By Doug Reese
FLORENCE, S.C. – Amy Florio only needed a few moments to discover why her husband made Jan Vodrazka captain of the Pee Dee Pride.
“I was talking to my wife and the word she used – and she’d only met him one time – was mature,” Pride coach Perry Florio said. “You can just tell. Everything about him is very mature. That’s what makes good leaders. When they speak, other people listen. And that’s how Janny is.”
And that’s what Florio wanted in his team leader.
The coach tried to lure Vodrazka, who played an integral role in Pee Dee’s record-breaking 1998-99 season, back to the Pride in the summer of 2003. But the Houston Aeros, among other teams from the next-level American Hockey League, came calling.
So Vodrazka went to Houston, his fifth different team from the AHL or the now-defunct IHL since he left Pee Dee. The Pride, meanwhile, suffered through their first losing season and missed the playoffs for the first time in team history.
But a year later, the NHL strike sent many borderline top-rung players looking to the AHL for work and forced players like Vodrazka, who didn’t have a contract, to fight for a job or go elsewhere.
When Wes Goldie – the Pride’s captain and leading scorer in 2003-04 – decided to take a more lucrative position in the Quebec Major Senior Hockey League, Florio concentrated his efforts on Vodrazka.
The defenseman’s decision to return to the launching point of his career wasn’t hard.
His wife, Emily, is from Florence. Vodrazka returned nearly every summer since he left either to her or with her. Their first child, Ella Reagan, was born here in July.
The 27-year-old counts many Pee Dee residents, including former coach and Pride general manager Jack Capuano, among his friends.
He holds only his hometown of Plzen, Czech Republic, above Florence.
And, maybe most important of all, the Pride need him.
The franchise has been on a steady attendance decline since a record 200,174 fans watched the Brabham Cup-winning 1998-99 squad.
And the Pride, while perennially a contender, never again reached the on-ice heights of 1999’s Southern Conference finals appearance.
This season, the team’s eighth, is a make-or-break campaign. The Pride need a boost in attendance for the local ownership to keep them skating.
So it’s no surprise the players leading them into battle have a vested interest in the outcome.
Wearing the two As as assistant captains are Allan Sirois – who enters his seventh season with the team, whose wife is also a Pee Dee native and who also has a newborn baby – and Kyle Kidney, a third-year member of the Pride.
And leading the way is Vodrazka, a gritty veteran defenseman who doesn’t want the Pride to succeed just because they sign his paychecks but because he truly cares.
“Perry realizes we take pride in the team,” Vodrazka said. “It’s personal. We live here.
“We don’t want our friends asking, ‘Where is the team going?’ We want to prove that we can lead the team. We want the team to be supported by the fans and we want to win.”
Quite a commitment from a player that, at least on some level, has to be disappointed being back in the ECHL.During his five years playing outside the Pee Dee, Vodrazka only once returned to double-A hockey – a four-game stint with the Florida Everblades in 2001-02.
Otherwise, the 6-1, 200-pound defenseman has been a staple of the AHL and, before its demise three years ago, the IHL.
But Vodrazka doesn’t dwell on the step down.
“It’s a little bit of a disappointment,” he said. “But it’s not as bad as knowing you are not playing there because you can’t play at that level. I know I can play at that level. It’s just the circumstances of an unfortunate lockout.
“I got over that quick, especially playing for a team that helped me get to the higher leagues and playing in a city that my wife is from and where I know a lot of people.”
Here, his wife’s family is around to help with Ella.
Florence has stability and a small-town atmosphere that the Vodrazkas likely wouldn’t get with another AHL move – something Florio, a father of two who’s coached three different teams in the past two years, understands.
“I know from experience, you don’t want to be moving around, especially when they’re brand new babies,” Florio said.
“All the gear you’ve got to lug around with the car seats and strollers and cribs – it’s a pain in the neck.
“They just had the baby in July and the last thing you want to be doing three weeks later is packing up and finding a new pediatrician and new furniture. It’s just a hassle.”
A wife, a baby and a captaincy – it’s a far cry from where Vodrazka was when he arrived in Florence for the first time in the fall of 1998.
Then, he was a 21-year-old second-year pro with no responsibilities other than to his team.
“I was definitely the young buck,” Vodrazka said. “After practice, anything goes. I could go and take a nap. I could go and golf. I could go with the guys for lunch and hang around, do nothing or do everything.
“Now, it’s changed. I gotta go home, make sure the baby’s OK. My wife will run errands and I’ll look after the baby. You grow up.”
That maturity has come on the ice as well.
In his first go-round with Pee Dee, Vodrazka was a volatile player.
He was quick to enter any confrontation, or create one of his own. His 262 penalty minutes in 1998-99 are still the Pride record.
He continued to rack up the PIMs through two seasons with IHL Kansas City, posting 280 and 227 with the Blades.
But then the numbers tail off. He was sub-200 the next two seasons, including 169 in 2002-03 – when he was under contract with the NHL’s Calgary Flames – while playing all 80 games for AHL Saint John.
Last season, Vodrazka posted just 82 PIMs in 54 games with Houston.
The reasons for the change are simple. The former scrapper doesn’t need to drop the gloves – or rub them in someone’s face – to tell them he’s tough.
They already know.
And these days he’s more valuable on the ice than in the penalty box.
“I got a little older,” Vodrazka said. “I’m not the guy to go out there and run around and look for a fight anymore. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna stick up for the guys. I’ll fight still, but it’s not something … I grew as a player.
“I think I calmed down. I’m concentrating more on hockey. I wouldn’t say I enjoy the fighting, but I take it as an asset.” It’s an asset the Pride are more than happy to have.
But more important is the leadership and experience Vodrazka brings to the rink.
And even more important in the long run might be his dedication to the area and commitment to help Pee Dee hockey survive.
“This is my second home now,” Vodrazka said. “My wife and I spend every summer here. It’s second only to the Czech Republic. I know a lot people and I take pride in how this team is gonna do.”
Just like any good captain.