Our Alumni | Pavelec moves from the crease to the bench
By Will MacLaren
When Ondrej Pavelec made his way to Sydney, Nova Scotia in the summer of 2005, the list of unknowns was overwhelming. New team, new culture, new style of play in front of his crease. It was a set of challenges the then-17-year-old from Kladno, Czechia embraced.
“It was probably harder for my parents than it was for me, honestly,” Pavelec recalls. “It was a big change for me but I was excited. I just wanted to play over here.”
Play he did. Between the regular season and playoffs, Pavelec appeared in 115 games for the then-Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. With 55 regular season wins, a 2.52 GAA and stellar .920% save percentage, he represents one of the most successful goaltenders in franchise history. It was a bit of a dubious start, however.
“I remember we lost our first few games that season, including a couple of tough ones up in (Quebec),” he says. “After that, we started to get on a roll. Then, the following season, when we nearly made the final, it was so much fun.”
Pavelec put those early struggles behind him and took the league by storm in 2005-06, finding himself on both the First All-Star and Rookie All-Star Teams. In addition, he capped off the year by winning league awards for top rookie, best defensive rookie and lowest goals against average. The following year, he would lead the Screaming Eagles to their longest playoff run to date, falling in Game 7 to the Val-d’Or Foreurs in the President Cup semifinal.
“I knew it was going to be tough and it definitely was,” Pavelec says about his time in the Q. “I had no expectations at first. I had a full-time goalie coach (Scotty Guthro) for the first time, which was huge for me. I felt comfortable right away. Plus, I had great billets. They helped me so much, especially that first month over here. I’ve said it before, it was my best time in hockey!”
Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the second round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Pavelec gained notoriety as an emerging talent during the franchise’s final seasons in Georgia. He would keep that momentum alive after the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, recording 20-win campaigns in each of the reborn Jets’ first four seasons. He would also be reunited with a familiar face from his junior days in Pascal Vincent, an assistant coach with Winnipeg at the time, who had been his head coach and general manager in Cape Breton.
“Pascal played a big part in everything,” Pavelec stresses. “He eventually told me the story of why I was drafted by the Eagles. We were playing in the World Under-18 Championship and he flew over [to Czechia], but he was there to watch one of my best friends, Michael Frolik. Instead, he ended up drafting me.”
“Pascal was young as well. I’m not saying he’s old now, but he was one of the youngest coaches in the league at that time”, he said with a laugh. “He played me a lot (in Cape Breton). I have nothing but good things to say about him.”
Pavelec retired in 2018. After three years of what he describes as “travelling and a lot of golf”, he made his way behind the bench as Czechia’s Goaltending Coach for the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton. He returned to the role this winter in Halifax, coaxing a tournament All-Star performance from starter Tomas Suchanek en route to capturing silver, the first medal of any color for the Czechs at the event in 18 years.
“I was always jealous of the coaches,” Pavelec explains with a grin. “They didn’t have to put the gear on. When I was tired and didn’t want to go to practice, I’d be jealous. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize how much work they had to do. I’m starting to figure those things out now.”
“Just take it game by game and focus on the next one,” Pavelec responds when asked about his approach to guiding his young prospects. “You really never know what’s going to happen. It could be your last time putting the jersey of your national team on, so you really have to enjoy and appreciate every moment.”
When asked if he would return to his coaching duties should his home nation wish to retain him, his response is immediate.
“I still don’t see myself doing it every day at this point, but if they want me to stay on board, why not?” he says. “It’s only a few tournaments per year and I really enjoy it.”
Based on the results so far, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Pavelec steps behind as many benches as he wishes in the years to come.