PORTLAND – After three years of dealing with pain and injury, defenseman Boris Valabik is ready to play the North American brand of hockey again, and that could be a plus for the Portland Pirates.
Valabik, who appeared in 80 NHL games with the old Atlanta Thrashers, played his first two games for the Pirates last weekend just before the All-Star break.
“Boris is a big, strong heavy defender who is really punishing to play against,” Pirates Coach Ray Edwards said.
At 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, Valabik is the biggest Pirate.
“He’s a very simple player,” Edwards said, “and he’s a good character guy.”
Valabik, a native of Slovakia, very much wants to restart his hockey career on this side of the Atlantic.
After playing three months for the Brno Komets in the Czech League, Valabik took a cut in pay to sign with the Pirates.
“Financially-wise, it’s probably not as good as back in Europe, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to feel good,” he said. “Money is not everything.”
Unlike many Europeans, Valabik came of age learning to play hockey in North America. Starting when he was 17, he spent three seasons playing junior hockey for the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League, where his coach was current New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer. Then he played parts of five AHL seasons with the Chicago Wolves, sprinkling in three lengthy stints with the Atlanta Thrashers before they morphed into the Winnipeg Jets in 2011.
“I was in the best hands right in the beginning of my career so I got spoiled,” Valabik said. “I don’t want to close the door on European hockey, but I definitely want to try to stick here because this is my kind of hockey.”
North American hockey is a more physical game played on a smaller ice surface, but those aren’t the main reasons Valabik prefers to play on this continent.
“European hockey is a lot less structured,” he said. “There are (fewer) systems.”
Last week, on his third day with the AHL team, Valabik sat in on a video session with assistant coach John Slaney and the rest of Portland’s defensive corps talking X’s and O’s.
“I was 15 minutes in there and I heard more hockey than I did in four months in the Czech Republic,” he said. “It’s a big difference, and it feels good to be somewhere where you can learn something.”
The past three seasons, Valabik has been hampered by knee and ankle injuries, and ligament damage to his left wrist.
“This past summer I finally had a chance to do what a big guy needs to do, get quick feet and sprint around,” he said. “Until then I had so many ankle and knee problems I couldn’t do it. I like to work hard. I like to work on my weaknesses, and when I couldn’t do it, it was bad for my game and it was really frustrating.”
Valabik said he believes he still has what it takes to play in the NHL.
“I’m 26 years old and I just don’t want to slide through the rest of my career,” he said. “I want to learn something, and you can tell with the coaches and the systems here that this is the place.”
NOTES: Valabek is one of the four NHL first-round picks on the Portland roster, with defenseman Chris Summers (2005), rookie defenseman Brandon Gormley (2010) and rookie goalie Mark Visentin (2010). … At Thursday’s practice, the first since the four-day All-Star break ended, defenseman Maxim Goncharov and center Evan Brophey wore yellow jerseys, which means no contact while they recover from injuries.
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: