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This Yogi Does More Than Steal Picnic Baskets
By Tricia McMillan, AHL Correspondent

The 1996 NHL draft was supposedly a weak one. Don't bother telling the Washington Capitals that, however, as the Caps managed to find a bumper crop of youngsters who are excelling this season. And while the Caps' first pick (by way of the Kings) was the much-hyped Alexandre Volchkov, it was their own, second first-round pick, Jaroslav Svejkovsky, who has earned himself a lot of hype.

In a year where many Caps draftees have been standouts, Svejkovsky has been his own highlight reel. Svejkovsky (pronounced Sheh-KAHV-skee) has played most of the season in the AHL for the Portland Pirates, where he has won both Player of the Week and Rookie of the Month, was named to the World All-Star team, and leads all AHL rookies in scoring in spite of taking time off to play in a few NHL games. And oh yeah, he's already been featured on ESPN2. Not bad for a guy who just a year and a half ago was in Europe, didn't speak English and didn't play much hockey either, to the degree he nearly quit hockey completely.

Jaroslav Svejkovsky
Jaroslav "Yogi" Svejkovsky
Photo by Tricia McMillan

Svejkovsky, a native of Plzen in the Czech Republic, had been playing in the Czech junior leagues when he tore ligaments in his knee during an under-18 international tournament. He missed nearly a year of playing time and also missed being drafted in his first year of eligibility as no NHL teams had seen him play. He considered quitting the sport, but played well to finish his final season in Ta'Bor Czech. So, undaunted but not knowing a word of English, he packed his bags and joined the Western Hockey League's Tri-City Americans in hopes of being drafted by an NHL team.

The first thing Svejkovsky learned in North America was that no one could pronounce his first name correctly (not to mention his last name!). The solution? A nickname no one can forget. "My friends... they didn't know how to pronounce my name, so that's why they gave me 'Yogi'," explains Svejkovsky. 'Yogi' has now stuck to the degree that few people call him Jaroslav and he often adds 'Yogi' to his autograph.

Once in Tri-Cities, Svejkovsky learned English quickly (he also speaks Russian and German) and North American hockey even faster.

"[When} I started in the Western Hockey League I was 19 so other guys were younger...and the difference wasn't that bad," says Svejkovsky, who is now 20.

The change in playing style didn't affect Svejkovsky, as he scored goals in the WHL. Oh boy did he score goals, picking up 58 goals in 70 games and adding 43 assists; he had 22 multiple-goal games and three hat tricks. Svejkovsky was named Rookie of the Month by both the WHL and CHL in November of 1995 and was named to the CHL Top Prospects game, where he had a goal and two assists; he also played in the WHL All-Star game and was named to the Second Team All-Stars. Washington, ever on the lookout for goalscoring, took notice - and took Svejkovsky 17th overall in the draft.

Due to his age, Svejkovsky was eligible to play in the AHL this season and the Capitals decided that was the best place for him to begin his professional career. Svejkovsky believes that was the right decision.

"When I started the season I knew I needed to play a lot. I'm sure if I was in Washington I wouldn't play so much," he explains. "So I started in Portland, I had a lot of ice time, power play, scored some goals. I'm sure this year is good for me and I can get a lot of experience."

The Capitals were somewhat concerned with Svejkovsky's lack of strength and defensive ability, but still offense remains their priority for him. "I have to do my job, I have to score goals, that's why they drafted me. Maybe play...better defense, be stronger," he admits.

The change to professional hockey has been noticeable to Svejkovsky - "Guys in the AHL, they're much stronger players than in juniors" - but not to anyone else. Svejkovsky had his first Player of the Week award barely a month into his first professional season and was named Rookie of the Month for October. He not only leads the league in rookie scoring with 47 points, but is tied for first in the entire league in goalscoring with 27; he's also among the league leaders in power-play goals (nine) and game-winners (five). Svejkovsky credits his quick adjustment to his teammates' on-ice assistance, but his scoring success was inevitable.

"[Yogi]'s got a great natural ability to score goals," says Portland head coach Barry Trotz. "He's been a big surprise but he's probably a year away from making it because of his lack of strength. Another year of building strength and he'll play in the NHL."

Of course, Svejkovsky's already played in the NHL, one of only three 1996 first-rounders to make his debut already (Philadelphia's Dainius Zubrus and Anaheim's Ruslan Salei are the others). He received two callups to the parent Caps this season, playing six games and picking up his first NHL point (an assist) and his first goal against Anaheim.

Svejkovsky went out on a limb before the Caps' tilt with the Ducks, promising his teammates he would score his first goal that night. "I was 90% sure I will [score a goal] so I said I will do it," he says matter-of-factly.

While Svejkovsky is an admirer of Jaromir Jagr, at the draft he was quite excited by the idea of playing with Bondra and Czech hero Michal Pivonka. The Capitals see a lot of Bondra in Svejkovsky and have played all three together several times this season, something Svejkovsky was hoping for - even if he was a little intimidated.

"My favorite thing was to play with great players, players like I was dreaming about, Peter Bondra, [Phil] Housley, just the greatest players," he says of his NHL stint. "I'm so happy I get the chance to play with them."

But with more polish needed in his game, Svejkovsky was returned to Portland and found himself named to the 'World' All-Star team, where he attracted plenty of notice from scouts and media and was interviewed live on ESPN2, where the bubbly rookie left Deuce reporter Brian Engblom flabbergasted. "He was amazing. He was just great wasn't he?" a dazzled Engblom told the ESPN2 audience.

"It was fun," Svejkovsky says of the All-Star game. "I had a lot of fun, sometimes too much fun because we didn't get many hours to sleep, we had a lot of practices and interviews and a lot of stuff."

While he does have some more work to do on his game and some off-season training to do, Svejkovsky is not long for the minors. "I was hoping I can be one of the best players in Portland," he says. "I think I can make the NHL team this year. I believe in myself.

"I came here [to North America] and I started from zero, I started almost a new life. This is my new country."

LCS: Guide to Hockey

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