PENSACOLA, Fla. – Teams use free agent camps as a way to find diamonds in the rough. Last season, the Birmingham Bulls found defenseman Garrett Johnston. After a year off from high-level hockey recovering from a medical condition, Johnston came to the Bulls free agent camp and Birmingham coach Jamey Hicks made sure to sign the defenseman before he left town. Johnston finished the season in the ECHL, winning the Kelly Cup with the Newfoundland Growlers.

The Pensacola Ice Flyers are hoping they will have similar luck with their first announced signing for the 2019 training camp, goalie Christian Pavlas.

Pavlas is not your typical diamond in the rough, however. The Slovakian goalie is heading into this third season of North American professional hockey. He originally came over to play the 2017-18 season in the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League for the Kingsville Kings. The Kings happened to be partnered with and share a rink with the Federal Hockey League’s North Shore Knights. After one game with Kingsville, Pavlas joined the Knights,  appeared in 14 games for the Knights before being traded to the Carolina Thunderbirds.

In 29 games with North Shore and Carolina, Pavlas had a 10-16-1 record with a 4.28 goals against average and a 0.891 save percentage. Those numbers are not stellar, but they were dragged down by his time on a North Shore team that was a mess and managed just six wins in 44 games before folding.

In 2018-19, stability and being part of the FHL’s premier franchise certainly suited Pavlas. He finished the regular season with the Thunderbirds leading the league in goals against average (1.77), save percentage (0.932), wins (30), and shutouts (5). Those 30 wins were part of a ridiculous 30-3-2 record. Five shutouts is an impressive feat, but five shutouts in a league that is usually extremely wide open is a testament to Pavlas’ hard work and talent.

“I had a later start to the 2018-2019 season. I was nervous before my first game back because I only had a couple of practices to feel the new dynamic of the team. It was a tough first period but after that everything clicked into place,” Pavlas stated. “Game after game, together we built an incredible momentum. We broke many league records including winning 24 games in a row and most shut outs. Expectations were high and the pressure was intense. Our rivals were out for blood and fought hard. It made winning the Commissioner’s Cup for ourselves and our amazing fans all the more rewarding.”

As he alluded to, Pavlas is coming off an FHL championship and has signed with a Pensacola team that is looking to get back to their winning ways and put another SPHL President’s Cup in the trophy case. Pavlas is no stranger to success and expectations, though. A native of Bratislava, he came up through the youth system of HC Slovan Bratislava, one of Slovakia’s oldest and most successful hockey clubs.

“I was in my hometown team, HC Slovan Bratislava, since I was four and it was always my dream to sign with the men’s (professional) team.”

Pavlas played all of his youth hockey for Slovan and continued with the club up until part way through the 2016-17 season when Slovan (then members of the Kontinental Hockey League) loaned him to HK Martin of the Slovak Tipsport Liga. With Martin, Pavlas appeared in seven games as well as nine more games in the Slovakian second-tier league, 1.liga. Both the 1.liga and the Tipsport Liga are men’s professional leagues, and Pavlas was playing and performing well as a 19-year-old.

Pavlas values his time playing for Slovan and credits the opportunities to learn from some of the game’s bests for his continued success.

“(Coming up through the Slovan system) taught me to train hard. I was learning from some of the best players like for example Jonathan Cheechoo or Ladislav Nagy,” Pavlas said. “During practice, I try to maintain the same intensity as if it is a real game. I love to stay active in my free time with basketball, tennis, kickboxing, yoga, or spin class. Nutrition has always been important to me and I try to stick to healthier food even in the offseason.”

Long story short: Christian Pavlas is not your usual free agent camp attendee who is hanging onto a dream that was cut short or never got the looks needed to progress his career. Pavlas is a legit player who very likely can compete and win at the SPHL level, if not higher.

When asked if how a player of his caliber ended up at a free agent camp, Pavlas cited one of Pensacola’s biggest recruiting pitches.

“I grew up in Slovakia which has a beautiful river, but no coastline,” he said. “Playing hockey at the beach would be amazing! When I found out about the Ice Flyers camp, I knew I had to go.”

The beach is an excellent draw but you cannot base your decision solely on that alone.

“Once I met head coach Rod Aldoff and assistant coach Jeremy Gates and learned more about their great organization, I became very excited about the opportunity to play for the Ice Flyers. I’m looking forward to making a great second impression at the main camp.”

Pavlas finds himself in a nice position heading into training camp. The Ice Flyers did not include a goalie on the protected list, have not yet announced any other goalie signings, and last year’s starter, Brian Billett, has decided to retire.

“I hope to break another win record, and I will try to help the team win another championship. I will do everything that I can for Pensacola,” concluded Pavlas.

Follow Geoff Nichols on Twitter at @SinBinIceFlyers.

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