Radko Gudas

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

When the Capitals take the ice each game, they represent Washington, D.C. Off the ice, however, the players are a collection of talent from all over the world. Washington is the team they play for, but neither Washington nor America is where many of them come from. Many players are a long way from home, playing hockey in what is, for them, a foreign country.

Hockey is what brought them to America and adjusting to a new country brings with it a number of challenges. Coming from Canada is one thing, but coming from Europe where life is very different is quite another.

The Capitals roster is full of several players from all over Europe. What is it like trying to adjust to life in America? What does this country look like from an outside perspective? In their own words, here are the stories of those players about what life is like in their new home.

What was adjusting to life in America like when you first came to this country?

Nicklas Backstrom: "It was different, that's for sure. I think first of all, the culture back home when you play, we had a lot of single guys over there. We practiced in the morning, had lunch together and then we went grab a coffee, sit down together, had dinner together. We pretty much were hanging out with each other for the whole day. I think culture over here a little bit more is you practice and then you go home, do your own stuff. It was a little bit of transition to start there, but once you get used to it you just adjust. I think that was the biggest eye-opener for me because that's the only thing I knew before I come over here and then all of a sudden you were just solo, by yourself. A little different, but once you adjust, you're fine.”

Radko Gudas: “The States and Europe, everything is different. Even the smallest thing is little bit different. It's definitely a lot of getting used to it. Moving from Washington State to Virginia to New York, every state has something different. Going from the West Coast to the East Coast, it was a lot of things to get used to.

“When I got drafted, I signed two weeks after that and I didn't have my [social security number]. I couldn't get any paychecks yet. I didn't have a bank account in the States, I didn't have nothing. My first, I would say month and a half, maybe two months I was pretty much living off my per diem or what my savings were from the leagues in Czech Republic. … I had to get a car, driver's license which was a pain in the ass, the insurance. I had a lot of help from all the staff and the Norfolk Admirals front office. Really happy that they helped me through a lot, but I’m sure I wasn't the only guy that they had to deal with through all this. It's obviously not an easy thing to do, but if you have the right people, I was fortunate enough to have the right people around me to help me through a lot. Made it all the way here and still don't have the IRS knocking on my door so I guess I did something right.”

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby: “Go to the grocery store, I don't know the brands. Don't know what's the best brand and stuff like that. So just small things.”

Martin Fehervary: “In Europe, in Sweden I came, I got everything set up. Here I had to find apartment so I did. Need to figure it out my car so lifestyle like this. But, I mean, it's fun.”

Eller: “It's different, but I think the biggest part is just being a grownup, being an adult, paying the bills, paying rent, finding out things on your own. For a lot of guys it's a big step of maybe living with a family or living at home and now all of a sudden you're on your own. You've got to cook, you've got to grocery shop, you've got to do this and that. I think that's the biggest step, just becoming an adult person, not necessarily it doesn't have to do with hockey. And also, I think if you speak the language it helps a lot, but for like a Russian player or eastern Europeans, that can be a lot tougher for sure. For me, I spoke the language, makes a big difference.”

How much English did you know and how difficult did that make the transition?

Evgeny Kuznetsov: “Zero.”

[Describing his first press conference] “I'm just guessing at that time pretty much every time. I see reaction, if these people happy that means I'm guessing the right way.”

Michal Kempny: “I didn't speak any English. I think the language is No. 1 [hardest part]. I tried to learn English as fast as I could. Different country, different people. I never been in the U.S. before so it was kind of everything new, but year after year I felt better and better.”

Jonas Siegenthaler: “If I didn't understand something it was just maybe one or two words and then I just ask. But overall, I spoke pretty good English from school. I started to learn English when I was seven years old. My birth year was the first year that had this English class from seven years old. I'm glad for that.”

Jakub Vrana: “It's kind of easy to learn when you just in here and you hear it every day. It's different than if you're back home and you're actually going to school and you have a one-hour, two-hour class and it’s like not it, you know? Because then you speak Czech all day. So here you don't have a chance so you're hungry, you're going to ask for food. You're going to understand, it's important.”

Backstrom: “We have English in school, but I was terrible at that, to be honest. I wasn't great. First one or two years, I was pretty quiet around there, I was just trying to learn. I was just trying to pick up the language and it helped me a lot that I had roommates [Matt Bradley, Mike Green] that spoke English. You could practice with them. Once you get a little more confident too, that helps as well.”

Richard Panik: “I had great grades in school in English, but as soon as I got here I didn't understand. I couldn't speak. It took me maybe like six months to get used to it and then it was just easier and easier.”

