Statistically speaking, no Griffins player has ever shown more improvement from one year to the next than Jan Mursak.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Jan Mursak always knew he could play hockey at the highest levels, but that belief was more severely tested than he ever might have imagined.
The Red Wings prospect would be the first to admit that he suffered through a crisis in confidence during his first full year as a pro last season.
“When I got the chance to play, I just didn’t believe in myself,” he said. “I was getting rid of the puck too fast. I wasn’t patient. I was scared to do anything because I didn’t want to mess things up.
“Last year nothing went in and I became frustrated. I was doing stuff that I’m not good at. I made mistakes. But when you’re young and inexperienced, it happens.”
A point-per-game player in junior hockey, Mursak couldn’t seem to score at the AHL level. When his production failed to materialize, he found his ice time dwindled. He became a healthy scratch so often that he lost count of the games that he sat in the stands.
His on-ice struggles were not for lack of desire or effort.
“I knew I could do it – I was always good in practice – but when the game came, nothing would go,” Mursak said. “It wasn’t like I wasn’t ready, or that something was wrong. I just didn’t have confidence.”
Through it all, Mursak remained motivated. He had come to North America in 2006 from the small country of Slovenia, wanting to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL.
His parents had sacrificed plenty to enable him to play hockey – equipment back home was not cheap – and he was not about to let them down.
“I never wanted to disappoint my parents because they put everything they had into hockey,” Mursak said. “They did everything for me and that’s why I want to make them proud, and last year it was really hard because I wasn’t doing that.
“Every time we talked, I felt bad because I knew I could do so much better.”
Frequent phone conversations with his father helped him stay focused. There were more words of encouragement when he returned home this past summer.
“I talked to my dad a lot and he supported me all the time,” Mursak said. “I didn’t know what to do any more because it was so hard. I wasn’t playing and even when I played, I didn’t believe in myself so I didn’t show anything good.”
Mursak’s first goal last season finally came in his 29th game. He finished the year with two goals and seven assists in 51 games.
It’s been an entirely different story this season. Through 51 games, Mursak already had 18 goals – a terrific turnaround for a hard-working player who refused to quit.
“Pucks started going in more often and I felt more comfortable because of it,” he said. “This year I’m getting a lot of ice time and I‘m just confident in myself, trying to make better plays and working hard, while trying to keep things simple.”
His resurgence started as soon as last season ended. He added his own twists to the Red Wings’ training program, improving his strength and conditioning, while also working on his shot.
“I have a friend back home who plays for Nashville and he wants to get better, too, so we kept pushing each other to the limit but still made it fun,” Mursak said.
He worked out twice a day, five or six days a week. He shortened his shot so that he had a quicker release. He did a lot of running. He did sprints into the hills near his home.
“I worked hard this summer – I knew exactly what I wanted,” he said. “I even took boxing classes, not to fight but just to get into shape. And it all paid off.”
He also went to a softer hockey stick and lessened the curve on the blade, although he doesn’t credit his recent fortunes to the change.
“I’m not really picky about my hockey equipment,” he said. “I don’t think it had anything to do with my sticks. I usually have my sticks for a long time before I break them.”
The difference, Mursak believes, came in his approach to the game.
“This year I’m going to the most high-scoring areas,” he said. “When my teammates have the puck, I just go to the net and look for a redirect or a rebound. I’ve just been in the right place at the right time this year.”
Mursak also stopped worrying about making the perfect pass or the pretty play. He knew he had to start taking advantage of his speed and do whatever he could to put the puck past the defense.
He was rewarded almost from the start of this season. He scored a goal in back-to-back contests six games into the new campaign and has never looked back.
"I just need to keep shooting the puck and I know it will go in, whether they’re nice goals or ugly ones. No one asks you if they were nice or not, as long as they help the team.”
Griffins head coach Curt Fraser said he never doubted Mursak’s ability, even when he struggled during his rookie season.
“Like a lot of young players, Jan found out that not everything is going to go your way,” Fraser said. “He ran into some bumps in the road, a little adversity, but he never stopped working.
“When he was getting a lot of scoring chances and not finding the back of the net, I’m sure it was tough on him, but he found a way to keep working. He probably worked harder than almost anybody last year.
“Jan has really taken a step up this year with his speed, skill and determination. He’s really impressed a lot of people and we think he has a really bright future with the Detroit Red Wings.”
Mursak will still have his struggles. He will still make mistakes. He will have trouble scoring again. In fact, he went through a 16-game stretch from Jan. 9 to Feb. 15 in which he had just one goal.
If anything, it means he will continue to work that much harder.
“I’m a really competitive person and I would do anything to be better than another player,” he said. “I’ll work extra hard. I’ll go to the gym every day for an hour more than the other guys. I just want to get better and better.”
Mursak said he was confident from the first day of training camp last fall. “I just knew I was going to have a good season,” he said. “But I want to play good for a whole season and not just a half.”
He would like to still get stronger.
“Last year I was a healthy scratch a lot of games and it was really hard on me, but I kept working hard in the gym and I got stronger, which has helped my stability on the ice.”
“I still need to get a little bigger, but I don’t want to rush it because two years ago I added a lot of weight and it didn’t work for me. I felt like I couldn’t skate as fast.”
Having made strides in his own play this year, Mursak would like to do whatever he can to improve the Griffins’ fortunes as the team heads into the closing portion of the 2009-10 regular season.
“We’re not far from winning. It’s just that one mistake or one bad period that costs us,” Mursak said. “We’re getting punched for every mistake we make. I think we’re working hard, but we’re just not working smart.
“We just need to keep it simple, especially against teams with good defense. We just need to chip the puck in and wait for their mistakes.
“This is a really good team with four strong lines. We just need to start winning. I’m a team guy and I’ll do anything for the team.”