Michal Plutnar knew he would have to leave the Czech Republic to pursue his hockey dreams.
When the Tri-City Americans drafted him in the CHL import draft in June, he was excited. But the opportunity would take him more than 5,300 miles from his hometown of Chotebor.
"I was scared, but my mom had more reservations," said Plutnar, who got a little help with translation from his agent, Robert Spálenka. "She said I was too young to be that far away from home all alone."
Spálenka also had his doubts, but not because Kennewick was too far away.
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"Tri-City saw him play at the U-17 tournament last year and told us they would like to draft him," Spálenka said. "We felt he might not be ready. We didn't know if he was strong enough physically. When it came time for the draft, Michal said he was ready, and we called Tri-City. Our advice to Michal was to pick up and move as soon as he could. He's smart, skilled and moves well."
Americans general manager Bob Tory selected Plutnar with his first pick (48th overall) of the CHL draft.
"When I saw him play at the under-17, he was one of the better players on the Czech team," Tory said. "Our intent was to get a defenseman in the CHL draft and to go younger. He's just 17. He could have a long career here."
After two decades in the league, Tory knows parents have their reservations about leaving their sons in the hands of strangers.
"The hockey takes care of itself, but when you don't speak the language, everything is new and uncertain," Tory said. "It's a difficult decision for the family and the player. His parents (Martin and Olga) were able to come over after Christmas. They see that he is playing good hockey and has a good home. It helped put them at ease."
It didn't take long for the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Plutnar to fit in with the Americans. Paired with Sam Grist, he is one of the team's top four defensemen. He has four goals, six assists and a plus-8 rating.
"I like Tri-City," Plutnar said. "It is better hockey than Czech Republic. Better people, nice fans. Back home in junior hockey, there are no fans, just the parents. Here it is sold out. It is a dream world."
In addition to learning English, Plutnar also has had to learn the North American style of hockey.
"The ice here is smaller," Plutnar said. "In Europe, there's not as much contact in the game -- it's a more skilled game. Here, it is much more physical and harder. I like this style. You have to think quicker."
While Plutnar still is learning the game, his agent said this is the best place for him to be.
"(The Western Hockey League) is the best junior league in the world, and he felt he might not be good enough to play here," Spálenka said. "He has proven that he is."
Tri-City coach Jim Hiller agrees.
"At 17, to play defense and come from Europe, and the fact he has done as well as he has, shows he has great hockey sense," Hiller said. "He has a real knowledge of the game. We paired him with Sam real early. We thought they complemented each other. Sam's a bruiser, and Michal is good with the puck."
Plutnar said he tries to learn from the other defensemen at practice and in games, but he's happy to have Grist as his partner.
"Zach (Yuen) has good hands and good skills," Plutnar said. "Sam plays hard and tough with a lot of hits. I like Sam. He is bigger and stronger, and if I'm in trouble, Sam helps me all the time."
Even though there was a language barrier at the start, Grist said he feels he and Plutnar work well together.
"He is really skilled," Grist said. "He has good hands and is calm with the puck. We are opposite players, but it works. I like playing with Michal a lot."
Plutnar started playing hockey when he was 5 years old. His dad, a forward in his playing days, coached Plutnar when he was younger.
Playing in the WHL has allowed Plutnar to hone his skills and catch the attention of NHL scouts. Plutnar is eligible for this year's NHL draft.
"There is some interest," said Spálenka, whose Sport Invest Group manages several NHL players, including Martin Hanzal of the Phoenix Coyotes. "There is still half a year to go. It is in his hands as to high he will go."
Plutnar said he would make the most of his opportunities.
"I will continue my career here and the NHL and not go back to the Czech Republic," he said. "That is my dream."