Carl Hagelin: “I thought I knew it better than I did. It was easy for me to read and stuff, but I think having conversations and speaking in front of people is pretty hard my first year. And then by my third semester [at the University of Michigan], I started picking up more and more. I was pretty quiet my first year, just kind of hung around and tried to learn as much as possible. Because even though you knew, we speak more the Oxford English, British English back home. And then you came over here and you used some words that they would use and some of the guys are just looking at you. And on our team, there was no other Europeans so I would say it's probably easier around an NHL team because you have the Canadians, the French Canadians and people are used to people with different dialects and language.”

Gudas: “I graduated in English as the best of my class so I thought I'm speaking fluently and perfect, but when I showed up in the States I found out I don't know [expletive]. All the slang and all the Canadians around, it was a different English than we learned in school. We learned the proper 'English' English. It took me at least two, three months to get it going to at least be able to have a fun conversation of just like what I need and what I want.”

What is something you find weird or different about America and Americans?

Siegenthaler: “I just found out that you can buy your groceries online, get it delivered. Yeah, back home if you tell somebody that you get your groceries delivered, it's kind of like, um, you're a lazy ass.”

Eller: “I won't say everybody is that way, but [Americans] tend to only know what's going on in America. Everything outside of America, they're not very well educated on that.”

Gudas: “I think the attachment to the phones. You don't see that in Czech. Everybody trying to live more outside than inside, you know? I think that's one thing that could change here.”

Panik: “The first thing I noticed, everybody is just too friendly. It just seems like, you don't even know the person and it seems like you know the person for 10 years. It's weird. Back home, we're conservative. I wouldn't say they're bad people, still good, but like here it's more I think when you meet somebody new it's more open.”

Hagelin: “I love the fact that people love going to sporting events. Like back home, if you go to [a] sporting event you go and you kind of sit and you dissect the game. You don't really talk to fans from the other team and you don't really wear jerseys. Like a girl in Sweden would never wear a jersey to a game, they'll get dressed up and go to a game. Here it doesn't matter who you are, you put a jersey on and you show your support. It's a different feel in here. Obviously it's cool in Europe, but the fan clubs are screaming and hollering throughout the whole game, but it's a different experience and I think that's cool.”

Backstrom: “Only thing maybe that I notice is they're really bad drivers in the rain.”

Kuznetsov: “Driving. The way they drive.”

What do you think of American food?

Panik: “Back home when you say American food, everybody imagine hamburgers, fries, but even here you can find great restaurant with the great food. Basically you can cook at home whatever you wanted. I think American food, it means hamburgers. I like it, but I don't eat it that often. It's different than Slovakian for sure.”

Jonsson-Fjallby: “I feel like good food is usually a lot more expensive than fast food and stuff. I mean, in Sweden, it's also cheaper with fast food, but it's not that big a difference so if you want a good dinner it's quite expensive here.”

Eller: “I eat a hot dog or pizza once in a while, but I don't eat a lot. I think it's changed here over the last decade. Now it's trending much more towards healthier food and greens and veggies. People are more aware now than they were a decade ago I think. So it is changing, but you can always find your McDonalds and your Domino's, right? Even though I rarely eat that anymore, I like the diversity. You can get everything. That's what I like about America. Every kind of food is available.”

Hagelin: “You can see there's a bit of a health kick coming now and if you want good food you can always find it. That's the great part especially. I've been fortunate to live in some big cities and some health-conscious people living in those cities, especially in California. Any place you go to, there's some good and healthy food.”

Vrana: “Fries and burgers, that's like typical, isn’t it? Steak? Fries? That's very American? Or ribs? Sometimes it's not bad, but I would not recommend it like eat it too much.”

Ilya Samsonov: “There's better meat here, steaks. Steak is very good.”

Siegenthaler: “It's more fried stuff. More burgers, fries. I found a Swiss restaurant here in D.C. They're pretty good. I think we're pretty good friends. When I miss home or when I miss the Swiss food, I just go get dinner at the Swiss restaurant. Makes me feel like home.”

What do you miss about home?

Kuznetsov: “Everything. People, food. This summer I wasn't home so a long time. Most important, we got the families back home. We've got the grandmothers, all those people who pretty much see us once in a while. They get so old. The older they get, the more you want to see them.”

Hagelin: “I think just having your family close by. Now with all the technology, it feels like they're close, with facetime and all that. I think just that feeling that everyone's close and you're just a 40-minute car ride away from all your closest people.”

