Now in his second season with the Griffins, Red Wings prospect Tomas Jurco is craving an opportunity to play in Detroit.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Tomas Jurco is one hungry hockey player.
In the figurative sense, the hunger alludes to his appetite for competition, his push to play in the NHL someday. In a literal sense, it means he misses his mother's cooking.
For Jurco, being thousands of miles from his home in Slovakia is the same as being a long way from a good meal.
He’s learning to play hockey in the tighter rinks of North America, but he struggles with the tightening he feels in his stomach when he thinks of going months without his mother’s szegedin gulás and knedl'a (Slovak stew and dumpling), zemiakové placky (potato pancakes), jaternica (sausage) or kapustnica (sauerkraut soup).
"I miss it, for sure," he said. "When I come home, she puts everything on the table, and I like anything my mom cooks. Now when she reads this, she will be so proud that she will go into the kitchen and cook something, even if there is no one home."
At age 20, Jurco knows he has time to get bigger and stronger. With his mother's help, he was able to add several pounds this past summer. "I came into training camp at 202, but then three weeks later, I'm back at 196 because, to be honest, I don't like the food here. It's hard for me to get bigger and stronger if I can't put on weight."
But when you have a craving to play in the National Hockey League, you do whatever it takes.
Jurco, who grew up in Kosice, Slovakia, has had NHL dreams for almost as long as he can remember, although he might never have become a hockey player had it not been for his older sister, Petra.
"My parents took us to the rink to sign up my sister for hockey," he recalled. "It didn't go well because they didn't have any female leagues, but they told my parents that if I wanted to play, I could come tomorrow for practice. So we came back the next day, and I guess I liked it."
"Liked" is putting it lightly. He played the game zealously, often outdoors with Petra and her friends, who were five years older.
"I was like 5, 6, 7 and could barely hold my stick. I was always the youngest one and they didn't want to play with me because I wasn't good," he said. "But my sister said, 'I'm not playing unless he's playing.' So they always took me, which was really nice."
Petra became like the brother he never had. They were inseparable. Other kids had joysticks; they had hockey sticks. They played together and got in trouble together.
"I remember one time when we broke a window," he said. "We were living in an apartment, like most families in Slovakia, and we were playing with a tennis ball in our room. My sister shot it, and I think it might have tipped off my stick because it bounced and cracked the window.
"We tried to hide it so our mom wouldn't see it because we knew she would be really mad. We put some flowers in the way, and I think we were able to hide it for about a week before she found it. At the time, she was pretty mad. Now, it's a good memory."
Jurco flashed back on those childhood memories in the midst of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, when his sister was a member of Slovakia’s women’s hockey team and he was playing his first year in North America.
They were on opposite ends of the continent – he was playing for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – but he couldn't have felt closer to her.
"The time difference was less than if I had been home in Slovakia," he said. "I remember watching late at night, and it was cool to see her play in an NHL arena in front of 20,000 people."
Thanks to his sister's dutiful support, Jurco's skill set was usually ahead of the other boys his age. It helped that he was slavishly devoted to improving his play, even when he wasn’t on the ice.
"I'd sit on top of my bed with my stick, so if the puck fell, it wouldn't make that much noise because my parents would get mad with all the banging," he said. "I'd lean against the bed, the wall next to me. Sometimes it was hard not to hit the wall with the puck. It would leave marks and my mom would get mad. But the more I practiced, the better and better I got until there were less marks and less noise, too."
He enjoyed watching hockey clips on his computer, becoming especially fond of a certain young player in Pittsburgh. Jurco was 12 going on 13 when Sidney Crosby made his NHL debut.
"I really liked him and the way he could do all these tricks," Jurco said. "I started watching all these videos, and he made a big impact on me. I started making up my own tricks and kept doing it for a couple of years."
By now, Jurco was playing with guys who were three or four years older. His stickhandling skills were improving and the tricks he could do with the puck were becoming increasingly impressive. One day, a friend came with his video camera, and they spent an hour recording the budding star in action.
The video was uploaded onto a Slovakian website and, much to Jurco's chagrin, eventually found its way onto YouTube.
"I never meant to put myself on YouTube," he said. "I was pretty surprised when it became so popular, but it got to be embarrassing because guys thought I had put myself out there, and that's not me."
He started feeling like he had become a sideshow. When someone called him a clown, he knew the tricks had to stop. "I said, 'That's enough. I'm not in the circus. I'm a hockey player.' Things got to be too much about YouTube and not enough about hockey. I'm not like those basketball players from the Harlem Globetrotters."
Playing in a hockey-mad country like Canada would only heighten the hullabaloo.
Coming to North America was something that Jurco had been thinking about for a long time. "It wasn't a hard decision for me; it was probably harder on my parents," he said. The adjustment, however, wasn't so easy. Communication was difficult at best – he learned English in school, but it was the British form and people spoke too fast – and he missed his mother's cooking.
