David Koci sits alone in the Colorado Avalanche locker room, his equipment soaked and sweat streaming from his face.
The protective bar removed from his helmet after having fully recovered from a broken jaw suffered in a preseason fight against Los Angeles’ Kevin Westgarth, he’s the last man off the ice after Colorado’s morning skate as one of the team’s healthy scratches.
All this hard work, Koci says, is to be fully prepared for his next NHL game. If his next game is anything like his first, you certainly don’t want to blink.
The date was March 10, 2007, and in his sixth professional season — including spending most of the first two of those seasons with the Wheeling Nailers — the Chicago Blackhawks had called up the imposing six-foot-six, 238 pounder out of Prague, Czech Republic for his inaugural NHL contest in Glendale, Arizona. 42 penalty minutes later, and the man who’d totaled 609 minutes in the sin bin over a two season stretch in Wilkes-Barre Scranton needed just one game to make a name for himself at the game’s highest level.
Thing is, Koci says if it weren’t for an early tussle with another young enforcer trying to establish himself after coming through the ECHL, Phoenix’s Josh Gratton, it might have been another run of the mill two minutes and 31 seconds of an NHL debut.
"The thing is, the NHL was my big goal and I didn’t plan for the game to be crazy like that," Koci told ECHL.com.
"But my first shift, I got knocked down by Josh Gratton and I got really pissed off at myself in the penalty box and I said that this could be my last chance to be in the NHL, I’ve got to do something. I just found this big energy in me and I tried to skate and hit everybody and stuff like that. It turned out to be lots of penalty minutes, but it was good for me. I got my name out there. But I never meant it for it to be like that."
Highlights from his debut; which featured two game misconducts, three fights, a charging major and a roughing penalty, were shown around the continent. All of a sudden, David Koci was an overnight sensation six years in the making.
"It was great," said the personable Koci in nearly impeccable English when asked about finally reaching the NHL.
"I was really happy, but when I was in Chicago, I don’t think I was really ready to play in the NHL. I was happy to be there, but being in Chicago was kind of a learning process for me and it wasn’t much fun because I was struggling there. Now, it’s much more fun for me."
But the game hasn’t always been fun for the now 29-year-old winger.
Early on, however, his career got off to a bright start when the phone rang while he was sitting at home during the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.
"I was playing in Czech Republic in the junior league, so I was hoping at least for the ninth round. I’d have been really happy," Koci said. "But then I got picked in the fifth round by Pittsburgh, and that was pretty much like the Czech National team; they had like ten Czech guys. It was really good and fun for me."
But his first two seasons in North America were a struggle, and Koci was shuttling back and forth between Pittsburgh’s top two minor league affiliates — AHL Wilkes-Barre Scranton and ECHL Wheeling — with little to show for it. He contemplated going back home.
"My second year, I wanted to go back to Czech, but the GM Craig Patrick in Pittsburgh, he didn’t want to let me go. Now, I’m happy he didn’t do it. At that time, I was struggling a little bit and depressed and didn’t want to be there. But I sucked it in, worked hard and went through it. Now I look at it as a good learning process for me."
As is the case with most players who fill his enforcer role, Koci’s is a tale of perseverance. He said he felt far away from the NHL while with Wheeling, thinking more about simply returning to the AHL instead. Now that he’s established himself as an NHL regular with Tampa Bay, St. Louis and now Colorado over the past three seasons, he was able to offer words of encouragement to those who hope to be in his skates one day.
"I think you can still get to the NHL from there," Koci said. "There’s always a shot for hard working guys and guys who have goals. It’s hard work, but lots of guys can do it."