As an amateur scout for the Carolina Hurricanes, Robert Kron traverses the globe in search of the next star player.
Just last week, he was in Sweden, where the best crop of young players has originated from as of late, he said.
On Friday evening, Kron was back in Raleigh skating at PNC Arena with his daughter.
“I travel here in North America as well, but pretty much my responsibility is in Europe, so that’s where my workload lies,” he said. “I’m pretty much there every month.”
He’d be flying out again soon enough, but that’s all part of the job and nothing new for the 45-year-old former Hurricane.
A Changing Nation
Kron was born on Feb. 27, 1967, in Brno in what was formerly Czechoslovakia, a nation and region that has undergone dramatic change in the last 40 years.
“It’s a different country, really, than I remember growing up in,” Kron said. “[When we travel] we fly to Vienna (Austria) and then drive across the border. To me and my wife, that’s normal. But when we were kids, it wasn’t. It’s only an hour drive, but we couldn’t do that.”
Czechoslovakia was a part of the communist, Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc (which, after World War II, included Hungary, Poland, Romania, East Germany, Albania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia) until the late 1980’s. As a child, Kron was numb to the volatile political and economic climate.
“Well, as a kid, you don’t really know,” Kron said. “You just want to go out, play and have fun.”
So, that’s what he did. Kron grew up near a rink, and as long as he had a stick, puck and skates, that’s where he’d be.
“When you’re a teenager, you kind of start to realize it’s different. We did get to see Austria on TV,” he recalled. “The biggest change has been the freedom of movement, but as a kid you didn’t know. I left right after the (Berlin) Wall came down. It was gradually changing, and now it is really part of Europe. It wasn’t like that early on.”
Living in a Soviet satellite state, Kron had to take Russian classes in high school. Though that language has mostly escaped him, it’s essentially the last vestige of the Eastern Bloc that he still carries to this day.
Coming to (North) America
Kron was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the fifth round (88th overall) in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft, but he didn’t play in the NHL for another five years.
Heading into the 1990-91 season, his wife and firstborn son packed up for a new adventure in North America. There was culture shock, certainly, the biggest adjustment being the language.
“Even though we took some English in high school and knew a few words, the biggest adjustment was [learning how to] ask for things,” he said. “We didn’t know about bank cards or check books. I remember our agent showing us how to write a check and open a checking account. We didn’t have those things, so it was different.”
The Krons lived a city life before heading to Connecticut to finish the 1992-93 season. They settled in a small town about 20 minutes outside of Hartford, another adjustment.
“Even though Canada and the United States are similar, there are little differences,” he said.
Four years later, another move. This time, they traveled south along the eastern seaboard, as the franchise relocated to North Carolina. That was different, too, but in a different way: hockey wasn’t as well-known of a sport as it was in New England, Canada or Europe.
“In terms of the fan base, it was just starting. The people, I thought, bought into it early on,” Kron said. “Even though they needed to learn the game of hockey and become familiar with it – the excitement, the speed and obviously the team did pretty well over the years – I think it succeeded.”
Due in large part to digital technology – television, the internet and social media – the world has shrunk. Because of this, young players emigrating from Europe to play in the NHL are increasingly familiar with North American culture.
“It’s one big world,” Kron said. “The young kids that play hockey, they know everything about the NHL.”
It also helps that Kron can relate. He has been the stranger in a strange land, relocating from Europe in pursuit of his dream to play in the NHL.
“Once we have them in the system or draft them, that’s where I do a little bit of player development. That’s where you can talk to them,” he said. “I think it has helped to have somebody who has gone through it. Even though these days, the kids speak English, they travel the world and they see the NHL pretty regularly.”
Language isn’t as much of a barrier as it was 20 years ago, either. Though Kron speaks English, Czech and a little bit of Russian and German, communication isn’t as handicapped as it might have once been, he said.
“English is universal,” he said. “It helps when you know a little bit of a different language, but in terms of communicating, pretty much everybody speaks (some) English [in Europe].”
Going to Carolina
The Hartford Whalers acquired Kron, a conditional draft pick (defenseman Marek Malik) and future considerations (forward Jim Sandlack) in exchange for forward Murray Craven and a 1993 fifth-round draft pick (forward Scott Walker) on March 22, 1993.
