International Ice Hockey Federation

Voracek surges to stardom

Voracek surges to stardom

Czech forward credits conditioning program

Published 26.11.2014 15:18 GMT+1 | Author Bill Meltzer
Voracek surges to stardom
Jakub Voracek is being interviewed at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The likes of Sidney Crosby and Yevgeni Malkin have a new competitor for the NHL scoring crown in Philadelphia’s Czech forward Jakub Voracek.

Going back to the days when he left his native Kladno, Czech Republic to play for Halifax in the QMJHL, it was clear that Voracek had an unusual combination of size, speed and skill. Voracek's junior coach, Cam Russell, said several months before the 2007 Draft that Voracek had all the tools to be as good as anyone in his Draft class. He could be a playmaker, a scorer and even a two-way player if he dedicated himself to maximizing his potential.

Success at the professional level did not happen overnight for Voracek, but he improved slowly but steadily. Much like assembling jigsaw puzzle, Voracek appears to have finally put all pieces together. Through the first 20 games of the 2014/15 National Hockey League season, Voracek led the league in assists and was tied with Pittsburgh Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby for the NHL’s overall points lead.

"When I compare this year or last year to my first three years in the league, I didn't shoot the puck," Voracek said. "I look at it like, 'What the hell were you doing?' There were to many times when you could shoot the puck, but you just pass it. Everything comes with experience."

Improved physical conditioning has been one part of the story. Voracek changed his diet over the summer to reduce carbohydrates and eat more lean proteins. As a result, he reported to training camp at 94.3 kilograms (208 pounds), down more than 10 kilograms (4.5 pounds) from training camp the previous year.

Playing at a lighter weight has beneficial to Voracek in maintaining a consistent level of stamina in games. For example, he has had no drop-off of energy in quick-turnaround shifts or in third periods. The Czech forward been an above-average skater, but playing a little lighter weight has helped even in that regard.

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However, the conditioning aspect is just one part of the story. Voracek points out that there have been many things along the way that have helped him go from a gifted but inconsistent talent to a player who has become one of the top forwards in the NHL. It has been the process of gaining experience, paying attention to detail and having the right influences on his game that has been the difference between Voracek in his early years and today.

From the time of his first Flyers training camp under Peter Laviolette, the player was encouraged to focus on shooting the puck when possible. It just took some time to gain confidence and find what worked. Along the way, Voracek has had the benefit of some very valuable experiences:

  • The presence of Jaromir Jagr and other veterans to guide and mentor him during Voracek's first season in Philadelphia. 
  • The opportunity to find a comfort level as a member of the first power play unit. Success was not immediate when he was first put there, but Laviolette and Joe Mullen stuck with him until it clicked.
  • The chance to move up to the Flyers’ top line following Jagr's departure and to play with an elite offensive talent in Claude Giroux; a finalist for the 2014 Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Nowadays, it is an equal partnership between two top-notch players and each helps raise the other's production.

Voracek got more serious about staying in shape once he came to the Flyers. Even so, he caught heat for his conditioning after the lockout in 2012. Voracek joked that he perhaps had enjoyed his mother's home cooking a little too much while playing for HC Lev during the lockout. Now-former teammate Scott Hartnell, who also admittedly reported to the Flyers in less-than-ideal shape after the lockout, joked that Voracek and himself were candidates for "fat camp."

Of course, those concerns disappeared quickly when Voracek went on to have a career season in the 48-game 2012-13 season, posting 22 goals, 46 points and scoring on 17.0 percent of his shots.

Last season, while the Flyers got off to a horrendous 1-7-0 and 4-10-1 start and scored just 22 goals over their first 15 games, much of the attention was focused on the fact that Claude Giroux had no goals over that span. Voracek did not fare much better, scoring just one goal and four points in the first 15 games of the season.

Something that gets easily forgotten: Voracek was not a healthy player entering the 2013/14 season. He injured his back in the preseason on a play where he slid into the goal post. He was still clearly at less than 100 percent in the early going of the season, even though he did not want to use injury as an excuse.

Once Giroux and Voracek got rolling, so did the Flyers. Over the remaining 67 games of the regular season, Voracek posted 22 goals, 36 assists and 58 points (0.865 points per game). During the Flyers first-round playoff series against the Rangers, Voracek was one of the few Flyers players who had success in skating the puck through New York's tight checking and creating scoring chances.

While Voracek is understandably pleased with his early-season results this year, the player said he is not focused on winning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring champion. His goals are team-focused.

“I just want us to win,” Voracek said after a recent Flyers victory against his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. “I’m not looking at my points or what anyone else is doing. The thing I am focused on is how our team can play the way we’ve shown we can play.”

For the same reason, Voracek does not want to think ahead to the potential of play for the Czech Republic in the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Prague and Ostrava.

"It's too far away; five or six months away. We'll see what happens. It's something I would think about but it's too far away to think about now,” he said. “I would rather be battling for the Stanley Cup.”

Nevertheless, Voracek takes tremendous pride in representing his home country with the Czech national team. Not surprisingly, one of his fondest memories is being a member of the team that won the gold medal in the 2010 World Championship in Cologne and Mannheim, Germany.

“When we won in 2010, we had such a good locker room,” said Voracek. “You have to be a little bit lucky to win those types of tournaments. When we won it in 2010, we won the quarterfinals in a shootout. Then we had to play a 'Dream Team' Russians and we beat them, 2-1. No one expected us to win. Like I said, sometimes you've got to get lucky.”

Voracek also looks back with fond memories about the last time the World Championship was played in his homeland. In 2004, Prague and Ostrava hosted the tournament. At the time, Voracek was a 14-year-old standout for the Kladno Under-20 team. Like most his countrymen, he followed the tourney with great interest.

"All the Czech Republic was following it. The tickets for the World Championship disappeared in about three hours. People know that the Czech Republic is a hockey country. It's always fun to watch the national team compete,” said Voracek.

Back in 2004, the Czech team soared into the medal round with a perfect 5-0-0 record. However, the squad suffered an upset loss to Team USA in the quarterfinals. Voracek says that it will be tough to build a national team dynasty to rival the ones the Czechs had in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

During those years, a generation of Czech players born from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s – led by the likes of Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Frantisek Kaberle, Tomas Kaberle, Patrik Elias, Jiri Dopita and other elite talents – were a perennial threat to win the gold medal. Along the way, the Czechs collected gold medals at the 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2001 World Championships. The national team’s crowning achievement was capturing the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano; the first Olympics in which the NHL participated.

“That generation of players was an incredible group, said Voracek. “I don’t think it’s ever going to happen again, but we have won gold medals [in 2005 and 2010] when things have come together at the right time.”

Voracek knows the excitement in his home next spring will rival or even exceed that of the 2004 tournament. The Czech fans are knowledgeable and supportive of their team but also demanding.

“For Czech people, the World Championship is tops,” said Voracek. “There will be a lot of pressure on the Czech national team when they are playing at home in Prague, but it's going to be incredible."


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