The moment he was cut, Tomas Kaberle knew he wanted to earn his way back into the National Hockey League.
Hockey has provided the veteran defenceman with a Stanley Cup ring, four All-Star Game appearances, an Olympic medal and a bout of confusion (still lingering) over what went wrong in Montreal in 2013.
“Who knows?” Kaberle told Sportsnet earlier this week at BioSteel camp before unleashing a hearty, befuddled laugh.
“I actually felt good that season, too. They gave me 10 games, then all of a sudden I stopped playing. I thought I did okay, but sometimes it goes that way, you know? You get your chances or you don’t get your chances. So you just have to grab them. Hopefully I’ll be lucky this time to grab them.”
Kaberle had three assists, averaged 13:33 in ice time and was a plus-4 over those 10 games before he became a healthy-scratch behind the likes of Andrei Markov, P.K. Subban, Josh Gorges, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin and Francis Bouillon.
After being bought out by the Canadiens in June 2013, Kaberle still believes he deserves an opportunity to play in the NHL, something the 36-year-old Czech’s agent found in the form of an NHL tryout with a mystery team this September.
(When asked, Kaberle says the identity of the team “doesn’t matter—everybody is going to see who it is.”)
Drafted 204th overall in 1996 by Toronto, where his well-used legs returned this summer in his Habs pants to push himself against NHL hopefuls literally half his age at BioSteel’s training sessions, Kaberle has bucked the odds before. After earning a spot on Pat Quinn’s Maple Leafs, he stayed there for 13 years, becoming the franchise’s second-highest scorer all-time among defencemen (second only to Borje Salming) before being traded to the 2011 Cup champion Boston Bruins.
But following short stints in Boston, Carolina and Montreal, Kaberle returned HC Kladno, the Jaromir Jagr-owned club franchise where he began his professional career 20 years ago. Skating 25 to 30 minutes a night on the big ice gave Kaberle enough confidence to later play a significant role on his fourth Olympic team.
“When I played in the Czech league last year, it was nice, because I played where I grew up playing hockey and always wanted to do that one day,” said Kaberle, who posted four goals and 20 assists with Kladno in 2013-14. “But after the season, I sat down. I said, ‘I feel good.’ Hopefully I still have a couple of years in me, so it might as well be in the NHL if I can make it. If not, that’s okay too.
“I didn’t play that much in Montreal, probably 13, 14 minutes. So it was nice to get that 25-minute average back like I used to. I know I won’t play that much anymore, but whatever I get, I’ll do my best.”
Though the NHL left Kaberle an ocean away, he kept an eye on the league last season.
“It’s hard to watch live at the three in the morning when you have a game the next day,” he says. “But I kept in touch with some of the guys and looked at the scores. And that’s something I won’t stop even when I’m done playing hockey.”
As for the current crop of NHL defenceman, Kaberle said he’s especially impressed with Norris trophy winner Duncan Keith, whom he sees as a modest star who has been able to excel at a position dominated by young, flashy defencemen.
“The game is a little bit faster than when I started 15, 16 years ago, but it’s still the same,” said Kaberle. “You have to win the hockey games.”