In 13 games with the Whalers in the spring of 1993, Kron scored six points (2g, 4a). Point-wise, his most prolific seasons followed in 1993-94 and 1995-96, as he recorded 50 points in each season (24g, 26a in 1993-94; 22g, 28a in 1995-96).
A part of the original Hurricanes roster, Kron remained with the team in North Carolina for its first three seasons. Though his last 20-goal campaign came in 1995-96, he still notched 40 points (13g, 27a) in 1999-2000 in what would be his last season with the team.
As it was for the organization, Kron recalled that the two seasons spent in Greensboro were challenging at times, if only because of the temporary location of the team.
“I remember we had a bus and a hotel. It was like being on the road, pretty much, the whole year,” Kron said. “Those two years were difficult, but it wasn’t that bad. It was only an hour drive.
“It was harder on the trainers, I think. It was tough to move the equipment up and down all the time. But that’s part of the job. It was what it was,” he said. “As a player, you adapt.”
After eight seasons with the organization, Kron became the eighth player in franchise history to be selected in an expansion draft, as the Columbus Blue Jackets added him to their roster in June 2000.
Kron played two seasons – 59 games in each – with the Blue Jackets and a season in Finland’s SM-liiga before retiring. Over the course of 12 seasons in the NHL, Kron logged 771 games, totaling 144 goals and 194 assists (338 points).
“I definitely had mixed feelings about not playing anymore,” he said. “Everybody’s different.”
Staying in Carolina
Even after Kron’s career had taken him through Vancouver, Columbus, Finland and various other parts of Europe, his family decided to remain in Raleigh, a popular choice for many former players.
“It’s just a great place to raise kids. As much as it was different from Czech to Canada to Hartford to here, we really settled here,” he said. “At the end of the day, we felt this was the best and most logical place for us to be.”
With extended family – including Kron’s parents – still living in the Czech Republic, the Krons try to visit as often as they can, usually in the summer.
“That was the case when I played. When the season ended and school ended, we’d go for a couple of months. My wife is from there, and my oldest son was born there,” Kron said. “He wanted to go see his friends. The other two (kids), even though they weren’t born there, they have grandparents there. We’ve tried to keep that going, but it’s more difficult these days.”
Kron’s oldest son, Robert Jr., played hockey through high school. After a couple of injuries, including a broken collarbone, he called it quits. He went on to receive an undergraduate degree from Miami of Ohio and a master’s from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ice hockey wasn’t the sport for Kron’s second son, Nick, who now attends the University of Miami.
“He liked roller hockey better, and he played soccer,” Kron said.
Kron’s daughter, Isabella, who attends high school locally, dabbled in figure skating and soccer.
“So, no hockey players in my household anymore,” Kron said.
Scouting the World
Kron is in his fifth season as an amateur scout for the Hurricanes. He also assists with player development with the organization’s European prospects.
“This is great because I know the game inside-out,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to learn from the management side of things and development side of things. And I get to stay in something I’ve done my whole life. I started when I was five, and it’s great to be able to stay with it. It’s part of your DNA, almost.”
Between living in Europe, playing in the NHL and now being a scout, Kron has explored many nooks around the world.
“I haven’t been to Africa, but maybe one day,” he joked. “But [I’ve been to] pretty much all the hockey countries. Nowadays, even Hungry is being considered a hockey country. Hockey is growing in Europe. And even in Japan. It’s a global sport, and hopefully it will grow even more.”
As a player, Kron built toward the playoffs, in which he played 16 career games. As a scout, Kron builds toward the draft. His work culminates in early June, when the scouting department and front office evaluate every potential pick, assemble their rankings and compile a wish list.
“The draft is pretty much our baby. That’s where all the work comes to fruition,” he said. “Even though you don’t really know who you’re going to get, you’re ready and you anticipate where somebody might be, so it’s exciting.”
Exciting, too, because Kron and the Hurricanes get to make real a kid’s dream of becoming part of the NHL, just as the Canucks did for Kron 27 years ago.
Since then, many players have come and gone and the game has changed. But when asked if he ever sees himself in the young kids who he scouts, Kron paused, thoughtful.
“You do get that excitement. That’s what’s fun about scouting the young kids in juniors. You see those boys that have the drive and are rink rats. That’s what I was,” he said. “I think a lot of kids are still like that, and sometimes it brings back memories.”
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