A native Czech, Voracek awaits Olympics in Russia

Jakub Voracek was with the Blue Jackets in 2008 when he strolled down a Columbus, Ohio, street with his girlfriend, Nicol Hlusickova, and his parents, Hana and Miloslav, who were visiting their son from the Czech Republic.
Jakub Voracek was with the Blue Jackets in 2008 when he strolled down a Columbus, Ohio, street with his girlfriend, Nicol Hlusickova, and his parents, Hana and Miloslav, who were visiting their son from the Czech Republic. (JEFF HINCKLEY / Columbus Dispatch)
Posted: November 08, 2013

By the time Jakub Voracek was born, his father already had dared to defy an evil regime's reach for the sake of his family's freedom.

In 1988, Miloslav Voracek sneaked out of his home in Kladno, Czechoslovakia, and embarked on a treacherous journey, riding a train to the border and hiking for two days through the forests of Austria until he reached a friend and fellow defector in West Germany. He remained there for six weeks, plotting a way for his wife and daughter to join him, until he returned home after coming to a prescient realization - that things would change for the better soon enough, that the Soviet Union's empire and influence were doomed to crumble.

He was right. Jakub was born on Aug. 15, 1989, and by the end of that year, the Velvet Revolution had forever transformed the Voraceks' home country. All these years later, Voracek is a top-six forward for the Flyers, and he'll carry the stories that his parents told him about those days with him to Sochi, Russia, in February, when he likely will play for the Czech Republic at the Winter Olympics.

"Of course they told me," he said. "They hated commies."

These will be Voracek's first Olympics (his selection to the team is a near-certainty) and the first in Russia since the end of the Cold War - and the Flyers will host the New Jersey Devils on Thursday in a game that should remind everyone just how recent that history really is. On the Devils roster are two of hockey's most gifted and accomplished Czech-born players, 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr and 37-year-old Patrik Elias, both of whom are expected to be Voracek's Olympic teammates, both of whom spent their boyhoods living under communism's thumb.

"It's a big change. It created big opportunities," Elias, who will miss Thursday's game because of back spasms, said in a phone interview. "I had a privilege and chance to leave the country and play here, and obviously that would never have happened under the old system."

Voracek grew up admiring Elias and, in particular, Jagr. He loved those high-scoring Pittsburgh Penguins teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, mostly because they were loaded with talented Czechs: Jagr, Martin Straka, Petr Nedved, Robert Lang. Although, like most of his teammates, he has struggled through the Flyers' first 14 games, managing just a goal and three assists, the 6-foot-2, 214-pound Voracek led the team in goals last season with 22. At his best, he plays with a kind of controlled rambunctiousness, like a German shepherd with a strategy, and he possesses the happy-go-lucky personality of a 24-year-old who appreciates what his father did for him but never had to live with the same stresses and burdens.

He wears the uniform No. 93, for instance, not because he's acknowledging the year that Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he said, but because he liked the way the number looked on a duffel bag when he was a rookie with the Columbus Blue Jackets. In May, he crashed his Ferrari into a tree while speeding along a back road in Kladno and was fortunate to emerge uninjured from the accident.

His father couldn't afford such carelessness, and Voracek does make sure to remember the details of what his parents have told him about their old life. Once Miloslav came back to Czechoslovakia - to his wife, Hanna, and Jakub's elder sister, Petra - two agents from StB, the country's secret police force, sat in an unmarked car outside his house for months afterward, in case he attempted to defect again.

"You couldn't travel. You couldn't say whatever you want to say," Jakub said. "There are so many people who got hurt. You could say one wrong thing and you went to prison for five years. Thank God those times are gone away."

When Hanna gave birth to Jakub, who is 13 years younger than his sister ("I was the mistake," he joked), Miloslav led a two-day celebration for the Voraceks and their extended family, blasting a succession of AC/DC and Slade songs so loudly from the stereo speakers that the agents outside could hear.

When the two men finally knocked on his door to interrogate him about the noise, a tipsy Miloslav told them, "Just take it easy. You're going to go to Wenceslas Square in a couple of months." There would be another, far bigger celebration there, for the collapse of the communist government.

Voracek's parents still live in Kladno, and the upshot of the NHL's lockout last season was that he could spend more time with them, pose for a photo in front of the family Christmas tree for the first time in years. To stay sharp and in shape, he played 23 games for Lev Prague, the Czech Republic's only franchise in Russia's Kontinential Hockey League, so the prospect of going to Sochi holds no real mystery for him, invites little bitterness. Besides, he said, his generation doesn't look at things that way.

"They know it's not 1968 or 1988, 1989. It's not like that anymore," he said. "The biggest part for me is I'll have the chance to play for my country. Not many people can say they represented their country in the Olympics. But obviously, for those like my parents, that taste is still probably there - things they couldn't do, things they wanted to experience and couldn't, things that I already did."

They can experience some of those things now. Two years ago, Voracek helped arrange a vacation for his family in Miami, where Miloslav, a restaurant owner, caught a 6-foot-5 hammerhead shark on a fishing charter.

"It was pretty awesome for him," Jakub said. "He's my hero. He's a great man." Yes, Miloslav Voracek could see that revolution coming 25 years ago, and in three months, a proud father will see the most profound validation of that vision: his son, competing for their country at the Olympic Games, a family's past never so close and never so far away.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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