Vojtech Outrata had played in hundreds of hockey games before.
But his first one as a member of the De Pere Voyageurs was certainly different to the foreign-exchange student from the Czech Republic.
Outrata had no problem adjusting to his new teammates or the pace of play on the ice during a 3-2 victory against Bay Port last month.
However, playing in front of a jam-packed crowd at the Cornerstone Community Center was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
“There is no one watching us,” Outrata said about playing in the Czech Republic. “There is maybe 20 people at each match. Here, I was so surprised to see so many people.”
It’s not an uncommon site to see a foreign-exchange student on the roster of at least one of the area’s high school hockey teams each season.
“Hockey is a worldly game,” De Pere coach J.P. Coppo said. “For our players to have the opportunity to have a European player like this here, allows them to understand where the rest of the world is kind of at.”
Outrata, a forward, was one of two players from the Czech Republic on the ice for the season-opening game between De Pere and Bay Port on Nov. 25.
Martin Suda, the other player from the Czech Republic, scored the game’s first goal for the Pirates, who have had at least one foreign-exchange student on their roster the last three years.
“It’s a lot of fun having them around,” Bay Port coach Mike Buchan said “They come over and work hard and there is a lot we can learn as coaches and players from them — on and off the ice.”
Outrata leads De Pere with 10 points (nine goals, one assist), while Suda is Bay Port’s second-leading scorer with 10 points, including a team-high six goals.
“The way they play hockey over there is a little different than how we play hockey over here,” De Pere senior defenseman Emmett Kulick said. “(Outrata’s) so aggressive. They bring another edge to the game. Other teams are always worried about them because they’re so good.”
Outrata and Suda both hope to catch the attention of junior league scouts while they’re in the United States.
They said there isn’t a big difference between the skill level of their Under-17 club teams in the Czech Republic and the high school teams they are playing for in Wisconsin.
But there are few — if any — junior league scouts at their games in the Czech Republic. Even if they can latch on with a European junior team, there isn’t necessarily a next step to further their education while still playing hockey.
“They don’t have the opportunities that our players have in our country,” Coppo said. “Our players at a high school age or a junior age are looking to get that scholarship to play Division I hockey or go to college to play Division III. Over there they are looking to play for their home junior team with aspirations of playing for their home pro team or their national team. You’re talking about a high scale right away. When you turn 17 or 18 years old, that scale is right there. It is extremely high.
“Here, they look for the opportunity to get the education for their talents, just like Americans do.”
Outrata, who takes classes at De Pere, is enjoying the American school system as well. He liked being able to pick his courses and having different people in each of his classes.
“The initial goal of this is to learn English because hockey doesn’t always work out,” Outrata said. “It just doesn’t happen always. But I’ll have a backup of knowing almost perfect English and that will help me in Europe because it’s very much appreciated there.”
Outrata and Suda have grown to appreciate the fan support at their high school games.
It’s something they don’t see a lot of in the Czech Republic because they play for club teams, which are not affiliated with the schools they attend there. They are usually competing for or training with their club teams on a year-round basis.
It’s why Suda didn’t expect to see one of his Bay Port teammates, senior Kolton Huff, rushing for touchdowns on the school’s football team during the fall.
“I’m pretty surprised that here people are playing more than one sport because in my country you don’t have enough time for two,” Suda said.
It didn’t take long for Suda’s teammates at Bay Port to figure out how much he loves hockey.
“He’s as upset as we are if we lose and he’s only been with us for a couple of months,” Bay Port senior forward Logan Froberg said. “It’s makes you realize that even across the world they have that deep passion for it.”
Buchan feels the experiences the players share off the ice will benefit everyone involved in the long run.
“I think the whole premise behind it isn’t coming over here just for hockey,” said Buchan, whose junior varsity team has a foreign-exchange student from Germany. “We really look at it as a scholastic opportunity for the player. If we benefit with them as a player, that’s kind of secondary from what they get out of it with the education aspect of it.”
Area boys hockey teams at a glance
Coach: Matt Golden, first year.
Notable: Golden previously was a coach in the Green Bay Gamblers Jr. program. The Jaguars have to replace defenseman Matt Berkovitz and goalie Ryan Wischow, both of whom were unanimous all-Fox River Classic Conference players last season. Senior forward Max Benson leads the team with five points (three goals, two assists) through six games this year.
Coach: Mike Buchan, fifth year.
Notable: Senior forward Logan Froberg, a first-team all-FRCC player last season, leads the team with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) during its 4-2 start. Senior Sean Angle returns at goalie, while sophomore Austin Mikesch’s six assists is second on the team.
Coach: J.P. Coppo, fourth year.
Notable: Junior forward Jake VanRens is the team’s top returning scorer from last season. He is one of five players with at least five points during the team’s 5-2-1 start. Senior defenseman Emmett Kulick has six points (two goals, four assists) after missing a majority of the football season with a torn labrum.
G.B. Notre Dame
Coach: Cory McCracken, ninth year.
Notable: The Tritons have made five straight WIAA state appearances and have won 37 straight FRCC games. Senior defenseman Tony Stillwell, a University of Wisconsin recruit, missed the first part of the season with a leg injury. Notre Dame played in the Michigan State University Showcase last weekend, losing to Detroit Catholic Central (4-3) and Brother Rice (3-0) of Michigan.
Coach: Kipp Karakas, seventh year.
Notable: The Gryphons have to replace goalie Will Griswold, a second-team all-conference choice last season. Senior forward Ty Dutkowski is the team’s top returning scorer and has four points (three goals, one assist) this season.