in the quarterfinal. Vrana had one goal and two points in five games. It was at the under-18 worlds in Finland last April where Vrana shone, scoring eight goals in 10 games guiding the Czechs to silver. Vrana will approach this WJC with the same mission quest he had at the under-18s. “It helped us a lot to recognize what winning is about and showing we are a good team,” Vrana said. His most recent WJC memory was swallowing the tough quarterfinal loss to Finland a year ago. “We were close, we led 3-1 and missed it by a bit,” he said. Vrana will play on the Czech Republic’s top line beside center David Kampf and winger Ondrej Kase, an Anaheim draft pick. They played as a unit last season but this time will be relied upon to lead the offense. “They should be the ones we count on,” Prerost said. Also aiding the attack will be under-18 silver medallists David Kase, Dominik Masin and goalie Vitek Vanecek. If David Pastrnak gets clearance to play from the Boston Bruins, the Czechs will have some dazzle. All that leaves Vrana, who was drafted 13th overall by the Washington Capitals last June, anticipating wearing Czech Republic colors again. With Linkoping in Sweden, Vrana has been getting increased ice time, patrolling the point with a booming shot on the first power play unit. He has also improved his physical game and now dreams of making the Capitals roster in much the same way Swedish rookie left winger Andre Burakovsky did this year. “I will set to it when I’m ready,” Vrana said. “There’s no hurry.” This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.