Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

So much more to life than stopping pucks

Frightening incident last October reinforces Pavelec's outlook

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The most important figure in the Winnipeg Jets' quest for a playoff spot -- a man whose play will be critical over the next seven months -- sits in his locker, quietly surveying the scene unfolding in front of him.

He watches as rookie sensation Mark Scheifele faces the latest in a series of media scrums and then as the mob moves to Andrew Ladd... to Patrice Cormier... to Dustin Byfuglien...

And all the while Ondrej Pavelec has a slightly bemused grin on his face.

"I like being in here watching this," says the Jets' Czech goaltender. "Hockey is one thing... but your life off the ice is important. Of course you take hockey serious, but you come to the dressing room and spend four or five hours a day here and then you go and live a normal life.

"I try to stay positive -- especially with what happened to me last year -- because there are a lot of things around the world that are not going a good way. You learn that anything can happen to anyone at any time and so I just try to live the day like it's going to be my last one.

"I like to have fun."

Pavelec's perspective is unique to the Jets' dressing room, honed over his 24 years on the planet and shaped by some significant events, like moving to Canada from his hometown of Kladno -- 20 minutes from Prague -- to play junior.

But Pavelec's take on the world, he will readily admit, was also heavily influenced by an incident that took place just under a year ago.

It was 2:25 into a game against the Washington Capitals last October when the talented Czech, tending goal for the Atlanta Thrashers, tapped his stick a couple of times, looked toward the bench and then tumbled backwards and passed out.

Teammates and doctors rushed to his side and a young goaltender with his whole career in front of him was wheeled off on a stretcher and taken to hospital by ambulance.

Pavelec awoke on the ride without being able to feel his legs and remembering only the national anthem and none of the details of the frightening incident. The feeling in his legs would come back in the emergency room and doctors would later determine he had suffered from a 'neurocardiogenic syncope episode' -- a fainting spell -- and suffered a concussion from hitting his head on the ice.

But it was during all that uncertainty, including tests of his heart, head and blood and genetic checks over a 72-hour period, that Pavelec understandably saw a whole lot flash before his eyes.

"I spent three days in the hospital to do those tests," Pavelec recalled. "I was in the MRI tunnel for seven hours straight and so you have a lot of time to think. If there was something wrong they would have found it and they didn't find anything.

"All they said was I fainted and that there could be more reasons. It could be stress, it could be that I was sick maybe two weeks before. I did all the tests you could possibly do. My brain was great. My heart was great. Everything went great.

"But it was in the ambulance when I was thinking about a lot of things," continued Pavelec. "I appreciated things before and I don't want to say that's changed. But those things happen and I realized it could happen to me or anybody else.

"The important thing is you have to deal with it and go with it. Hopefully it never comes back."

The son of a nurse -- his step-dad was a hockey coach when he grew up -- Pavelec came across to Canada at 17 to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (their coach at the time was current Jets' assistant Pascal Vincent).

A first-team all-star who twice won the Jacques Plante Memorial Trophy for the lowest goals against average in the QMJHL, Pavelec bounced between the Thrashers and the Chicago Wolves -- leading the Wolves to a Calder Cup in 2007-08 -- before establishing himself as the club's top netminder last year.

He posted career-best numbers -- a 21-23-9 record, 2.73 GAA and .914 save percentage -- on a squad that finished second-last in the NHL in defence. On top of that, he helped lead the Czech Republic to a bronze medal at the World Championships in the spring with two shutouts and a sparkling .939 save percentage.

It's those most-recent numbers that have many convinced Pavelec is about to become an elite NHL goaltender and Jets' fans saw evidence of it during his solid work in the preseason

But asked if he's ready to take that next leap in his career and Pavelec again smiles. A change in perspective, after all, can mature a person.

"That's not really a question for me to answer," he said. "There's always space to improve yourself. You have to work every day to make the NHL and then every day to stay in the NHL a long time.

"There are a lot of young goalies who come in here... there's always somebody waiting for your spot. All I can do is work hard and appreciate that I'm here and playing."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Ondrej Pavelec

NUMBER: 31 HEIGHT: 6' 3" BIRTHPLACE: Kladno, Czech Republic

WEIGHT: 220 CATCHES: left BORN: 31 Aug. 1987 (age 24)

 

REGULAR SEASON (2010-11):

GP W L OT GA SA SV SV% GAA SO PIM MIN

58 21 23 9 147 1,705 1,558 .914 2.73 4 4 3,225

Source: Winnipeg Jets

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2011 C1

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