The official tourism website for Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, touts the relaxing attractions of a “spa town like no other,” complete with 15 mineral springs whose waters reportedly possess “curative effects.” No doubt these sites were frequented throughout the 2000s by area youth hockey goalies seeking to soothe their limbs after facing shots from Martin Frk.
Here is one of many stories: When he was 12 or 13 years old, Frk ripped a slapper that struck the opposing netminder in the glove and knocked the kid out of the game. That was the first period. In the second, another howitzer from Frk pummeled the backup in his stomach. “So we had to stop the game halfway, because they didn’t want to go back to the net,” Frk says. “Their head coach was like, ‘Well, we don’t have any more goalies, you hurt both of them.’”
It was one of the earliest instances that Frk, now 26, recalls sticking out for how fast pucks zoomed off his stick. The latest example came Sunday at the AHL All-Star skills competition where Frk, a right-handed winger for the host Ontario (Calif.) Reign, set a professional hockey record with a 109.2 mph blast, breaking Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara’s old mark of 108.8, which had stood since 2012.
Perhaps this was eye-opening news for casual fans, if only because Frk doesn’t resemble a classic cannonballer; listed at 6’1” and 205, he is giving up eight inches and 45 pounds to the towering Big Zee. But few who have crossed Frk’s line of fire were surprised, least of all those who were tattooed with bruises after doing so.
“You don’t forget it,” says former goalie Mike McKenna, now a TV analyst for the Vegas Golden Knights. “When somebody shoots the puck that hard, it’s not something that goes out of your mind. There’s an elite grouping of players in professional hockey that catch your eye when they shoot the puck. And there’s usually one at the top of the list. For me, it was Martin Frk.”
Three years after his Syracuse Crunch lost to the Grand Rapids Griffins in the 2016 Calder Cup finals, McKenna can still easily rattle off the damage that Frk inflicted. “One to two on the arms, one on the hands that stung like crazy,” he says, not to mention the deep thigh bruise that took nearly three weeks to fade away. “We’re pretty well padded these days. It didn’t matter with him.” Of course, the most painful moment came when Frk cranked a deep slapper through traffic in the third period of Game 6 that ultimately clinched the series.
Drafted 49th overall by Detroit in 2012, now an AHL All-Star midway through his sixth pro season with 20 goals for the Reign—and three in five games for their affiliate, the LA Kings—Frk is certainly more than the updated answer to a bar trivia question. (Though he does seem to have that market staked out, given that his debut with Carolina in October 2016 marked the first appearance of an NHL player with a no-vowel last name.) But his reputation is well earned. After leaving the Czech Republic to play Canadian junior hockey, Frk shattered three panes of glass during separate practices with the Halifax Mooseheads in a two-week span.
“They told me they wanted me to sign the glass,” he says of his fellow Mooseheads. “I didn’t end up doing it, but they were asking.”
Even victims wear their lumps like badges of honor. Many offered testimonials following Sunday’s skills competition, including this gem from Reign forward Brett Sutter: “I soaked one right between the nipples this year, I thought I had a heart attack.” Others reached later were all too happy to share. Like Jeff Lerg, the starting goalie for the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye in ‘14–15, Frk’s first pro season. “Once in a warmup prior to a game I wasn’t starting, he buckled my knees on a shot, and I fell to the ice, and put an ice bag on my shoulder for the whole game while I sat on the bench, hoping I’d wake up the next morning and I could still move it,” Lerg says.
And yet the origins of such a superhuman shot are surprisingly … ordinary. “I don’t think I did anything really special besides shooting a puck on the net,” Frk says. Like countless kids, he loved practicing in the backyard of his home. As a righty, he gravitated to watching similar-handed players like Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. “They all seem to have pretty good shot, so I tried to learn as much as I could when I was younger,” Frk says.
But practice alone doesn’t bless someone with the ability to hit 109.2. Technique matters too. Spiros Anastas, a former Grand Rapids assistant, compares Frk’s smooth shooting motion and extended follow-through to a golfer’s swing. The result? “Loudest sound ever when he’d hit the bar,” Anastas writes in a text. And while Frk might not be an imposing physical sight, his one-timers are a torquing, full-body affair; once he whiffed so hard that he suffered an ankle sprain. “Everyone in [the] league knows to look the hell out,” says Mike Knuble, a former NHL forward and current Griffins assistant. “Duck or hide behind someone.”
Frk, meanwhile, credits the whippy 70 flex and Ovechkin-esque banana curve on his CCM stick, which sling shots off his blade like a clay pigeon thrower. “Back at home in Czech, when I was younger, I used two-piece sticks with the wood blade, so I’d bend my blades with a heat gun and curve it how I felt was good,” he says. “Then I had a chance to do custom sticks when I got to pro. I’m definitely really happy how my stick feels now. That took me a little while to figure it out, but now I have it, and now I can put the number up that I did now.”
Heading into last weekend, Frk wasn’t taking aim at Chara’s record; he didn’t even realize what he had accomplished until ex-Griffins teammate Matthew Ford told him on the ice. His only goal was 105 mph, because that’s what his Reign teammates told him would be a good number to reach. His first attempt was uncorked at 104, right under the crossbar. After some fellow All-Stars advised him to aim lower for maximum velocity, Frk charged forward and made history. “I knew I already [had won] the competition at 104, so I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll try to really lay into it,’” he says. “When the 109 popped up, I was like, ‘Oh my god, for real?’”
On the ice, Frk was mobbed by players rubbing his head, patting his back and offering congratulations. Some asked for his stick, as though marveling over the weapon of choice. “That was a really special moment,” he says. “I’m really happy all the guys were so nice to me.” Back in the locker room, his phone soon blew up with more than 200 text messages; eventually Frk responded to each one, though not before first celebrating over beers with his family and fiancée. “I will for sure remember the record for the rest of my life,” he says. “Until someone beat me. I bet there will be someone.” Still, Frk is hoping to set the bar higher himself someday. “I would definitely want to try again and see if I could get 110.”
Count McKenna among those confident that he can get there. “I told everybody ever since that Calder Cup finals, ‘Marty Frk has the hardest shot I’ve ever seen,’” McKenna says. “And they’d go, ‘Who?’ I told them, ‘You’re going to hear about this guy.’
“And he proved me to not be a liar.”