WASHINGTON — The little kid inside Jakub Lauko woke up Wednesday morning in the Bruins five-star hotel, rubbed his eyes, rubbed them once more to be sure, and then realized it was true.
In just a few hours, he’d play in the NHL for the first time, his last step in a very long journey, the first step in a career still to be determined.
“Not nervous,” said the 22-year-old Czech forward prior to faceoff against the Capitals. “Just like excited to be here. I feel privileged.”
Lauko finished the Bruins’ 5-2 win with 11:36 of ice time, 2:10 on the penalty kill. He picked up his skating pace over the course of the game, twice drawing penalties in the opening 10 minutes of the third period, disrupting the flow of the Capitals’ offense.
“That’s why we want him in the lineup, his ability to draw penalties with his speed,” said coach Jim Montgomery, “and to take pucks to hard areas.”
Montgomery rolled out Lauko’s line for the opening faceoff, in part because the Capitals opened with their fourth line.
“I don’t think I was surprised,” said Lauko. “But obviously, when Monty said, ‘You’re going to go,’ I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be interesting.’ I was actually happy because I didn’t have any time to be nervous. I jumped right into it and didn’t have wait two, three, four minutes on the bench, waiting, shaking, and thinking, ‘OK, is this it?’ It was a pretty nice shift for the start, so that helped.”
Lauko and A.J. Greer, the former Boston University standout, were the two new kids in the lineup as the Bruins kicked off the 2022-23 season, the club led by another newbie, Montgomery, behind the bench.
Greer, riding with Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith on the third line, is not new to the NHL lights. He debuted with Colorado in 2016-17 and now is in his seventh pro season, trying to gain some career traction after bringing a meager 47-game NHL résumé into Wednesday night’s action at Capital One Arena.
Lauko, though, debuted as a true NHL neophyte, suiting up with a spoked-B on his chest for the first time since the club selected him No. 77 in the 2018 draft. At about 195 pounds, he is some 20 heavier than he was on his draft day, and he’s far better versed on the twists, turns, and weight of disappointment that so many kids face on their path to the big time.
On his draft day, all energy and smiles and naivete, an effervescent Lauko was eager to tell reporters that he felt he could make it quickly to the NHL. Earnest and confident, he said he felt he could prove the Bruins right in taking him and show other clubs that they blew their chance. He was on the move.
Then came reality, the hard truth that very few kids breeze their way into the best hockey league in the world.
Then came even worse. Last year, his third as a pro, Lauko was still in Providence, his numbers were low (3-13–16 in 54 games), and his confidence even lower.
“Injuries, hadn’t played well, I lost all my confidence I had from previous years,” Lauko recalled late Wednesday morning following the club’s day-of-game workout. “I hit … let’s say with hockey … I hit the rock bottom. And it was hard to drag myself out of it.”
So he went back over the summer to Czechia, to his small hometown outside Prague, and Lauko literally fought his way back, sandwiching his usual offseason skating sessions with exhausting workouts in Greco-Roman wrestling and Muay Thai boxing.
He wanted to clear his mind, and so what if it meant getting his block knocked off.
“I was sitting in the locker room after it,” recalled Lauko, thinking back to some of his boxing and wrestling training sessions, often doing both the same day, “and I was like, ‘What the hell did I drag myself into?!’ I couldn’t even lift my hands, or stand up.”
Zdeno Chara, who grew up in neighboring Slovakia, for years incorporated Greco-Roman wrestling into his offseason training regimen. His father, a retired Olympic wrestler, trained many of Slovakia’s best wrestlers, and Big Z would come to Trencin in the summer and wrap arms and legs with the best.
Lauko picked up Muay Thai (often referred to as kick boxing) in part because a family friend, Jiri Zak, now 44, is among the best Muay Thai fighters Czechia has produced. Another family friend, pals with Lauko’s dad, led him through the Greco-Roman paces.
“Even when I was sparring with them, fighting with them, it’s unbelievable strength and conditioning,” said Lauko. “It’s crazy, crazy how hard it is.”
Typically, boxers and wrestlers compete against athletes in their weight class, in large part for safety. Goliaths go against fellow bigs. The little guys take on others for Lilliput.
Lauko said he wrestled nearly every day he was home, without any restrictions in weight class.
“Even the guys 30 pounds lighter were throwing me everywhere,” said a smiling Lauko, able to laugh with the pain tucked neatly away on the other side of the Atlantic. “It’s no fun.”
In tandem, said Lauko, the two sports built his strength and resilience and confidence. They reawakened his fun factor. As a side benefit, he feels both skills could come in handy on the ice, if rough comes his way. Today’s NHL rarely demands such tussles anymore. But if so, he can draw on the training.
“Feel like I can handle myself better out there,” he said. “If it’s necessary.”
Most of all, the two fighting arts served to be what he called “a literal reset button.” Hockey became a joy again.
He certainly didn’t forget that he felt he fell to “rock bottom” just months earlier in Providence. That memory lingered through the summer, and it was still there as Lauko pulled on his No. 94 sweater here, with the big “B” on front, and his family name stitched neatly high across the back. Still there as he lined up with fellow forwards Tomas Nosek at center and Nick Foligno at left wing for the season’s opening faceoff.
But even if the memory lingered, the emotional sting dissipated. The cloud lifted. He fought his way through, tired himself to the bone with daily workouts, and he came to camp with a clearer mind and a freer game.
Then for one day — and who knows how many more? — he woke up here in the morning, rubbed his eyes, took account, and it all had come true. He was Jakub Lauko, the little kid from outside Prague who dreamed the dream and finally lived it.
“Ooof,” said Lauko, asked what went through his mind as he arose from a restless night’s sleep. “It was kind of like a strange feeling, because it was hard, especially last season, there were moments during the season I thought like it was not going to work out for me here.
“But, just feeling, just knowing I am in this locker room for the first game of the season, it feels really good. I’m just happy I stayed and I kept working.”
The night complete, his first game in the books, Lauko noted feeling a sense of relief.
“I think it was pretty decent, and I was happy how it [went],” said Lauko, whose parents, fresh of a flight from Prague, made it in time for the opening faceoff with only 10 minutes to spare. “They fly back tomorrow, but it’s the first one so I am really glad they made it.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.