Czech defenseman Andrej Sustr started the summer as just another tryout player for the expansion Youngstown Phantoms, but he's now logging major minutes and seeing icetime in every situation and is the team's biggest prospect, literally. The 6-foot-6 Sustr is one of the tallest players in the league, and the fact he's still in contention to play for the Czech Republic's 2010 World Junior Championship team shows he's not short on ability, either. Nor is he small on ambition. Sustr made the move from his hometown of Plzen to Soldotna, Alaska, last year to play for the Kenai River Brown Bears and he's now working to finish two years of American high school in one year and to take the ACT so he can play college hockey sooner rather than later.
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey was able to talk with Andrej Sustr after a game in October and discussed his transition to the USHL, his time in the North American Hockey League in 2008-09, his academic pursuits, his vying for a spot on his national team, the impact a gold medal had on him, and his philosophical approach to emulating other players.
McKeen's: Between the preseason and the regular season, you're over 10 games into your USHL experience. So, what are your initial impressions of the United States Hockey League and how would you say it compares to the caliber of play of the North American Hockey League?
Sustr: There's more skilled players. The game is faster, tougher, more passes. It's better in every way, I guess.
McKeen's: Last season you played for Kenai River of the NAHL, joining the team in November. Tell me how it was that you became a Brown Bear. Who helped make that happen for you?
Sustr: I was contacted by one of their scouts, he's from the Czech Republic. So, he contacted me. He told me, "If you want to go, you just need to decide during the week." Some things didn't work out well in the Czech Republic, so I thought it'd be good to fly over and try there.
McKeen's: I understand that you experienced some inconveniences regarding your visa, where you were on a business visa and wanted to be on a student one. Tell me a bit about that, and it's been corrected for this year, I take it?
Sustr: I thought I was going to go to school in Alaska, but the B-2 visa didn't allow me to do that. So, I asked the Youngstown Phantoms if they could find a school for me and that I wanted a student visa. So, now I have a student visa, I'm going to school, and I'm getting ready for college.
McKeen's: I understand that you're trying to get two years of high school in, in one year.
Sustr: Yeah. I'm trying to finish. I signed up for the ACT. That was, like, two days ago. So, I'm trying to get through that.
McKeen's: You hail from the Plzen of the Czech Republic and you played U-18 and U-20 in your hometown, and you touched on this a little bit, but at what point did you really start looking at the United States, or North America, as an option? What made you decide to go this route instead of continuing to play in Europe?
Sustr: I heard that there was a chance to go to college, and that chance isn't really there in the Czech Republic. Like, three years ago I was thinking about major junior hockey leagues in Canada. But, it didn't work out for me. So, I just stayed in the Czech Republic. I wanted to try the different style of hockey, get used to the language, stuff like that. It's better for you in the long run.
McKeen's: It certainly opens up some options. The hockey in the NAHL last year, how did that compare to what you'd played in the Czech Republic and what were the biggest on-ice adjustments that you faced?
Sustr: It was faster hockey than in the Czech Republic, more physical, more physical contact. I think it was a step up for me in every way.
McKeen's: Typically, bringing a player over from Europe involves a transfer fee. So, did Kenai River have to pay a transfer fee for you and, if so, do you know how much that was?
Sustr: No, no, they didn't pay anything. I just signed a transfer card. They didn't have to pay.
McKeen's: Same for Youngstown?
McKeen's: Well, that worked out well. Moving from the Czech Republic to Alaska involves a change in lifestyle. What was the culture shock, so to speak, going from the Czech Republic to Soldotna, Alaska?
Sustr: Culture? Yeah. The city was really small. You went through the city in 10 minutes or so. I'm from a big city in the Czech Republic, about 250,000 people. So, it was different in every way. It was so cold, different weather, different language. But, I got used to it.
McKeen's: You were invited to the Czech Republic's World Junior Championship camp in July. Tell me a bit about that.
