Of Patience, Angst, and Anger

(Photo Credit: Stephanie Moebius)
Kevin Fiala is one of the top prospects in the Nashville Predators organization. He is 19-years old and still in the process of learning to be a professional hockey player. That process has seen highlight reel goals and moments of frustration. Why should anyone expect any less from someone of his age? (Photo Credit: Stephanie Moebius)

Remember when you were 19-years old? You were living in your third different country due to your job. You were learning an additional language to cooperate with a prospective career. There were hundreds of thousands of eyes watching you, mouths critiquing you, and the weight of that getting more and more as you were struggling with your job.

You don’t remember doing that? That’s fair enough. I can’t say that my teenage years exceeded much further than a summer vacation to see family in England for a month’s time twice in the space of three-years. I didn’t even need to learn Welsh to make sure I was touching all based of who I could be communicating with. If anything, my teenage years were probably spent with the highs and lows that high school and early college years bring. There is tremendous pressure placed on you to get going in life, working while additionally working elsewhere, succeeding without sleeping, and wondering if all the time and effort being put down has you in over your head.

Kevin Fiala was 16-years old he moved away from his native Switzerland to play for the Malmö Redhawks junior playing academy in Sweden. He played played in two-different age ranges for both club (J18 and J20) and country (U17 and U18) in the 2012-13 season. The very next season, at the age of 17-years old, he was playing senior level hockey in the top tier of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) with HV71. His incredible ability, as well as climbing the ladder as quickly as he did in European hockey, made him a high-end prospect in the 2014 NHL Draft. The Nashville Predators claimed him in the first round with the eleventh overall selection. And he would leave HV71 mid-season in 2014-15 to officially start his North American playing career.

When Fiala first came to Milwaukee earlier this year my mind was firstly picturing Filip Forsberg, what he did in Milwaukee, and then what he was doing at the time during his rookie season with the Nashville Predators.

I then also remembered the amount of hype and want to of the Nashville fan base that wanted Forsberg up immidiately despite some less than polished performances that he was having while with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2013-14. Guys such as Vinny Saponari and Simon Moser produced some fairly comparable offensive numbers and I never considered myself all that blown away watching Forsberg in-game. The same could not be said when Fiala arrived.

It took Fiala six-games with the Admirals before getting his first goal as a North American pro hockey player. Mark Van Guilder caught him with the home run feed and Fiala’s skill did the rest off a nasty looking breakaway backhander. He wasn’t done that night, either. Although it wasn’t as flashy he showcased his killer instinct for the back of the net by playing right on the goal mouth where he picked up a rebound off Michael Leighton.

It seemed Fiala was quickly taking to the North American game. He looked explosive, creative, and played with an aggressive edge that reminded me of how Miikka Salomäki just had the ability to get under people’s skin just because he was coming at them shift-after-shift so hard. When you combine that all with highlight reel goals, amazing individual efforts to compete until the final seconds of a game, an NHL Debut, and even a game of playoff hockey at the NHL level all in such a narrow window while in his North America pro debut season – it creates confidence not only in the player but everyone connected to the organization. This is why the Predators drafted him. He’s climbing the ladder this fast, this young, and he’s capable of being better.

It’s no doubt that this was all in the mind of Fiala when he said the following to Predators GM David Poile at season’s end:

“At the end-of-the-year meetings when [Head Coach] Peter Laviolette and I are talking to players, we’re usually the ones doing 90 percent of the talking,” Poile said. “So we did the talking to Kevin and then he says, ‘What do I need to do, I’m going to be playing for the Nashville Predators next season. I’m not going to [AHL affiliate] Milwaukee, I’m going to be playing [in Nashville].’” ~David Poile

He wanted no part of the Milwaukee Admirals and AHL hockey. And, you know what Milwaukee readers, that isn’t a bad thing. Not one bit. That’s the sort of confidence and competitive fire you should want out of a talented young prospect such as Fiala. He was committed to being an NHL player all off-season long. In his eyes, Milwaukee was not going to be an option for him. He was going to be in Nashville, on opening night, as an NHL caliber hockey player.

The highly skilled wing roll isn’t a part of the Predators roster that fills the ship like the heard of defensemen that the team has on-hand. When Fiala turned up for pre-season camp the positional battles for a roster spot looked as if he was up against: Austin Watson, Colton Sissons, Miikka Salomäki, Viktor Arvidsson, and Stevie Moses. When the curtain came up on the 2015-16 NHL season in Nashville it was Watson and Arvidsson dressed in gold and navy while the rest were stationed in Milwaukee.

All that build up. All that momentum. All that off-season work came to a thunderous stop. Fiala’s career trajectory plateaued for the first time in his playing career. Predators head coach Peter Laviolette provided the following explanation as to why he was cut from pre-season camp and assigned to begin his season with the Admirals.

