SOCHI, Russia – Who is Ondrej Pavelec?
He’s the Winnipeg Jets’ starting goalie, selected by the Czech Republic to represent them in the Sochi Olympics.
That’s pretty much where the positive descriptions end.
He's 18-22-4 this season with the Jets, with a 2.97 GAA and a .901 save percentage. He has a career .906 save percentage, “one of the most dismal marks in the game today.” He’s “a risk the Czechs can’t afford” if he’s between the pipes in Sochi. His contract is “the worst decision the Winnipeg Jets have made so far.” He gets social media love letters like this one.
His Olympic coach, Alois Hadamczik, didn’t do him any favors this week. He made Pavelec, an NHL goalie, a healthy scratch for the team’s first game against Sweden. Instead, KHL goalie Jakub Kovář got the start and KHL goalie Alexander Salak was the backup.
Both played in the 4-2 loss against Sweden, as Jakub Kovář was pulled for Salak.
This fanned the flames of controversy that were already engulfing the team, going back to a selection process that named 42-year-old Petr Nedved but snubbed NHL sniper Radim Vrbata.
"We’re from the Czech Republic. We’re always loose. We’re always having fun. No pressure!” joked Jaromir Jagr.
“We know. We read the paper, look at the Internet,” said Pavelec. “But those questions are for coach. It’s tough to pick the team. Look at Canada. They didn’t pick [Marty] St. Louis, and now he makes the team. It’s always going to be something like that.”
Perhaps it was the plan, or perhaps Hadamczik’s hand was forced, but Pavelec was in the crease for the Czech’s second game of the tournament on Friday: a 4-2 triumph over Latvia.
Pavelec gave up two goals on 18 shots, for a save percentage of .900. He took the blame for one of the tallies, a quick snapper from Herberts Vasiljevs that made it 2-2 in the second period.
“It’s no excuse at all, but I knew right away it was a bad goal,” he said. “It was different, the big ice. I didn’t play in the first game. I was expecting to play against Sweden, and I didn’t.”
Instead he went against Latvia, and came away with the victory.
“It was an easy game for me against Latvia. They don’t have too many shots. They wait for a power play, and make some good plays there. But the guys helped me a lot, blocked a lot of shots,” he said.
He was happy to finally get into a game, having been the backup in 2010 for the Czechs behind Tomas Vokoun. Having to deal with everything surrounding the Games, without playing in one, had him edgy.
“This time wasn’t easy for me. The media. Same thing as in Winnipeg. You have to focus on yourself,” he said.
“it’s a great experience. Different experience, that’s for sure … but hockey’s the same. Same puck same rules. You have to make the save to help the team.”
Many don’t believe Pavelec’s the guy to make that save, but he does have one rather high profile backer:
The Czech hockey legend told iSport after the Latvia game, "If he keeps playing like this, he should for sure be Czech No. 1 goalie” in Sochi.
“Oh, he said that?” said Pavelec. “If a guy like him says it, that’s great.”
(Hadamczik, incidentally, agreed with Hasek, giving Pavelec the crease for the team’s next game against the Swiss on Sunday.)
Pavelec has only spoken to Hasek twice. He admits that the Dominator’s style and skills are impossible to replicate. But like every other Czech Olympic goalie, he plays in Hasek’s shadow.
“Of course I watched 1998, Nagano, and we won. He was a hero. He was a hero for everybody in that time,” he said.
“Everybody’s looking for ’98 again. Everyone compares you to Hasek.”
Pavelec isn’t looking for Hasek-level love. He’d just prefer some of it, rather than the criticism he receives around the hockey world.
Can a good showing in Sochi help sway that opinion?
“We’ll see. I have to play good first, and then we’ll see what’s gonna happen there,” said Pavelec. “You want to play your best. Everybody watches the Olympics. It’s a huge motivation for me.”