Jason Lepine's professional hockey career has taken him from Toledo to the Czech Republic to Finland to Germany and finally back to T-Town.
The defenseman experienced his most productive season here with the Walleye in 2010-11. But he felt the urge to experience something new and spent the last two seasons playing in Europe.
When his agent called in August, 2011, and said a team overseas was interested, he jumped at the chance. He took the nine-hour flight to the Czech Republic to play for a team just outside of Prague.
“I took a chance,” Lepine said. “I just decided to do it. And I'm glad I did. It was definitely a culture shock. They didn't speak too much English there. But it was a lot of fun meeting different guys and experiencing a different culture and learning their history. In the future if I had a chance to go back, I would consider it.”
Lepine, a 28-year-old from Cornwall, Ontario, said he was the only player from North America on the team.
“I was the only import there,” he said. “Everyone else was from the Czech Republic.”
He said half of the players spoke English fairly fluently.
“The older guys took me out and showed me places to eat,” Lepine said. “I had a roommate who had played in North America and spoke good English. It took the first couple months for me to get used to it.”
Lepine played in 49 games for the Kladno Knights and was the team's top producing defenseman with six goals and five assists.
“It was a good spot for me to go. I stepped in and was the No. 1 power play guy,” Lepine said. “It's a great league. It's comparable to the ECHL. It's fast but not as physical. I thought if I did well anything could happen.”
Lepine said financially it was a good situation as well.
“The money is a little better,” he said. “The team takes care of the taxes. So you make what you sign for.”
Lepine decided to go back to Europe last season and started out with a team based in Finland.
“Everyone speaks English in Finland,” he said. “Half the TV channels are in English. It was an easier transition.”
After playing in just 10 games, he was traded to a team in Germany.
“That was even easier,” Lepine said. “They had nine imports. The coach spoke English, which was good for learning systems and video. The city I was in was older and the people didn't speak as much English when you were out and about.”
Lepine said his living accommodations were terrific at all of his stops.
“I was treated really well everywhere I went,” he said. “The apartments were really nice. They were totally furnished. They really take care of their imports in Europe because they don't want to have a bad reputation back here.”
Lepine said this season he had hoped to go back to Europe.
“But it didn't pan out,” he said.
So just prior to training camp he reached out to Walleye coach Nick Vitucci.
“I gave him a call and he said he had room,” Lepine said. “The facility here is fantastic. The fans are great. Playing in front of 6,000 people is always great. It gets you pumped up. And the city is easy to get around.”
Vitucci originally acquired Lepine in trade with Bakersfield in December, 2010. He skated in 47 games with the Walleye in 2010-11 and had eight goals with 26 assists. He led all ECHL defensemen with 46 points overall and was named to the All-ECHL second team.
Vitucci described Lepine as a a good solid two-way defenseman who adds an offensive element.
“I take care of my own end first,” Lepine said. “I want to get defensively better every year. I've always been able to contribute on the power play.”
With Toledo struggling during a four-game losing streak, Lepine said he has tried to step up.
“Now that I'm getting older, I'm becoming more of a leader,” he said.
The Walleye (4-6-2) have slipped to fourth place in the ECHL North Division. Lepine said the team changed up systems a bit at practice on Tuesday, working specifically on the neutral zone.
“Everyone is still up. The tempo is good. No one is pointing fingers,” he said. “We came out flat a couple times and we have to work on that as individuals.”
The Walleye host Evansville at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday.
Captain Kyle Rogers, who suffered a lower body injury but expects to return for the game, said the team is going through the motions the first 10 minutes. Toledo gave up three goals in the first period and lost 5-4 to Reading at home on Sunday.
“We’re letting the other team dictate the game,” he said. “Then we come into the room and talk it over and then we get on our horses and go. We want to be the team that dictates the play.”
Toledo is in the midst of a four-game home stand.
“We have this whole week to prepare for it and we will come out right of the hop firing on all cylinders,” Lepine said. “We'll be on the upswing. I think we can be a dominant team.”
TEAM TRANSACTIONS: F Tyler Pilmore, a Sylvania native, is now playing for the Peoria Rivermen of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Vitucci said: “We have to see how he does. He didn't get ice time here for sure. His confidence may have suffered. We're hoping he gets confidence and can be a call up guy for us.”
F Philippe Lefebvre has been called up to Rockford. He made his Walleye debut Sunday against Reading.
PROMOTIONS: Saturday's game is the annual “Battle of the Badges” game between the Toledo Police Department and Toledo Fire Department prior to the Walleye game at 4 p.m. Tickets are $13 with a portion being donated to charity.
Saturday also is the annual Teddy Bear Toss when fans are asked to throw a stuffed animal on to the ice after the Walleye score their first goal. The stuffed animals will be donated to Lucas County Children Services.
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