Perhaps they are cliché, but there are a couple givens when it comes to Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Radim Zohorna, who is on the roster and hoping to make his NHL debut.
One is that, as a native of the Czech Republic, he idolizes former Penguins superstar and fellow Czech Jaromir Jagr.
“He’s legend for everyone from Czech Replublic,” Zohorna, 24, said Tuesday after his first practice of the season with the Penguins.
Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, turned 49 last month and, while not a regular, still plays some with the Kladno team he owns in the Czech Republic.
That longevity on top of ranking second to Wayne Gretzky in NHL history with 1,921 points, make Jagr something of legend outside of the Czech Republic, too, but it’s something special for his countrymen such as Zohorna.
“I met him last year because he plays in the Czech League,” said Zohorna, who wears No. 67 but said it is not specifically a salute to Jagr, who wore No. 68.
Zohorna played in the Czech League before he signed with the Penguins at the end of last April, and the first thing that stood out to anyone who took an interest was his size – 6 feet 6, 220 pounds.
Which brings us to the second given about Zohorna: There will always be questions about whether a player, particularly a forward, that big has the skill and skating ability to make it in the NHL.
“For a guy that’s as big as he is, he’s a decent playmaker with the puck,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Tuesday after watching Zohorna at practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, adding that he showed a good pace to his practice.
“This was the best impression we got of him, just to have him be part of a practice,” Sullivan said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been playing so many games that we haven’t had an opportunity to get him in a team practice. I thought he did a real good job. He has good hockey sense. He has real nice hands. He can make plays.”
During drills, Zohorna rotated in on the fourth line and got a little time with the second power play unit.
Zohorna said in anticipation of joining the Penguins he amped up his training last summer. With the NHL shut down last fall, he played 21 games with his Czech team, Mlada Boleslav BK, amassing 12 goals, 22 points. That equaled his point total from the previous season – in 46 games.
He faced a big transition when he arrived in North America, where the hockey ice surface is considerably smaller than in Europe.
He said it helped that he got into 11 games with American Hockey League affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton earlier this season, netting three goals, nine points.
“I had a really big problem with the ice because the players are so nearby me in the (offensive) zone,” Zohorna said. “Now it’s not so bad.”
In a virtual interview with reporters Tuesday, Zohorna a couple times stressed that he is eager to make his NHL debut. That could happen soon, perhaps when the Penguins play back-to-back home games Wednesday and Thursday against Buffalo.
If so, Zohorna will follow many other Czechs who have played for the Penguins as well as Jagr. Players such as Petr Nedved, Jiri
Slegr, Marty Straka, Petr Sykora, Robert Lang and Jan Hrdina.
He already has something over most of those players — a full complement of vowels in his name. But he would settle for equal footing as a Pittsburgh Penguin with NHL experience.
“I’m glad to be here,” Zohorna said. “I’m in the position right now that they have been, so I want to make the team and I want to play in the NHL … like all these guys.”