On the ice, Jurco adapted quickly. After a slow start, he finished his first year in Saint John with 26 goals. He tallied 31 goals in 60 games during his second season and 30 goals in 48 games in his third. His team won the QMJHL's President Cup in back-to-back seasons while appearing in the league finals for three consecutive years.
After the Sea Dogs won the Memorial Cup in 2011 as the top junior team in Canada, it was expected that Jurco would be among the top picks in the NHL Entry Draft. Many scouting reports projected him to be a first-rounder.
"I was really hoping someone would pick me in the first round, so I could go on stage and put on the jersey," he said. "When my name didn't come, we went back to the hotel, and it was hard for me to sleep because being drafted in the first round had been my dream. I was disappointed."
As it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise. "On the second day, I got picked early by Detroit. It was my sister's favorite team when she was young – she used to love Yzerman – so it was pretty exciting for my family.
"Just being drafted was exciting, especially being from Slovakia. There aren't too many players that get drafted from our country."
He came to Grand Rapids last season, eager to shed the image of being a viral video sensation. But he struggled early, was a healthy scratch twice, and doubters began to question his ability.
"When I had my struggles during the beginning, I know some people were saying ‘he's just a YouTube guy’ and that made me mad," he said. "I knew I had to prove I could be a good hockey player."
Sitting in the stands when he was healthy only stoked his competitive fires.
"It was really frustrating for me because I'm not the type of guy who says, 'I'm young, I don't have to play.' I always want to play and I always want to be the best, even if I'm playing on the best team," Jurco said. "So the first few months were really hard."
Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill wasn't completely surprised.
"Jurco came in a really confident player but probably didn't know how to play to be successful in pro hockey – he had to learn it," Blashill said. "In the process, his confidence got chipped away a bit. As you're struggling, that happens."
A few meetings with Blashill gave Jurco some direction. "We talked a lot," Jurco said. "Blash is a great coach. He tells you what you have to improve to play for him. It's good for players to know exactly what they need to do better."
He can't pinpoint a particular game, but it was sometime in February – possibly when his buddy Andrej Nestrasil rejoined the Griffins from Toledo – that things started to click for Jurco.
"Jurco listened and bought into the process," Blashill said. "He worked on the things that he needed to do to get better and in the end, I thought he emerged as one of our most dangerous players during the second half, especially when we lost (Gustav) Nyquist, (Joakim) Andersson and (Tomas) Tatar."
Looking back, Jurco thinks he might have been too tentative at first.
"I was afraid to make turnovers," he said. "I was playing too easy and that's not my style of hockey. I like to play with the puck. I have to make plays. When I don't have the puck, I'm not good. So I started carrying the puck a little more and really paying attention to winning every battle. Luckily, I started playing well and finished strong."
In March, Jurco recorded his first two-goal game. In April, he scored four goals in a seven-game stretch. In the Calder Cup Playoffs, he had eight goals, which was third best on the team.
"His learning curve was great," Blashill said. "He was as improved as any player we had, and he was only 20 years old – a lot of his peers were still playing junior hockey."
Jurco was thrilled to win the Calder Cup in his rookie season, but on the plane trip back from Syracuse, he looked miserable. He was battling the effects of a badly infected elbow.
"I felt terrible, watching everyone celebrating," Jurco said. "I know how it feels to win and I wanted to be able to celebrate with the team, but I couldn't. My elbow was sore, I felt cold and I had a bad headache. I wanted to be happy, but I had the worst couple of days."
Jurco stayed in Grand Rapids a couple of extra days until the doctors were sure that he was improving. He was glad to get home – glad to be eating his mom's cooking again – but now he is eager to continue his career trajectory.
Blashill is confident that Jurco is up for the task.
"He's got skills that other guys don't have," Blashill said. "He's got a chance to be a top-six forward in the NHL, and very few guys get that opportunity. What he has to do now is take his play and turn it into production on a consistent basis without sacrificing anything from his defense or team game. That's the challenge of learning to be a go-to guy.
"He's going to face the other team's best defenders on a more regular basis, and he's going to have to learn to be successful while facing those guys. Tatar learned it. Nyquist learned it. Now he's going to learn it, and that's going to be the next step in his maturation process."
Jurco is ready for the challenge.
"I'm hoping to be a leader on the ice," he said. "I want to have a good year and, to be honest, play a couple of games with the Red Wings. That's my dream, and I feel I'm more ready than I was last year. I want to play there one day; that's why I'm here."
Jurco knows he has to be patient. "Obviously, I'm only 20 and although I'll be 21 soon, I'm still young," he said. But getting a taste of the NHL would be like icing on the cake – and almost as good as mom's cooking.