10/25/2008 8:09 AM -
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Tomas Kopecky is so excited about the 2008-09 season, he began scoring points before the first puck was even dropped.
The former Griffins forward should be awarded with a major assist for his role in helping convince highly coveted free agent Marian Hossa to sign with the Detroit Red Wings this summer.
Few expected the highly skilled Hossa to find his way to Hockeytown after the Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals in early June.
His decision to sign a one-year, $7.45 million deal with Detroit on July 2, turning down more money and long-term deals, stunned many in the NHL.
“We only live five minutes from each other (in Slovakia),” Kopecky said. “I grew up with his brother (Marcel) and we’ve become really good friends. We work out together in the summer.”
Hossa wanted to play for the team he felt had the best chance to win the Cup, so he looked to Kopecky not for a sales pitch but a confirmation that he was making the right decision.
“I asked him a few questions – there was some stuff I wanted to know,” said Hossa, who has scored 299 career goals and 648 points in nine-plus seasons with the Penguins, Atlanta Thrashers and Ottawa Senators.
“Kopy and I have known each other for a while, so it’s good when you know someone inside a team. You can ask about things. It helps make your decision a little easier.”
Hossa called Kopecky right after talking with Red Wings general manager Ken Holland about a possible deal.
“He said he had an offer from Detroit and I told him it was a great place to play,” Kopecky said. “He told me that he was thinking about it and I told him to call me as soon as he decided.”
Three hours later, the call came.
“I was really happy for him,” Kopecky said. “We went out that night and celebrated with a couple of cognacs.”
Hossa had gotten a close look at the Wings during the Stanley Cup Finals and felt that his game would fit well with the team’s puck-possession style of play.
Not surprisingly, Hossa was criticized by the Penguin faithful for being opportunistic, for following a foolish bit of fancy, turning down long-term job security and tens of millions of dollars.
Hossa saw it as a risk worth taking. For Kopecky, it was an opportunity for two buddies to play together and realize a dream that most NHL players never experience.
The road to the Stanley Cup had been a bittersweet experience for Kopecky, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in the Wings’ second-to-last regular season game on April 3.
Forced to watch the entire playoff run from the stands, he did his best to be a good cheerleader, but admits that the situation was difficult to say the least.
"My leg didn't hurt, my heart hurt," Kopecky said. "It was so tough mentally that I couldn’t begin to explain how I felt, but when the guys won it, everything was behind me. I was so happy.
“It was like the cherry on the top.”
Kopecky had surgery on April 22. The procedure, which was performed by Dr. William Clancy in Birmingham, Ala., required a graft from his right knee to be inserted into his damaged left knee.
The prognosis included a 4-6 month recovery period.
Anxious to get back on the ice, he took his rehabilitation program very seriously.
“It was the hardest summer I’ve ever had,” Kopecky said. “Sometimes I had to stay home for a day because I was so fed up with the rehab. My wife helped me a lot – she helped keep my spirits up. It’s always tough when you have to come back from an injury like this.”
Kopecky and Hossa worked out in the mornings, had lunch together, then skated in the afternoons. By the time the Wings opened their training camp in Traverse City, Kopecky was more than ready.
“When I got injured last year, I realized how fortunate I am to play for a team like this. I’m so happy for the opportunity to be here. It’s an unbelievable experience just to be around the rink.”
By his own calculations, Kopecky believes his recovery is ahead of schedule, although he feels his knees are only 90-95 percent fully recovered.
“This is a blast for me. I’ve been looking forward to this since Game 6 in Pittsburgh when we won. I’m just like a little kid right now. I’m enjoying myself. This is like paradise.”
He admits that he still feels discomfort in both knees, but believes it is part of the natural healing process.
“It hurts but it’s not the kind of pain I can’t handle. I just have to suck it up and not worry about it. If you focus on not getting injured, you’re only going to increase the chance that you’ll get hurt again. I don’t want to think about it. If it hurts, it hurts.”
Dr. Clancy, who performed the surgery alongside Wings team physician Dr. Douglas Plagens, is considered one of the best orthopedic surgeons in sports. Chris Chelios, Niklas Kronwall and Steve Yzerman have been Clancy patients.
Chelios has assured Kopecky that the pain will eventually subside. “Cheli told me that he woke up one morning after six months and the pain was gone, so I’m just waiting for that day.”
Having Hossa around helped. Kopecky invited his friend to stay with him while he looked for his own place.
“He’s so relaxed and easy-going,” Kopecky said. “I’m so hyper, but every time I wanted to do something, he was like, ‘Oh, just take it easy.’ He doesn’t get rattled at all.”
Hossa, it turns out, is a bit of a tech hound.
“He’s such a gadget freak – he loves his technology. He’s so focused on his computer or his iPhone that I was like a ghost to him, but he showed me stuff that I can do with my cellphone that I didn’t even know, like get e-mails or listen to Slovakian radio. So it’s been good.”
Hossa appreciated the hospitality of his friend until he found his own place. “Kopy’s been a great host. He drove me around, showed me places.
Like Hossa, Kopecky is willing to do whatever it takes to see the Wings repeat as Stanley Cup champions. “Every year I set goals, usually it’s to get 15 or 20 goals. This year I just want to stay healthy. I know if I stay healthy, the goals and points will come.”
The Wings are hoping Kopecky can fill the void left by the retired Dallas Drake.
If he can stay healthy, he feels it’s a role he can handle. Chosen by the Wings in the second round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, he has worked hard to evolve from a skilled center into a grinding winger.
Wings’ GM Ken Holland recognizes how much Kopecky has changed his game to become an effective pro.
“He’s slowly getting better every year," Holland said. “We like what he brings. He’s a big body. He likes to play physical. He’s got a real good shot.
“The longer players are around the NHL, the better they get. They get confidence. They practice at a high level every day and they improve. I think he's done that.”
Kopecky knows he has come a long way from six years ago when he joined the Griffins as a 20-year-old rookie.
“I can’t forget those four years in Grand Rapids – it was a great experience for me, especially that last year,” he recalled.
It took him longer than he expected to adjust to North American hockey, plus he battled injuries which made it difficult to get the ice time that he needed to develop.
“I have to thank Mac (Griffins GM Bob McNamara) and (former head coach) Greg Ireland for helping me get to where I am now. I was really struggling the first couple of years.”
Kopecky blossomed in his final season in Grand Rapids. He recorded 32 goals and 40 assists for 72 points in 77 games, then helped the Griffins reach the conference finals in the Calder Cup playoffs.
“When the coach puts you out there, it shows he has confidence in you. All I could do was work hard and earn his confidence. It made a big difference. It was a real eye opener.”
If the Wings are able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, Kopecky would like nothing better than to be on the ice this time. He certainly looks forward to spending more time with hockey’s holy grail.
Last summer, he got to enjoy a couple of days with the Cup, joining Dominik Hasek and Jiri Hudler in the Czech Republic before bringing the Cup to the town square in Bratislava, Slovakia.
“It was raining, but I had so much fun,” said Kopecky, who returned with the Cup to his hometown of Dubnica, where he visited a children’s hospital and a local rink before retiring to a family-owned hotel for a celebration with friends and relatives.
A highlight was eating drzkova (a zesty tripe soup) out of the Cup.
“It’s made from the stomach of the cow, the insides, cooked for a long time,” he said. “It’s pretty famous in my country – it’s unbelievably good.”
So good, he says, that he is looking forward to enjoying seconds next summer.
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