Gudas: “You get a lot of visits here from the family, but the grandmas, grandpas don't come here as much anymore and now having kids, it would be nice to be around the great grandparents and be around them so I think that's the hardest thing for me, not being able to have my kids around my grandparents as much as I would like to. It's always hard in the summer to go and see them for a while because [the kids] need their rest too, but we try to get them involved as much as we can, forcing them to speak as much Czech as we can so they don't only speak English.”

Samsonov: “I don't know, maybe dumplings. A little bit talking with the Russian guys, my friends, my family. It's OK. I'm professional hockey player. That's my life.”


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After not taking the chance himself, Leo Gudas pushed son, Radko, to make the jump to North America

After not taking the chance himself, Leo Gudas pushed son, Radko, to make the jump to North America

For European hockey players, making the jump to North America can be a difficult one. Just ask Leo Gudas, father of Capitals defenseman Radko Gudas. Leo was drafted by the Calgary Flames in 1990, but coming off a Stanley Cup championship in 1989, Leo was not convinced he could earn a spot on the stacked roster and remained in Europe.

That was a mistake he was determined Radko would not make.

Fresh off the Capitals’ mentor’s trip, Leo and Radko joined Rob Carlin on the Capitals Talk Podcast. How Leo’s experience led him to push Radko to North America was one of the numerous topics covered.

“I see something inside him,” Leo said of Radko. “He was working hard, absolutely hard. That was incredible to practice it with him and do the small things he needs to still working on it. But I know it’s very lucky when he gets this place, especially when they invite him in the first rookie camp. I told him go there because this is the chance.”

“I always wanted to play hockey, but I never realized I would be able to play in the NHL,” Radko said. “For me, when I turned 16 I got my first crack of the pros in the second-highest league in Czech and just thought I was going to work my way through the Czech league and stay playing in the Czech league and be one of the guys. But when I got invited to L.A., I kind of took a step back and maybe this is the time for me to go in the world and see what’s out there in the world and he was the one that pushed me that direction as well.”

Leo’s career took him all over Europe, but never to North America. Largely because of his father’s push, Radko came to North America to play in the WHL, was drafted by Tampa Bay and worked his way through the AHL up to the NHL.

It’s a chance Leo knew Radko had to take.

“I told him if you have the chance coming there and play the biggest league what is in the world, so get there and take this chance,” Leo said.

Check out the full interview on the Capitals Talk Podcast.

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Grading the Caps' new additions

Grading the Caps' new additions

After trying to keep the band together after the Stanley Cup run in 2018, Brian MacLellan changed tactics in 2019 making several new additions to bolster a contending roster. In came Radko Gudas, Garnet Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic and Richard Panik.

Adjusting to a new team takes time. Hockey systems are complex and require practice. Plus, relationships have to form in the locker room. Trying to judge these players a week into the season serves no purpose. Thanksgiving, however, seems like a reasonable time to check in and see how eacy player has fared thus far.

Radko Gudas

Gudas was a surprise pick up off the Matt Niskanen trade. With the salary cap situation being what it is for Washington, it was widely just assumed that MacLellan would trade away the veteran defenseman for draft picks or prospects. Instead, he got Gudas, a defenseman whose solid play last season was overshadowed by the reputation he developed through the multiple suspension he has taken in his NHL career.

Stats: 26 games played, 0 goals, 6 assists, 6 points, 25 PIM, 17:09 time on ice per game

Gudas on the Caps

It's nothing but positives. The team's playing well, I thought I fit in pretty good right away. Obviously we got some teaching points learning new system. Everybody's still getting a little bit used to it. I think it's going to take a couple more games, but so far I've been amazed with everything around me.

Todd Reirden on Gudas

He's been a great add to the team. Certainly still getting used to some things we're doing systematically that are different than how they did them in Philly. That's for certain. He's probably been one of the biggest changes we've brought over from another team in terms of some of the things we ask from our defensemen that are new to him. So I think he continues to go through some growing pains on that. But in terms of how he fits into our room is he's been outstanding, fits in great with the guys, good leadership qualities already. A number of times he stands up for his teammates when he's in these scrums. I put a big value on that. There's certain situations like that, he's always the first one to jump in there for a teammate if there's a hit that's dirty or bad so I think he's done a great job of that. I think he's been a big part of why we've had success on the penalty kill. Him and [Jonas] Siegenthaler are the first two over the boards right now for us and they're really are willing to block shots and pay the price in battle and they've done 

Grade: A-

When MacLellan traded for Gudas, he knew he was getting a high-end third-pair defenseman. Nick Jensen's struggles on the second pair allowed for Gudas to have a shot there. Had he been able to stick and establish himself as a top-four defenseman, this move would have been an A+ as MacLellan would have solved the team's main weakness without even knowing it. Still, even if he can't fill the hole on the right next to Dmitry Orlov, Gudas has proven himself to be every bit the strong, physical defenseman and penalty killer the team hoped it was getting.

