- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

If the Washington Capitals get what they want, last year’s first-round draft pick, Jakub Vrana, will develop into a nightmare for opposing goaltenders.

But during their development camp this week, two of the netminders Vrana is facing are also two of his best friends, fellow Czechs Vitek Vanecek and Jan Ruzicka. Vrana isn’t taking it easy on them in goal, but is enjoying having his fellow countrymen with him off the ice, helping them with their English and showing them some of his favorite American things.

“It’s been great,” Vrana said. “It’s been nice to be back around these people, these great people, and it just feels great. … I can talk Czech to them a little bit and they need to learn English either way, so I try to help them and it’s been great.”

Camp serves as a reunion for Vrana and Vanecek. The two are longtime friends and have represented the Czech Republic together. They have matching silver medals from the 2014 IIHF U-18 World Championship. But they don’t see each other much because Vrana played last season in Sweden, where he moved in order to play for Linkopings HC in the Swedish Hockey League because he liked the competition better there than in his home country. Vanecek and Ruzicka both play in Czech leagues.

Vrana and Vanecek’s paths came back together when they were both picked by the Capitals in the 2014 draft, Vrana 13th overall in the first round and Vanecek 39th overall in the second. Now, the two are roommates at camp.

Vrana also served as Vanecek’s translator in the dressing room, where he jokingly fielded questions about himself.

“He said it’s always great to be with me,” Vrana translated, grinning. “He’s really happy that I’m here and that I can help with his English and this kind of stuff.”

Always might be a little generous. Vrana and Vanecek engage in some friendly ribbing, especially on the ice. During Tuesday’s skate, Vrana, a winger known for his scoring ability, matched up against Vanecek during an afternoon shooting drill. He took a shot, but it bounced off the crossbar. Despite the miss, Vrana still skated up to his pal and released a mouthful of steamy breath through the bars of Vanecek’s mask and into his face.

“Yeah it’s funny, you know, sometimes when I score or something I try to give it to him,” Vrana said. “And when he says something he gives it to me back, so it’s fun.”

Ruzicka can commiserate with Vanecek about being on the receiving end of Vrana’s hijinks, and the three have been inseparable at camp. Ruzicka said that they go to coffee together, go shopping, and watch the NHL Network together at night. Ruzicka said he was grateful to have ready-made guides in an environment where, as a free agent, everything was unfamiliar to him at first.

“Because Jakub and Vitek [were] here a lot last year they show me everything they can,” Ruzicka said. “Where is the rink, where is the hotel, the walk from the hotel to the rink. Everything.”

Ruzicka had never had eggs for breakfast before coming to camp, but said he enjoys them now. His first impression of Mexican food, however, was only lukewarm.

Vrana liked the team’s Mexican meal. It was also his first, despite the fact that he’s had more time stateside. He appeared in three regular-season games for Hershey last year and had five assists before playing 10 games in the playoffs, where he scored two goals and made four assists.

Vrana has mostly been skating on a line with Chandler Stephenson and Riley Barber, and should be in the mix as a top-six forward for the Bears.

Vanecek will likely spend the season in South Carolina, but could get called up to Hershey especially after goalie Pheonix Copley was traded away in the T.J. Oshie deal last week. Vanecek joined the Bears late last season, but never played.

For Ruzicka, who, at 18, is a year younger than Vrana and Vanecek, his time to sample tacos and eat eggs in the morning is probably limited this time around.

Wherever the next stops are for the three Czechs, all agreed that banding together at camp has helped them feel more comfortable, fight homesickness and become close friends. Even if showing it means taking some hot air to the face.

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