CEDAR RAPIDS — Marek Valach is a smart kid who always wanted to keep his options open.
The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders forward came to the United States Hockey League last year after playing in a professional league in Austria, against much older competition. Valach never accepted a paycheck from his club, preferring to retain his potential NCAA eligibility.
But this year, he came upon an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, even if it meant never being able to play college hockey. The 20-year-old Slovakian winger was invited by the NHL’s Boston Bruins to take part in their recent rookie camp.
Boston never offered him a contract, and he is back now for a second season with the Riders. There are zero regrets about his decision.
“I think every hockey player wants to play in the NHL,” Valach said. “When I got to know they invited me to their rookie camp, I was really happy. I knew I’d lost my eligibility for college, but I want to play pro. I will do everything I can, I will work hard to do that.”
Valach scored 20 goals and had 41 points in 52 games last season for Cedar Rapids. He has offensive acumen, a great shot and toughness.
That latter part was obvious when he came back to play late last season despite suffering a broken index finger. He said he still feels soreness in that finger from time to time.
Valach’s agent contacted him in late August about the Bruins thing. A visa snafu kept him from getting to the U.S. for a week, but he eventually made it and made it to camp.
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“As soon as I read that text from my agent, I didn’t even think about college. This is what I wanted to do, what I felt is right for me,” he said. “It was way faster and really hard to play. A hard pace and stuff. But I think the speed, if you practice with them a long time, you get used to it. I think ... no, I know, I have to get better in the ‘D’ zone, the defensive zone. That’s one of the big things I want to work on this season. To get better there, and to be a complete player in our offensive and defensive zones.”
Valach said he got a bit of feedback from the Bruins and is hopeful his stint with them will open some sort of professional door next year. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to the upcoming RoughRiders season.
Cedar Rapids hosts Waterloo in an exhibition game Friday night ($10 tickets) and goes to Waterloo for another one Saturday. The USHL regular season begins Sept. 27 in Pittsburgh, Pa., of all places.
Every team will be there for their first two games. The RoughRiders play Fargo on the 27th and Lincoln on the 28th.
The home opener is Oct. 13 against Sioux City.
“After the season was over last year, we had individual meetings,” said Valach, when asked if he had a chance to play elsewhere this season. “Coach (Mark Carlson) asked me that same question. But I told him, no, I wanted to play here again. That’s what I wanted to do. I want to stay in the USA as long as I can, and I will do anything for that.
“I think we can be very dangerous this year.”
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