“It’s difficult. He’s a young player. He’s going to be a terrific player for us. We’ve got 23 spots on the roster that we can take players in, and at this point, this is where we felt we needed to be. The best thing for him is to just play in games in a North American style, counted on in all situations. It’s really a similar path that Filip Forsberg took. A lot of times we try to give a player or two in the National Hockey League that they can take a road similar to or that their game should be like. His path should be pretty close to Filip’s. That’s a good path. Filip developed, he learned a lot and when he got here, he was ready to make a difference. I think the biggest thing for Kevin right now is he just plays games and really starts to learn the North American game.” ~Peter Laviolette

Fiala’s season was starting where he stated he wasn’t going to play, Milwaukee. On the curtain jerker of the 2015-16 AHL season he didn’t even register a shot. It took him five-games to get a point and twelve-games before picking up his first goal of the season. He was playing sluggish and, jump-cutting into present tense, is still playing sluggishly. The explosiveness of last season is gone. The competitive fire that saw him battling until the final seconds of a game has veered off course from being a positive to being more of a detriment.

On November 5th, the Admirals rolled on into Iowa with their forwards already suffering. Vladislav Kamenev was serving the last of his two-game suspension for a boarding incident. Moses was slapped with a violation of team rules, suspended by the team for the game, and didn’t even travel with the Admirals to play against the Iowa Wild. On Fiala’s second shift of the game he was careless with the puck, turned it over, and forced Juuse Saros to bail him out. Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason made a point then and there to bench him for the rest of the game.

“We made a decision to not play him at that point. Kevin knows what happens and everyone knows what happened. It’s just a learning experience. It’s something that young guys go through. He’s going to have to go through it and he’ll be better off in the end.” ~Dean Evason

Fiala would be a healthy scratch the next night as both Kamenev and Moses returned to further drive the point home. The trouble on Fiala at that point was being careless on the ice in general. He was getting caught making individualistic plays and it was costing the team. Not many are fans of the plus/minus rating but, following his return game from being benched, he was a -8 player.

The frustration levels were mounting and it would lead to a two-game suspension from the AHL. What for you ask? Was it a boarding major and a game-misconduct? No, far from any sort of physical altercation yet visible enough that the officials knew how to call it.

AHL Rule 75.5 (ii): Any player who uses obscene gestures on the ice or anywhere in the rink before, during, or after the game. The referee shall report the circumstances to the President of the League for further disciplinary action. Any player assessed a game misconduct under this section shall automatically be suspended for the next two (2) regularly scheduled games of his team.

Fiala was the target of the Lake Erie Monsters wrath from the moment he collided into goaltender Joonas Korpisalo. Was it intentional? Was Fiala caught up battling for position on a drive to the net? All that goes out the window when it comes to the players policing the game and he had a target on his head no matter what.

The play was judged to be a charging minor and at that point Fiala worked up his frustrations into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. With nineteen-seconds left in the game Fiala was finally given the Monsters’ wrath when Brett Gallant targeted him with a check to the head. Fiala was left stunned on the ice for a bit as Gallant immediately needed to answer for his crimes with Cody Bass. The loopy Fiala made his way towards the Admirals bench to subsequently get to the locker room. Rather than take the high road he flipped off the Monsters bench to pick up the unsportsmanlike conduct major and game-misconduct.

Jump ahead to the Admirals most recent game, a 3-2 loss to the Manitoba Moose, where there was yet another example of frustration getting the better of Fiala.

The Admirals were on a power-play and Fiala was on the puck attempting to skate into the attacking zone down the left wing. He was whistled offside on the play. Fiala’s head was down, he heard a whistle, and threw a puck down the boards as you would before skating off on a line change. There is just one problem. The puck nearly hit the official that blew the play dead. It doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture and he was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct minor which ended the Admirals power-play opportunity.

In short, it was an action made out of frustration. He let a simple, frequent in game occurrence get the better of his judgement. He was offside. Skate back. Take the faceoff right next to the attacking zone. And keep the power-play going. Instead, the entire team suffers because one-player is upset.

Did he intentionally fling the puck at the official? I can’t really answer that but my guess would be he meant to hit the boards with the puck in anger due to the offside decision but the official just happened to be right there. Intent or not it’s an avoidable moment in a hockey game.

I believe where fans’ frustrations this season sit with Fiala aren’t to do with him being a bad player or a bad person but due to the fact that it is so clear that a player of his abilities is beating himself right now. What’s important to keep reminding yourself in regards to Fiala is that for all that talent and potential he is still like you and I when we were all 19-years old. He’s human. He makes stupid mistakes and can get angry when things don’t go right. A competition such the game that hockey provides, physically and mentally demanding, only compounds the pressure resting on a teenager’s mind that he missed the mark he had set for himself this summer. What he needs to know. What fans need to know is this. Him going through all of this is more normal than it is abnormal.

