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Handsome Future

10/11/2002 1:33 PM - Griffins rookie center Tomas Kopecky is ready to prove himself at the professional level.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

For athletes in many sports, success is only an arm’s length away — it’s all about their hands.

Consider Jerry Rice’s ability to catch a football. Magic Johnson’s gift for hitting the open man on the basketball court. Barry Bond’s capacity for knocking a baseball over the fence. Or Muhammad Ali slugging his opponent into submission.

For all their talent and skill, none of them would have accomplished anything without good hands.

As a young prospect of the Detroit Red Wings, Tomas Kopecky is not yet in the same league as any of those superstars. But if he aspires to any sense of greatness, his hands will largely determine his fate.

At first glance, there is nothing extraordinary about his hands. They are not especially large or small. Nor is there anything unusual about his handshake, which feels firm and confident, but not overpowering in the sense that it causes your knees to buckle.

In fact, it’s safe to say that his hands are rather unremarkable. Put a hockey stick in his hands, however, and it’s an altogether different story.

Kopecky may never be a 50-goal scorer, but he has the kind of hands that convinced the Detroit organization to make him their second choice (38th overall) in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.

In fact, the Red Wings liked Kopecky so much, they traded their 64th and 94th picks in the draft to the New York Rangers for the purpose of selecting the talented young playmaker.

He came to North America two years ago from Slovakia, where he had been playing hockey since he was only four years old. From the beginning, it was clear that good hands were in his genes.

His father, Ivan, is a bank director today, but he had been a money player for years. Previously he was a professional handball player, earning his living as a member of the Slovakia National Team.

“But hockey is the only sport I played growing up,” Kopecky says. “My dad brought me to my first practice and I just loved it.” Kopecky grew up in Dubnica, a small industrial town located eight miles northeast of Trencin near the Vah river in western Slovakia. He played hockey religiously, graduating to junior level by age 15.

By his third season, it was clear that he was too talented for junior hockey in Slovakia. After recording 11 goals and 24 points in only 12 games, he was placed on a Slovakian Elite League team.

Playing against men as a 17-year-old, Kopecky showed that he could hold his own, even in a limited role. He finished the year with three goals and seven points in 57 games.

“It was the first time I thought I might be able to make my living playing hockey,” Kopecky says.

Initially ranked 11th among Europeans by Central Scouting, Kopecky's lack of production in the Slovakian Elite League contributed to his drop to 26th by the end of the year.

Undaunted, he was determined to come to North America to prove that he had the talent to play at the highest level of the game.

“It’s always tough to leave your country and your family, but I think I made the right step,” Kopecky says. “Hopefully, it was a decision that will help my career.” He admits that adjusting to life in North America was even more difficult than learning to play hockey in smaller rinks.

“The whole lifestyle is so different, plus you don’t have family and friends here to support you — you’re just by yourself,” he says. “All you do is focus on hockey. That’s about it. There’s nothing else, just hockey.

“But I chose to play hockey because I love it.” Kopecky found support in his Lethbridge teammates and the club’s head coach, Bryan Maxwell, a veteran of 331 NHL games with the Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins.

“He helped me a lot,” Kopecky says. “He played in the NHL and told me what it would be like to get through juniors.” The 6-3, 192-pound center made a relatively smooth adjustment to the North American game, although his proclivity to pass sometimes frustrated his coaches.

“I’ve always liked to pass,” Kopecky says. “Sometimes coaches tell me that I pass too much. I have to shoot more.” That’s not all that he will have to learn. Considered a step slow by NHL standards, most hockey observers feel his skating must improve if he is going to lift his game to the next level.

“I need to improve my skating,” he says, hopeful that concentrated effort during practices and a regimen of exercises designed to improve his leg strength will do the trick.

He hopes that he can reward the Red Wings organization’s patience and develop into a solid NHL player. For inspiration, he has to look no further than an ex-Griffins player from his hometown.

Kopecky returns every summer to Dubnica, which is also home to St. Louis B lues star Pavol Demitra, for whom a season in Grand Rapids served as a launching pad for NHL greatness.

“I met him at the gym a couple of times and worked out together during the summer,” Kopecky says. “Of course, everybody knows him and likes him.

He’s a great player.” A rangy center with excellent size and reach, Kopecky has demonstrated good hockey sense that enables him to play an intelligent offensive game without sacrificing anything defensively.

Having made brief appearances with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks during the past two seasons , Kopecky feels ready to make his mark during his first full season in the AHL.

“The game is pretty fast here,” he says. “Everything happens so quick that you don’t have too much time to think about things.” Ultimately, he knows that time is on his side. “Everybody talks about how hard it is to turn pro from juniors,” he says. “I’ll do my best, hopefully establish myself in Grand Rapids and go as far as possible.” At this point, it seems, Kopecky’s got the whole world in his hands.

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