Forward Jachym Kondelik, a 4.75-star prospect, recently committed to Connecticut. Knodelik, who has soft hands and a quick and powerful release, grew up in the Czech Republic. He paid his youth hockey there until he attracted the attention of the USHL. The forward was drafted in the first round of the CHL Import Draft, but began playing with Muskegon in 2016-17 to keep his college eligibility. Kondelik is in his second season with the team. He has also represented the Czech Republic in a variety of international tournaments and helped the team to a gold medal at the 2016-17 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Neutral Zone caught up with Kondelik to chat about his youth hockey experiences, his path to the USHL and why he chose UConn:
Neutral Zone: How and when did you start playing hockey?
Jachym Kondelik: When I was three. My dad played hockey so I saw him playing every day. I just felt that’s the sport I want to do too because I want to be like my dad.
NZ: What was your youth hockey experience like in the Czech Republic?
JK: It was obviously different, but I have great memories of my friends so I really enjoyed it. It was especially a lot of fun.
NZ: How did you get into the USHL?
JK: We had the Hlinka tournament and it was with the national teams, and a scout from Lumberjack saw me and they asked me if I would like to come over. I said yes because my first plan was going to college, so that’s when I decided to go to the USHL and not Canadian Hockey League.
NZ: It sounds like you pretty much said yes right away. Did you have to convince your family in any way, or were there any other factors that went into the decision?
JK: I was first thinking if I want to go to the Canadian Hockey League or the USHL, but my parents would rather like me to go to the USHL because people take school more seriously here and I was thinking about that.
NZ Before you were approached to the USHL did you have an idea you wanted to try and get into that league?
JK: I was just thinking to go to the USHL and maybe get an offer from the school so I can come over. I was 16 when I was leaving, so I couldn’t imagine at 16 going to college, but I heard a lot of people [say] that college is a great choice. So I was just thinking about that, that I’m going to go, do my best, and we’ll see how it’s going to go.
NZ: You did get drafted in the CHL. What was that experience like and your reaction to it?
NZ: Yeah I was really happy and really excited because I had another option to leave the Czech Republic because it was even before Muskegon talked to me. I said yeah that’s great. I was really happy. I was mostly excited that I didn’t have to stay in the Czech Republic because I knew I was still trying to get a chance to go to the USHL, but I knew I had a chance to [at least] go to Canada, so that was good. I was really happy.
NZ: Why didn’t you want to stay in the Czech Republic?
JK: The hockey is not so good. There’s way more players [in the USHL] and even fewer teams. We have way fewer players and more teams. More and more players want to leave every year. It’s just a thing. Everyone is seen thinking hockey in the U.S. or Canada is way better [because] you have better players.
NZ: What was the toughest adjustment to the USHL?
JK: Probably the physical part because I wasn’t strong enough at the start. And then for sure the smaller ice, that was really tough at the start to get used to it, to have less time for everything. It took me a while.
NZ: What was it like moving so far away from home, especially at such a young age?
JK: It was tough but I had great support from my parents and all the people around. I had a lot of help and even, it was good because I had Czech friends here in Muskegon, so it was way easier. And they even helped me to decide to go with Muskegon too. That was tough, the start was tough, but I got used to it so that’s fine.
NZ: There’s a larger influx of European players in the U.S., how have you seen the number of European players coming to the U.S. and Canada change?
JK: More and more, yeah. It makes you way better because you’re playing against better players. That’s actually why everyone’s leaving. You have so many people, you’ve got like 18 or 20,000 [players] playing hockey in US hockey right now and you have 14 teams in the USHL team and we have like 2,000 players in Czech hockey and we have 18 teams.
NZ: What was winning the Hlinka tournament like?
JK: It was great, it was at Czech ice, everyone had their parents there, so it was especially great because it was the first time the Czech Republic won. I think we had a great team, we had a good coach, and just everything fit together perfectly. The journey was just awesome. I’ll never forget that.
NZ: How has your international tournament experience helped you grow as a player?
JK: First of all it helped me to go to the U.S., so it helped me for sure a lot. Playing for a national team I got the chance to leave, so that was huge for me. I played against all the great guys, so I can see how good they are, like [Nico] Hischier was the first pick this year, and almost everyone was drafted first round. It was great. I had the opportunity to play against them. It was a great experience.
NZ: What other schools reached out to you and where did you end up going on visits?
JK: I talked to a couple schools, like BU, Omaha, Connecticut, Western Michigan, Michigan State, UMass and Maine. I was going for visits to BU, UConn, Omaha and to Michigan State. They were my favorite schools so I visited those schools and then I decided where to go.
NZ: How did you decide on UConn?
JK: I just felt really comfortable with the coaching staff and even the campus and stuff. I think even like the schooling part, I really felt comfortable with the schooling part that’s there I just hope I’m going to be an impact for the team, that would be important for me. Another thing is, I have a lot of Czech friends over there so that’s good too. And I really wanted to play eastern hockey because it’s closer to the Czech Republic, so it’s easier for my parents to fly over here.
NZ: Are you aware UConn has a real husky dog as a mascot?
JK: Yeah I’ve seen pictures of him. I did not see him at the visit, [but] I was hoping to see him. I was really excited that I might be able to see him, but I missed him. I think he’s super sweet so I’m really excited to see him.
NZ: How much of a factor did the husky play in your commitment?
JK: No it didn’t play a factor. It’s fun and I think it’s sweet too. … He’s so nice in pictures. I don’t know if he’s so nice in reality, but in pictures, he’s just awesome.
NZ: What’s the best experience you’ve had in hockey?
JK: The USHL and the world championships. The world championships were great because all the top players played there, and it was their draft year, so they had to play well. I think everyone played really well so it was a really high level of hockey [and] really a lot of speed. And the same in the USHL. In the first few games, it was crazy for me because everything was faster and it was just great hockey. Guys are older, so it was great.
NZ: What’s your best on-ice skill?
JK: I think protecting the puck and probably trying to make plays, like reading the ice. But for sure protecting the puck.
NZ: What are are you trying to improve the most?
JK: I think I’m not a bad skater with technique, but I still need to get faster every year. For sure being faster, stronger and I’m still trying to work on my shot. I don’t think it’s really bad, but I just want to get better and better with my shooting, so [working on a] quick release and stuff.
NZ: What would you tell another 15 or 16-year-old contemplating playing overseas?
JK: I don’t even know. I think I would say the most important thing is to have fun. If you have fun, the time is going by so much faster, so I think that’s important too. Because you leave your parents [and] it’s really tough. But if you have fun, you really enjoy it and the time’s just flying by. I know last year was a little tough. I was calling almost every day when I was here and this year I just really enjoyed being here and the time is just flying like crazy. For sure having fun, and be in touch with your parents because they really help a lot. That’s my advice.
NZ: What’s the toughest challenge you’ve faced in hockey?
JK: Probably always the first game when it’s something new. That’s for me always the toughest challenge, like first game at the worlds or first game at the USHL. That’s like really tough because you don’t really know what to expect with faster hockey.
Photo credit: Hickling Images