A passion for the game and lucrative contracts are the main motivating factors for most professional hockey players, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins rookie Dominik Uher is no different.
With one exception.
Uher's desire is fueled by history.
Growing up outside of Ostrava – an industrial town in the Czech Republic – Uher listened to his grandparents talk about living through World War II and, after the war ended, watching their country fall under Communist rule to the Russians.
There were hardships, struggles and times that life or death decisions were all too real for Uher's grandparents.
When I was young I talked to my great granddad about it, and it was a tough life, Uher said. After the war the Russians came in and took over the country for 60-70 years. My family is Catholic, but the Russians didn't allow that and they took away all their property – everything. It was hard.
World War II is still talked about daily in the Czech Republic, Uher said. And even though Uher, who is 19, wasn't born until 67 years after World War II ended, he is very familiar with the struggles that his grandparents and everyone else in the country endured while occupied by Nazi Germany, before the Russians took control.
We talk about it today because it affected us a lot. Before the second world war, our country was one of the best in Europe, and after the war we dropped, Uher said. That's why it's still talked about today.
The struggles of his country is motivates Uher to make it as a pro hockey player. So many of his ancestors never had an opportunity for a better life during the war-dominated era, and that's why he wants to make the most of the one he has today.
And if Uher ever needs a reminder, there are plenty throughout the Ostrava countryside, near the border with Poland. That's where Uher said the remnants of bunkers –spaced 100 yards apart, dominate the landscape, reminders of the war.
They were never used because the Czechs never fought against the Germans, Uher said. A lot of people in the country say we should have.
Another motivator behind Uher's hockey quest is one that can be found not only in Ostrava, but in Pennsylvania as well.
Decades ago the city and its surrounding towns were defined by the coal and steel industries. Underground coal mines were the driving economic force for centuries, Uher said, before political and economic pressures shut the mines down in the early 1990's.
In their wake is a polluted landscape – much like the culm banks and acid mine drainage that still scar northeastern Pennsylvania today.
Like anyone who has seen Solomon's Creek flow orange with mine drainage, Uher also knows firsthand the environmental destruction that a coal industry can spread.
Ostrava is the worst-polluted city in the Czech Republic, he said. If you go there you can smell it. They're trying to clean it up, but it will take much longer to do than what you're dealing with here because there's no money back home for cleaning pollution.
The dying industries have made it hard to earn a living in Ostrava. Uher's mother earns $3 an hour as a school teacher and his father, who used to be an auto mechanic, made $7.
There were no Xboxes for me when I was growing up. No fancy computers, he said. When you have both parents working for $10 an hour, it's pretty tough.
But it's not without hope. The lean times define the Czech people today, who Uher said have an appreciation for the little things in life. While he may not have had video games as a kid, Uher cherished his boyhood days skateboarding and kicking a soccer ball around with friends.
You just go outside and enjoy what you have, he said.
As he got older, Uher's father wanted a better life for his son, and sports were the avenue. He urged him to pick soccer or hockey and work hard at it, knowing it was possible to earn a good living playing either sport professionally.
Uher chose hockey, and now in his first year as a pro sees his hard work paying off.
He has an appreciation for his job that few athletes gain, and a motivation fueled by the struggles of his ancestors.
You're a product of your background, said Penguins head coach John Hynes. To make a living playing hockey is a passion of his, but there's also the reality that if he can make it a long-term profession you can have a good life, provide for your family and make money. That's definitely a driving force.
And it's exactly what Uher has in mind. He wants to succeed in hockey not for himself, but for his family and the young kids in Ostrava hoping to follow a similar path.
Even though it's really nice here in America, I know where I came from. One day I would love to bring my experiences here and use it to help kids back home so they have an opportunity to, Uher said. That's what I want to do when I retire – go back home and help.