For Martin Erat, home is where the hockey is.
At least that’s how it’s been for a little more than half his life. The veteran Nashville Predators forward, who turned 30 prior to this season, saw the NHL as his ultimate destination early and left behind first his family and later his country to try to get there.
“My parents got divorced when I was 10 years old, and I left my house when I was 14,” said Erat, who grew up in the former Czechoslovakia. “When I was little, my dream was to play in the NHL. I was lucky enough and happy to make it to the NHL. … I tried to learn the hard way, but it worked out for me.”
A seventh-round draft pick in 1999, he clearly has made a home for himself with the Predators. Already, he ranks near the top of the franchise’s career leaders in most offensive statistics as well as games played, and his current contract is slated to keep him with the franchise through 2014-15.
A little more than a week ago he celebrated the birth of his first child, a son, with a goal and an assist in a victory over San Jose the following day.
“It doesn’t seem that long for me,” he said. “It’s kind of different. So many change teams every year or every second year. For me, I was fortunate to be able to stay in one organization for that long.”
The stability has been somewhat unusual given that he bounced from city to city and eventually country to country in pursuit of a professional hockey career.
He was born in the summer of 1981 in Trebic, Czechoslovakia. It was a town of fewer than 50,000 near the center of what is now the Czech Republic. Because of the changes that came to his country, the timing of his birth would turn out to be critical to the course his life took.
The younger of two boys, Erat found little other than athletics to entertain himself in Trebic.
“There was nothing else there, just soccer and hockey,” he said. “In the summertime we played soccer, and in the winter we played hockey. I’m from a small city, and that’s how it was.
“I stayed with the hockey and never looked back.”
He made that decision — at least in part — because his brother Roman, two-and-a-half years his elder, also was a hockey player. But when Roman turned 18 — the typical age at which the NHL drafts players — it was shortly after the fall of Communism, and transfer restrictions between the NHL and numerous European leagues hadn’t yet been eased. The brothers’ relationship was critical when Martin moved away to play for the junior team at Zlin, a city roughly twice the size of Trebic and nearly 80 miles to the east.
“I’m very close with my brother — if I struggled with hockey or if I struggled with school, he always came over and helped me with everything — stayed with me for a week or whatever I needed to help me do all the things I needed to accomplish.”
He was forced to venture out on his own, though, when it came time to pursue his NHL dreams in earnest.
At 18, he moved to Canada to play in the Western Hockey League at a time when not many Europeans did so. He spent the bulk of his two seasons there playing with Saskatoon before a late trade to Red Deer, which won the WHL championship and the Memorial Cup in 2001. The following season, his first as a professional, he appeared in 80 games for the Predators.
Through Tuesday’s loss at Carolina, Erat was Nashville’s leading scorer and was on pace to produce at least 50 points for the fifth time in six seasons. He also was within reach of his fourth 20-goal season.
He has, throughout his NHL career, been a model of consistency. Since 2003-04, he never has finished with fewer than 49 points or more than 57. That suggests the lessons he learned along the way have paid off for him.
“He’s a great skater, and he’s strong on the puck, and he always puts himself in position to make great plays,” center and linemate Mike Fisher said. “He can control the game, and he’s been really good and consistent competing every night.
“Sometimes he doesn’t get enough credit. He’s kind of a little bit of an unsung hero.”
Meanwhile, Roman Erat, a 5-foot-10 forward, has forged a career of his own, but he never left his country or the Czech Elite League, where he has been a full-time player since 2002-03. Through 47 games this season, he had 10 goals and 11 assists for Brno Kometa.
“At the time [Roman was of draft age], they didn’t draft those players,” Martin Erat said. “It was different. It was so much tougher for those players to play in the NHL than it was for me.”
Not that he had it easy, but at least he had the opportunity and was willing to go out in search of it.