It was a tough way for Milan Doczy to become a pioneer — but on Friday, the Owen Sound Attack grad surely went to bed satisfied after succeeding in his two-year quest to be the first European player to access the OHL's educational package.
The 22-year-old Czech's precedent-setting push might have provided a new appreciation for the hardships faced by Europeans who cross the Atlantic Ocean to chase a fleeting NHL dream inculcated by agents, coaches and GMs. Typically, import players are seen for a time and often never heard from again ("They expect Europeans to go back to their country and that was why there was nothing about education in my contract," Doczy said last week) if the NHL dream does not pan out. For Doczy — who spoke to Yahoo! Canada Sports prior to the OHL confirming he will receiving education funding, including about $7,400 Cdn. for this school year — it was pretty straightforward. Canada, with a higher per-capita income than Eastern Europe, offers more.
"I love it here because I think I have a much better opportunity to succeed in my life," said Doczy, who is now studying at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., while playing defence for the Badgers in the Ontario University Athletics men's hockey league. "I fell in love in Canada since the first time I came."
"If it's going to help somebody else [another European player], that's great," he added. "If I'm going to change the rules or whatever, then somebody's got to do that. And if it's going to be me, I'm more than willing to do so. In the future, they will treat Europeans just as they treat Canadians."
The OHL changed the policy in the off-season, but vice-president Ted Baker told both Yahoo! and the Toronto Star that the league had lost contact with Doczy. The 6-foot-5 defenceman, who spent three seasons with the Attack, had a brief pro-hockey stint in his homeland. Last year, he moved back in with his Owen Sound billets Tracy and Sean Walker will completing his Ontario secondary school requirements. Then he moved to St. Catharines to attend Brock and live with fellow Czech immigrants Alena and Richard Grygar, the parents of his advocate Vicky Grygar.
Doczy and Grygar, now a 24-year-old masters student in applied health sciences at Brock, struck up a friendship through Facebook five years ago. Their tie was their Czech backgrounds. The Grygars made Doczy feel at ease by inviting him to their traditional Czech holiday celebrations at Christmas — including the customary meal of carp — and Easter.
They started their fight on their own and later enlisted help from the proposed Canadian Hockey League Players' Association. Ultimately, they had to cut ties with that group after questions emerged about its legitimacy. By that point, there was a strong legal basis the contract Doczy signed in 2007 might be invalid: he had no legal representation with him and didn't understand English. Grygar also helped Doczy keep from giving in to despair.
"It's all Vicky. If I wouldn't have her, I wouldn't be here," Doczy said. "She told me, 'keep e-mailing, make a difference.'
"I would say, 'no.' I just gave up. I didn't want to deal with this anymore."
Doczy (right) played in the 2009 WJC in Ottawa (Getty Images)Brock is charging Doczy regular tuition fees, which many OUA schools do for foreign student-athletes. (European hockey players are almost unheard of across Canadian Interuniversity Sport, but recruits from outside of Canada dot rosters in nearly every other team sport, including football.) Of course, he couldn't
Baker noted the reason for the old policy was that players with backgrounds such as Doczy's seldom choose to remain in Canada for non-hockey reasons. It is exceedingly rare. Doczy notes his path required extraordinary sacrifice from many people — the Walkers in Owen Sound, the Grygars in St. Catharines and Badgers coach Murray Nystrom.
Teams in the OHL do cover school fees for active players of all backgrounds. Doczy's struggle — strapping 6-5 lad with promising talent told by agents he could be in The Show, thrown into cultural and language barriers, kept on the hook with hopes he could be drafted and become a NHL prospect — does show that the necessity to be sensitive to the needs of European players who arrive with limited French and/or English proficiency. Many teams take those steps, but it can always be better across the board. One also wonders about the responsibilities of agents, whom many teams rely on do the legwork to procure an import player.
This experience might not cease to be embittering for Doczy. This was not about money, but having the same entitlement as a player from Ontario. He is fair-minded about not wishing to cast the league in a bad light. This can be a success story yet.
"I had a pretty good time — I got so lucky with the family that I stayed with," he said of his OHL days, referring to the Walkers. "Also, I went to a world juniors and the Los Angeles Kings training camp. Those were the highlights and it probably wouldn't have happened if I stayed in Czech [Republic]."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.