For many of the Washington Capitals, this will be a special weekend when their fathers join the team for the two games in Florida.
For rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth, this weekend could represent the culmination of an improbable 15-month hockey odyssey - and his entire family will be there to experience it. Neuvirth, a 20-year-old netminder from the Czech Republic, has been with eight different teams since November 2007 and began this year in the ECHL, but he could make his NHL debut either Saturday against Tampa Bay or Sunday against Florida.
“I was just working hard and hoped I could make the AHL before this season, but I didn’t,” Neuvirth said. “It was frustrating playing in the [ECHL], but things go crazy sometimes. I still can’t believe that I am here.”
Neuvirth’s family came to this country to visit him, but even their journey has been an unconventional one. When Neuvirth purchased the plane tickets, he was the starting goalie for the South Carolina Stingrays in Charleston, S.C. But by the time his father, Petr; mother, Iva; and younger sister, Iva, were scheduled to fly to Charleston, Neuvirth had been recalled to Hershey of the American Hockey League.
So his family flew to Charleston and spent the night at Neuvirth’s apartment before flying to Harrisburg, Pa., the next morning. Since joining Neuvirth, his family has seen AHL games in Hershey and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., but they also were able to come with him to the District when the Caps recalled him last week.
“My parents didn’t expect they were going to get to see D.C., and now they’re going to see Florida, too,” Neuvirth said, adding his family has checked out many of the monuments and a few of the museums. “It is a great thing. And maybe they might see my first NHL game, so it could be very cool.”
After being a second-round pick in the 2006 draft, Neuvirth agreed to come to North America for two seasons of junior hockey to help his acclimation to a different brand of hockey. While playing in the Ontario Hockey League, Neuvirth was traded twice last year and spent a few weeks on the Czech Republic entry in the world junior championship.
This season, he was the odd man out in Hershey when the Bears kept Simeon Varlamov and Daren Machesney, so he went to South Carolina. He was loaned to Trinec of the Czech Extraliga but spent only one practice with the team before an appendix problem put him in the hospital for a couple of days. Add in some red-tape issues with the contract, and Neuvirth was back with the Stingrays.
That made eight different teams when the Caps recalled him after Brent Johnson was injured.
“Eight teams?” Neuvirth said. “Wow, that’s crazy - I didn’t even know that.”
Added Washington goalie coach David Prior: “He is resilient. I was a big part of why he was in the [ECHL], but I knew he was capable of handling it. He wasn’t happy about it, and I thought the Czech arrangement might be good for him and one season of home cooking might do him some good, but it didn’t work out through no fault of Michal’s.”
With Johnson and Varlamov both injured, this is Neuvirth’s chance to spend some quality time with Prior and prove he can play in this league while backing up Jose Theodore. Varlamov - who was selected 11 spots before Neuvirth in the 2006 draft - earned two starts for the Caps earlier this season and won both.
Prior has been working with Neuvirth on a few technical issues, such as respecting the puck carrier as a shooter first, not dropping to the ice when making the first lateral move and not going down too soon.
“It is not about getting his skill level up. It is about getting his strategic level up for the NHL,” Prior said. “I think both of those of kids, him and Varlamov, are talented enough that they will never look out of place - even in the National Hockey League. They might make too many mistakes while perfecting their games, but in terms of talent level, he, like Varlamov, can make some mistakes but save his own bacon.”
To make room for the Caps’ newest addition, defenseman Staffan Kronwall, and to give him some more space, Neuvirth switched stalls in the dressing room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex this week. He is now in a corner next to Johnson’s currently idle stall.