Jiri Novotny was a late-developing Czech player who blossomed in his fourth season in the American Hockey League. He led the Rochester Americans in scoring that season, 2005-06, and resurrected his status as a NHL prospect.
Drafted 22nd overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2001 NHL Draft, Novotny did not leave his native Czech Republic until 2002-03 season. After four seasons in the minor leagues he finally got his first taste of NHL action in 2006, playing 14 games with the Sabres.
A big reason for Novotny's slow development was his tough adjustment to life in North America.
“I remember my first year here. It was so tough because I didn’t speak English...like nothing. I taught myself just by watching t.v.”
While he dreamed of playing in the best league in the world, Novotny probably never realized just how possible it was that he would one day play in the NHL.
He started playing hockey at the age of 6, and quickly showed promise thanks to his natural skating skills. He was soon was playing against boys older and bigger than he was, and he continued to thrive. But it wasn't until he made the Czech's World Junior squad in 2000 that he though maybe he had a chance.
"I grew up cheering for Teemu Selanne but I never really thought I would get to play against him one day."
Novotny's break out season in the minor leagues did allow for him to play in the same league as Teemu and all the world's other best players. In 2006-07 league rule required Novotny to clear waivers if he was returned to the minor leagues. Fearing they would lose him for nothing, the Sabres committed to him from the beginning of the season.
"It's a long, long time to stay in Rochester. This is big time for me. This is a dream for every hockey player, to play in the NHL. It's an unbelievable feeling," he said.
He filled in nicely in a depth role with the Sabres, but by the end of the year he was traded to Washington in a trade deadline deal for Dainius Zubrus.
"I just remember my phone ringing and it was (Sabres coach) Lindy Ruff and he told me to come to his (hotel) room," Novotny said. "I was disappointed because I had put in so much time there."
The Caps did not qualify Novotny contractually that summer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. A lot of European bubble players may have packed up and gone home at that point, especially since his wife and newborn baby opted to stay in Europe for a long stretch after the child birth.
But Novotny continued to look to fulfill his dream of becoming a regular NHL player. In 2007-08 Novotny signed as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He would play two seasons in Ohio, his best stretch in the NHL.
The Jackets were hoping Novotny could blossom with veteran centers like Sergei Fedorov, Michael Peca and Manny Malhotra to help shoulder the load. They also hoped he could provide some leadership for fellow countrymen David Vyborny and Rostislav Klesla, two young players on the team.
Novotny over came a concussion early on to and put up some healthy numbers (7-10-17 in 31 games before a disastrous mid-season slump (just 2 assists in a 20 game stretch).
Described as a tall, lanky playmaker who did not use his powerful shot nearly enough. He got tagged with the underachiever label, which never really shook. He could have benefited from better upper body strength and balance on his skates, Novotny Was a good speedster who was dogged on the forecheck in pursuit of the puck. He also was a regular on the penalty kill.
Novotny left for Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in 2009 where he continued to play for many seasons. He also jumped at every opportunity to play for his country, helping the Czechs a World Championship in 2010. He was also part of the Czech Olympic team at the 2014 Sochi games (scoring a big goal against Canada).