Richard Smehlik knew what David Moravec was going through all too well. Smehlik experienced the same thing seven years ago, when he first joined the Sabres. The people and their language were different. Hockey was more physical, unlike the finesse style he played growing up in the Czech Republic.
A certain uneasiness comes with being a foreigner, but the one thing Smehlik always knew he had was time. It might have taken a few years, but the defenseman eventually grasped English well enough to ask the coaches a question or order a Big Mac. He adjusted to life in North America.
Moravec doesn't have much time. The Sabres right winger has three weeks to prove to coach Lindy Ruff that he belongs in the NHL or the 26-year-old rookie will be handed a one-way ticket to the Czech Republic.
"I would like to play here in Buffalo, in the NHL," Moravec said through Smehlik, who served as his interpreter. "I think I can make the team. It's a different level and a different game. It's going to be a challenge for me to play in the NHL."
Smehlik and his wife, Martina, and their two daughters have opened their home here for their countryman, who was raised about 20 minutes away from the defenseman in the former Czechoslovakia. They're trying to show him the way. Moravec understands little English and speaks even less.
"It's a tough situation," Smehlik said. "Learning the language is tough. He's getting here when he's 25 years old. He's not 18 or 19 years old, where he has time to develop and then make the team. He has to make the team now."
Moravec was discovered late in his career by NHL standards. He was a member of the Czech Republic's gold-medal team in the 1998 Olympics, but all anybody heard about then was some guy named Hasek. The Sabres grabbed the little-known winger in the eighth round of the 1998 draft.
It's now or never because he and the Sabres wanted it that way. The Sabres have little patience for him to sharpen his skills in Rochester and he has no desire to play in the American Hockey League, so a clause in his contract calls for him to be with the Sabres or go home.
"He didn't want to play in the minors, but he showed some real high skill level in the games over there," general manager Darcy Regier said. "He can challenge. He may challenge. I don't know."
Moravec is here solely to find out whether he's capable of scoring in the NHL. He had 17 goals and 14 assists in 31 games last season for HC Vitkovice in a league for top Czech players, but smaller rinks and more hitting make his game difficult here.
His gifted hands, which some compared to Miroslav Satan's, already have been on display. He's a good, shifty skater but he does not possess overwhelming speed. Still, the Sabres could always use another scorer.
"He has hands, he has vision, he can score goals," Regier said. "He's an offensive player. That's certainly something that fits in here."
Moravec grabbed Ruff's attention last weekend when he scored one goal on a great shot during an exhibition against the Boston Bruins. His age might be working against him, but with that comes experience. And experience might be his biggest asset. Ruff wants to see more.
"He's had a really good camp, so far," Ruff said. "You can see he can handle the puck in tight situations. He's got an excellent shot. His downfall is a little bit of size (6-foot, 180 pounds) and maybe a little bit of speed. Not all goal scorers have the complete package, but he has the hands to score goals."
"I think I can play here, but I have to adjust my game a little bit because there is more physical play," Moravec said. "It's a different game. There is more ice in Europe. There is more contact here, but I think I can play here."
Moravec should get a good look at right wing while Satan and Vaclav Varada continue their contract disputes. Moravec is neither as aggressive as Varada nor as skilled as Satan, but players can often adjust quickly in this game.
Satan led the team with 40 goals and 66 points last season, and he is the Sabres' top priority. Varada had seven goals and 24 assists in his first full NHL season but ran into lengthy scoring slumps. Varada, coincidentally, is playing with HC Vitkovice during his holdout.
Erik Rasmussen and Stu Barnes can play either wing, and the Sabres also have Rob Ray. Moravec needs to become comfortable immediately. Smehlik would attest that, so far, he has looked like anything but a foreigner on the ice.
"He definitely has the talent," Smehlik said. "He has the great shot. In the first game against Boston, he looked good out there. He can play at this level."
The Sabres were planning a news conference for this afternoon to announce that Ruff has signed a three-year extension. The deal is believed to be worth roughly $2.4 million, or about $400,000 more than was previously reported.
The agreement comes after he guided the team to the Eastern Conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals in his first two seasons as coach. The former Sabres' captain will be paid by the team through 2003.
"I'm very happy," Ruff said. "After the last couple years, after walking on eggshells, I have a little bit of stability. I don't know if there's any stability in this business, but there is some security, I guess."