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Injured Sabres prospect Matej Pekar making most of time in Rochester

ROCHESTER – At first, Sabres prospect Matej Pekar thought he was just being soft when he skated off the ice after getting leveled Jan. 10.

“It was just a bad angle of a hit, not even a dirty hit, I’d say,” Pekar said last week in Blue Cross Arena. “I basically took the puck into two, three guys and one guy lifted my stick.”

Then Pekar, who was in the midst of a standout rookie season with the Barrie Colts, looked down at the puck.

“All of a sudden, I get blindsided from the third guy coming off the back check,” the winger said.

When Pekar got off the ice, the severity of the injury finally hit him hard.

“I was telling my trainer, ‘Yo, Jimmy, I can’t lift my arm, I don’t what’s going on,’ ” he said.

Colts trainer Jimmy McKnight informed Pekar that the hit from Sudbury Wolves defenseman Liam Ross broke his collarbone.

That’s when Pekar, 19, said he “absolutely lost it on the way to the locker room” and screamed.

“I was absolutely devastated, to be honest,” he said.

The Czech Republic player's first Ontario Hockey League season was over after only 33 games. He soon came to grips that he couldn’t do anything about the injury.

“I told myself, ‘I can’t control it … can’t be really crying over that,’ ” said Pekar, whose team missed the playoffs without him.

After about six weeks, he said he started feeling OK again.

These days, Pekar, a fourth-round pick in 2018, 94th overall, is learning the ropes of pro hockey with the Rochester Americans. After Barrie’s season ended, he joined the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate last week to continue his development.

The early plan is to have Pekar do off-ice work and join the Amerks on the ice following practice to work on his skills. He did, however, participate in Friday’s morning skate and fill in for winger C.J. Smith during Tuesday’s practice.

Off the ice, Pekar is working to finish his senior year of high school.

Whether Pekar plays games with the Amerks will be determined later.

“Lots of excitement,” he said of coming to Rochester. “The plan (is) basically learn as much as I can, develop as much as I can, take from all of this as much as I can … and just improve myself by being around professional athletes, around guys that take hockey very seriously.”

A mix of skill and tenacity has helped Pekar develop into one of the Sabres’ top forward prospects over the last nine months.

Just days after the draft, his agitating style started earning him attention during Buffalo’s development camp. When he arrived in Barrie, his “desire to compete and get better” endeared him to his teammates, coach Dale Hawerchuk said.

“He’s an Energizer Bunny,” said Hawerchuk, a Hall of Fame center who spent five of his 16 NHL seasons starring for the Sabres.

When the Sabres picked the 6-foot, 180-pound Pekar, he planned to play college hockey at Miami University in Ohio. Then he decided to return to the United States Hockey League’s Muskegon Lumberjacks before choosing Barrie and the Ontario Hockey League.

“I’m really happy I made the decision,” he said. “I think it kind of helped me to develop my skillset a little more.”

After Pekar played 10 OHL games, the Sabres signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract. He compiled 14 goals and 36 points with Barrie, averaging 1.1 points per contest.

“My role was basically to play (the) first two lines, top minutes,” said Pekar, who briefly left the Colts to represent the Czech Republic at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver. “I feel like my coach was putting an emphasis to be an offensive player. So I was trying to play that offensive guy with some kind of grit in me.”

Hawerchuk said Pekar possesses the talent to morph into a dominant OHL player next season.

“Then you know how to handle being dominant when you start playing against men,” Hawerchuk said. “To go and try to become dominant against men when you haven’t done it at another level, it’s difficult.”

Pekar said playing for Hawerchuk, who amassed 518 goals and 1,409 points over his career, has been “so cool.”

“He knows his stuff,” he said. “He knows what it takes to make it, so it definitely makes it easier getting his experience sent to us.”