WATERLOO — Thanksgiving meant a lot to Ondrej Psenicka.
It wasn’t a holiday feast or the first of three United States Hockey League games in as many days that put an extra bounce in the step of the 6-foot-6, 201-pound Waterloo Black Hawks forward.
Rather, it was the arrival of his mom, Ludmila, from his home in Prague, Czech Republic that made the day particularly special. It marked the first time Psenicka had seen any of his family since he arrived in Waterloo back in August for his first season in the USHL.
“We get to video chat a lot,” Psenicka said. “I’ve missed my parents.”
Psenicka is not the first foreign player in Waterloo. The Black Hawks have had players from Japan, Russia, Sweden, Finland and from the Czech Republic, too.
Because of that experience, Black Hawks’ head coach P.K. O’Handley says he and his staff probably keep closer tabs on Psenicka to see how he is adjusting not only to the North American style of hockey, but to the United States, Iowa and Waterloo.
“You read their body language a little better, their facial expressions,” O’Handley said. “I don’t think people realize how difficult it would be if they changed places with a 17-year-old and moved to another country and had to perform not knowing the language, the culture.
“Those are things he’s been going through and has done extremely well with. Now that we are 10-to-15 games in, he is settling in with the North American game, settling in with his teammates and the last three weeks you’ve really seen that smile on his face and maybe a little relief that all is going to be okay.”
In 17 games, Psenicka, whom Waterloo selected in Phase II of the USHL Draft last May, has four goals and three assists.
“At the beginning it was quite hard for me,” Psenicka said. “English and the style of play was new. But it is getting better. I feel more comfortable. I’m having a good time with the guys.
“My English has gotten a lot better and I can speak better with the guys, the staff and coaches.”
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Waterloo and O’Handley typically assign a teammate to help foreign players navigate their new surroundings. Defenseman Nic Belpedio has been that person for Psenicka.
“I think at the start he was a little bit lost, trying to figure it out and learn English better” Belpedio said. “He practices (English) every day at home. He’s definitely starting to catch on to everything and by the end of the year, I guess you would say, will be like a full-time citizen.”
Psenicka is a prized prospect back in the Czech Republic, but had aspirations to follow his brother Tomas to the United States with hopes of playing college hockey.
Tomas played in the USPHL with the New Jersey Hitmen.
“After Waterloo picked me, I came to their camps and then they offered me a chance to play and I was very happy,” Psenicka said. “It has been my goal to play here for years. It is a big reason why I didn’t sign a contract with my old team (HC Sparta Praha). I wanted to remain an amateur. I want to play in college.”
Psenicka, who says he plans on playing at least two seasons in Waterloo, has been adapting to North American hockey and in particular learning how to use his big frame.
“I’m working on it. I know I’m a big guy and that I need to play more physical,” Psenicka said.
O’Handley believes Psenicka is on the right track to show college and pro scouts that type of player.
“We’ve got to get his feet moving more north rather than east-west,” O’Handley said. “Rather than across the rink, we’ve got to get him going up and down the rink and taking the puck to the net. Those are things he is learning.
“He is a big guy who can skate. The guys who are deciding his future are wanting a big man’s game of some sort. We are trying to make him understand that, but that is not his game. But that is what they are looking for, that is what they are judging him on. Right, wrong or indifferent, that is the way it is. He understands and he’s doing a great job.”