Garnet Hathaway

Looking to make the team more difficult to play against, MacLellan managed to sign Hathaway away from the Calgary Flames, the only NHL team he had ever known. Hathaway instantly brought a physical edge to the lineup. He has proven productive as well and has seven points in his first 23 games, putting him on pace to shatter his previous career-high of 14 points.

Stats: 23 games played, 2 goals, 5 assists, 7 points, 30 PIM, 11:38 time on ice per game

Hathway on the Caps

I think they built this team so well, I don't think there's a void that you can really point at. I want to go and I want to compliment the guys that are there right now. They have a lot of skill, they have a lot of scoring and they have guys that are tough and play a physical game. So, I want to continue on the growth I have in my career right now and I want to continue to be hard to play against.

Reirden on Hathaway

He’s a special guy in terms of his compete, his battle, his character. It’s really high-end. And when you have a guy that has a broken nose and comes back and then gets into a fight and draws a penalty which we score on the power play and then ends up scoring an empty netter that’s how it should work out. For a sacrifice like that, if you’re willing to do those things that’s what to me being a Washington Capital is all about.

Grade: B

You can't be effective if you aren't on the ice. Hathaway was suspended three games for spitting which is just so far off the grid from what you expect from an NHL player, you have to ask if he can keep his emotions in check. Beyond that limited incident, however, I love what Hathway brings. The type of player he is can be summed up in the sequence he had against the New York Rangers in which he broke his nose, came back, drew a penalty, got into a fight, the Caps scored on the resulting power play and Hathaway scored an empty netter at the end of the game. When you have a player like that, that's a big addition.

Brendan Leipsic

Leipsic is Washington's latest reclamation project. A player on his fourth NHL team who the team signed on a whim to a cheap contract in the hopes he could turn into a team contributor.

Stats: 26 games played, 3 goals, 5 assists, 8 points, 4 PIM, 9:17 time on ice per game

Leipsic on the Caps

It's never really easy coming into a team that's won, especially prett recent. I did in L.A. and then here. But everybody kind of welcomes you really well. Everybody gets treated the same from the top to the bottom, first line, fourth line, backup goalie. Great group of guys, I can see why they've had a lot of success here.

Reirden on Leipsic

He's helped us a couple different ways. We're looking for someone to play with a lot of energy and speed and also had a little bit of edge to his game. I think that he's been able to provide that through the first quarter of the season for us. Primarily played on the fourth line but I haven't been afraid to slot him up at times with some other players. He has the skill to play with some top-end guys as he showed probably more so in LA then with Van. He's fit in nicely and I think when our fourth line's at it's best, it has him on it to be able to create offense. Also, he's not really all that fun to play against. He's a tenacious player that hunts pucks and has a physical element to him. I think he's allowed us to play a more aggressive skating game that we were seeking to play when we looked to sign him this summer.

Grade: B+

It seems early to slap a grade on Leipsic because it seems like he has just started to really hit his stride. It was evident immediately how fast he was, but it took time to show how skilled and physical he was as well. He is a very high-end fourth-line player who presents a very difficult matchup for teams, much more difficult than you would anticipate for a fourth-line player. I'd like to see him perform the way he is now for an extended amount of time so I'll give him a B+ with the caveat that I feel this will go up by season's end.

Richard Panik

Of the four new acquisitions, Panik was expected to take on the biggest role as a two-way, third-line forward. He was expected both to be strong in his own end, while also a strong goal-scorer on the other. He also happens to be the player who has struggled the most adjusting to his new team.  A shoulder injury that sidelined him for 10 games certainly did not help.

Stats: 16 games played, 2 goals, 0 assists, 2 points, 4 PIM, 11:53 time on ice per game

Reirden on Panik

He’s more than just a scorer for us. That’s why we targeted this player in the summer and our organization went after him. I’m just happy to see him get rewarded with some offense. That line, it’s been much talked about trying to get a little something offensively from that group.

MacLellan on Panik

It hasn't been a seamless transition for him. We haven't seen that line together much. As we get healthy, I think we'll have a better indication of whether it works or it doesn't work. For [Panik], it's been up and down. His performance has been good and it's been not so good. But we've got to give him some time to fit in and to play with his normal linemates for a stretch during the season.

Grade: C-

Two goals aren't going to cut it, but there's no denying that Panik has played remarkably better since returning from his upper-body injury. The Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Panik third line has also played together less than 24 minutes at 5-on-5 this season thus far so there really is not enough sample size to call this signing a bust yet.