When looking at the amount of Admirals players up in Nashville do yourself a favor and see how long those players developed and matured as individuals here in Milwaukee. Pekka Rinne is a pretty good one, right? He was here for three-seasons. Watson? He was a member of the Admirals for three-seasons. Anthony Bitetto was playing with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL this exact same time period three-years ago. Becoming an NHL caliber player. Becoming a level-headed adult. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and a lot of character building lowlights that can lead to a stronger, smarter, better player and person. This is what Fiala is going through right now. When you remember how old he is – why should anyone be all that surprised he’s experiencing some rough patches?

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9 thoughts on “Of Patience, Angst, and Anger”

  1. The play you are talking about happened right near me and when I saw it I thought he was flipping the puck to the official just like you see happen often during a game, except he flipped it to the referee instead of a linesman. Was there intent, maybe, but he picked the time to do it when the ref was calling everything a penalty albeit that most of the call were in the Admirals favor. Next shot is of Evason on the big screen and he is definitely not happy and Fiala ends up sitting out a few shifts. You hit the nail on the head with this story, I know I wouldn’t want to think of all the stupid things I did at 19 and I don’t believe truth be known most people would. Fiala still makes at least 2 to 3 moves a game that very few on the ice can, I think that everyone needs to cut him some slack and in a year or two Nashville will be reaping the rewards.

  2. Tired of the boys-will-be-boys defense. Tired of the, well, “I did weird things at 19….so that excuses him.” This kid has probably been playing hockey since he was knee high to a grasshopper. An understanding of what is okay and what isn’t okay I’m sure has been preached to him time and time again over the many years, over the many teams, over the many coaches. He knows what he needs to do to be a good teammate. The kid just apparently doesn’t seem to care. This seems like a character flaw. Coaches can prepare and teach all they want….but the burden is on the player to grow. Evason can’t make Fiala grow. Fiala needs to make Fiala grow.

    We’re 20 games into the season. Fiala has 2 goals. Just one until Tuesday of this week. Eric Robinson had 3 goals in 5 games. Unacceptable. If he wants to play in the NHL, he needs to be the best player on the ice at this level. He needs to produce at the clip that Arvidsson was. Until he does that, he has no business getting on an airplane to Nashville unless he wants to visit the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Making three mind-boggling moves a game isn’t enough. Linus Klasen made three mind-boggling moves a game. He’s playing in Switzerland now.

    The burden is on Fiala to be better. He’s a professional hockey player. Time start acting like one. Enough of the excuses and giving him a pass. Expectations for blue chip prospects need to be high, and Fiala needs to be accountable when he doesn’t meet those expectations.

  3. I don’t think anyone is making excuses for Fiala and he has been held accountable. Evason has made that very clear. You are 100% right that Fiala needs to make Fiala grow (maturity-wise), but you can’t totally forget that he is 19 years old. 19. It doesn’t matter if someone has been playing a sport for many years. I’m not excusing any of the poor behavior either and it is disappointing.

    It probably doesn’t help either that Forsberg was in Milwaukee recently. Fiala is compared so much to Forsberg. That guy is just other-worldly. He has the talent, the people skills and he seems to be a genuinely humble person. That is an extremely rare combination (not just in sports), one which he is rightly looked well upon for.

    Top athletes need to realize the expectations places on them are higher and need to deal with that accordingly. Fiala just hasn’t don’t a good job dealing with that yet. But that’s part of what this league (the AHL) is for. Get that stuff out of your system now while your 19 because it’s definitely not (usually) tolerated when in your mid-20s and in the NHL.

    ……as long as you don’t end up with (yes, I’m going to use it again) Jon Blum syndrome.

  4. Some great work here Daniel Lavender, via this article and your recent radio appearance.

    Let me interject a point that might not have been brought up. Through every level of hockey Kevin Fiala has played, he’s been a star player, the guy turning the heads and making scouts and fans leap with excitement. He’s an immense talent and a joy to watch when he’s on, like he was a lot of last year. From my own limited experience, he’s also been a decent interview, and very sure of his goals.

    However, one of the hardest things to do in sports is to transition from being a star to being just a piece of the greater puzzle. Very, very few players are stars at every level they play (such as Sidney Crosby). Kevin Fiala will likely be one at the NHL in the future, whether it be for Nashville or another franchise. Right now, he’s not even one at the AHL. Players are smarter, faster, quicker, and more sound defensively than other players he’s faced in past years. Opposing teams know how to plan for him, how to aggrivate him and how to get him off his game. Odds are good he’s getting trash talked in just about every corner battle, and this year for whatever reason he is not handling it well. Steve Moses has been enduring the same thing this year.

    Can Fiala get better and become a better professional athlete (and a more mature one)? He needs to improve his conditioning, get stronger and more mature as a player and as a person, and learn how to control his temper, while using it as a positive. I expect all of this to come in time, as stated he’s just a 19-year-old. But there will be some growing pains along the way, similiar to what Filip Forsberg went through.

    The concern is that Fiala doesn’t make that next step forward. The onus is on Milwaukee’s coaching staff, Nashville’s brass, and Kevin himself to make sure that he does. It’s just my opinion, but I expect in the second half to see a different player, a far better player, wearing No. 12.

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