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Like many athletes who come to the United States from around the world to play professionally, Capitals rookie goaltender Vitek Vanecek had a tough-go transitioning to his new way of life.
Coming to America meant not only leaving behind his friends and family in the Czech Republic, but also adjusting to a new language and way of life. That process began in South Carolina, a state Vanecek remembers fondly but also one that provided a culture shock early on.
Vanecek was drafted in 2014, and he played in his home country for that first season after joining the Capitals organization. When he came to America for the 2015-16 season, he was assigned to the South Carolina Stingrays, the Capitals' ECHL affiliate. Washington had a number of talented goalie prospects in the organization at that time, including Pheonix Copley, Philipp Grubauer and, of course, Braden Holtby in the NHL. Vanecek ended up playing one game with the Hershey Bears during the 2015-16 season, but he spent most of his first year in South Carolina.
"[Charleston] South Carolina is really nice, a nice city, but when I got there first time I came to the apartment and two guys already were there, so it was really hard to talk to them because I didn’t speak English," Vanecek told NBC Sports Washington. "So they gave me one guy in South Carolina, he was from Czech, so he came with me my first day in South Carolina. So he talked to them and translated to me and everything, so that was my first day. It wasn’t easy, like if I needed laundry or something it was hard for me to tell them, and I didn’t have a car so they had to drive me every day to practice. So they’re telling me times, you know, everything was so hard for me...because of the language."
But while he's come a long way, both on the ice and off it, he still remembers the difficulties in adjusting to some of the most simple things in America - including eating chicken.
"It’s a little bit different," Vanecek said about learning to eat southern food. "My first year I had like a problem with my stomach for two months. I mean it’s not different like you have chicken, we have chicken, you know? But like when I eat it, it tastes a little bit different so I have a problem with my stomach my first year. But after first year I felt good, you know, everything, and when I was going to the grocery store, you have so many things, you know? So you can pick whatever you want. Like we have in Czech you don’t have too many things like here, so it’s really nice. You have good food, bad food, drinks, waters and everything, so it’s really nice."
Vanecek spent five seasons with the Caps' affiliates before earning his opportunity in the NHL. He held a 19-8-6 record in 34 games in South Carolina, plus a 6-2 record in the postseason. He was promoted to Hershey for the 2016-17 season, where he played almost all of his games through 2020. Through those four seasons, he went 71-43-16, with a 2.59 GAA and a .906 SV%, though he struggled to a 2-5 postseason record.
He has come a long way since first journeying to the United States, and he's made a strong early impression after winning his first start with the Capitals and earning recognition as one of the top rookies in the league in January.
Wherever his hockey career in North America goes from here, he'll always be able to look back on getting his start in South Carolina, like so many other Capitals before him.