Sustr: Yeah, I went to tryouts during the summer in the Czech Republic, right after the tryouts for the Youngstown Phantoms. I played a couple games for the national team and they told me they were going to watch me for the next tryout, which is in Canada in December. After that, they're going to announce the roster for the national team.
McKeen's: Still have a shot.
Sustr: Yeah. There's probably 30 players, still. So there's a chance.
McKeen's: Speaking of Youngstown's tryouts, how did that go?
Sustr: I've never been in a tryout, so it was different. It was tough. We played two games a day. Everyone competed hard, everybody tried for a shot on the team. I think I surprised the coaches. They didn't know about me at all. So, I just signed as a free agent, paid a fee to come over and play, and they picked me up. So, I was pretty happy.
McKeen's: Going back to the Czech Republic's camp, how did you feel that went?
Sustr: It was pretty good. There were a lot of skilled players who played in Canada, most of them. It was like here. There were a lot of skilled players, everything was faster. It was good preparation.
McKeen's: Who were some of your fellow Czech prospects that impressed you the most and why?
Sustr: There's Radko Gudas. He played on the national team, the Under-20 team, and also World Junior Championships last year. He's the same age as me. He's a strong defenseman playing good defensive hockey. He was pretty good.
McKeen's: To have a shot to make the Czech team, you have to be pretty good. So, what do you feel are your strengths as a hockey player?
Sustr: I think I'm skating well. I can move the puck pretty good. I can do pretty well defensively, too. I'm playing on penalty kill, powerplay. Things are going pretty good right now.
McKeen's: Yeah. I saw you in every situation tonight. On the flipside, what are the areas of your game that you're working the hardest to improve on?
Sustr: My physical game, try to hit more guys, playing the body, and also getting stronger. I weigh around 195 pounds, but it's going to come, I hope.
McKeen's: At 6-foot-6, it typically takes a while to fill that out completely. You're a late-1990, entering your second year of draft eligibility. Did any NHL teams show interest in you last year?
Sustr: If I talked to some?
Sustr: No, I haven't talked to any. I heard that they talked to my agent in the Czech Republic, like the Nashville Predators. But, I'm still looking forward to playing college.
McKeen's: You weren't selected last year, but you still have an opportunity to be drafted this year. So, if I'm a director of amateur scouting for an NHL team, what are some reasons I should consider drafting Andrej Sustr?
Sustr: That's not a question for me, I guess. It's all about scouts, how you play the game.
McKeen's: As we've discussed, you're looking to play college hockey. With that, what are some things that you're looking for in a school both academically and hockey wise?
Sustr: I would like to study something about economics, business stuff, something around that. So, that's the goal for me, to go college and play good hockey.
McKeen's: I imagine with your interest in economics and business that the condition of the world economy is of some interest to you.
McKeen's: But we'll leave that at that and avoid what'd probably become a political discussion. Now, going back a ways, when did you first start playing hockey and how did you get that start?
Sustr: I started, probably, when I was eight. It was after the Olympics, when they won the Olympics in Nagano in 1998. It was a big thing in the Czech Republic, everybody started playing hockey and looking up to Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr. That was the reason I started playing.
McKeen's: I remember watching those Olympics, and that gold medal game, too. Lastly, who were your favorite players growing up and why and who's a player you feel you're similar to?
Sustr: Everybody likes to compare me to Zdeno Chara. I think (pauses to think), he went through the same way I did. He came over and tried to improve everything and was drafted right after that and jumped into the NHL and is still playing well. He's a good example for me. And favorite players, like I said, Jaromir Jagr, guys like that. But, every player has got something that you can use, that you put into your game, especially in the NHL, like Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings. There's a lot of good defensemen.
McKeen's: That's true. You can take a little something from everyone.
Note: Sustr was named the USHL Defenseman of the Week November 16 after tallying two assists, which put him at nine for the season and tied him for second amongst all USHL defensemen, and earning a plus-five rating for the week.