By Jeremy Lanaway
The name "Juraj Simek" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But then again neither did "Kevin Bieksa
," and nobody west of Thunder Bay fumbles with that one anymore.
Thankfully for eastern media, "Simek" won't be gracing a Canucks jersey for at least another year or two, which should be right about the time they get "Bee-ehk-sah" nailed down.
The fact that the kid with the funny name and the halting accent is even threatening to wreak havoc with hockey commentators is a testament to Canucks scouts, who dug Simek out of a Swiss junior league so unheralded it's produced... well, nobody.
Vancouver drafted Simek in the fourth round (167th overall) in 2006 out of Kloten, a Swiss town of 17, 634 that's known primarily for its airport and the A51 motorway. Hardly a classic hockey hotbed, which might account for a player of Simek's talent slipping so far under the radar.
After making the jump to Canada, Simek's torn up the Western Hockey League and currently sits fifth in rookie scoring.
With a dominant performance at the 2007 World Junior Hockey Championship and burgeoning reputation in the WHL, Simek's stock is rising fast. NEW TALENT, OLD WORLD
Simek was born in Presov, Slovakia in 1987, but his family relocated to Berne, Switzerland in 1992. He laced up the skates - or rather had them laced up - for the first time when he was four years old, and he picked up a stick a year later.
From the start, it was clear that calling Simek a hockey player was like calling a fish a swimmer. Simek went on to develop his game in Switzerland's minor hockey system, quickly becoming the best puck-handler on his team - a characteristic that has stayed with him over the years.
Simek looked up to the players in the burgeoning Swiss elite league as a youngster, but it wasn't until he travelled to Toronto as a 12-year-old that he realistically eyed the NHL.
"The first time I thought about it was when I went to a tournament in Toronto when I was 12 years old," recalls Simek, who played in the Bell Challenge Cup. "I saw all these kids playing and I was really impressed. Since then, I knew that I wanted to be a hockey player, and I did everything I could to be better than the other guys." CANUCKS COME CALLING
Following a hugely successful season playing with the Kloten Flyers' junior club, where he tallied 21 goals and 42 assists in 42 games, Simek was drafted 167th overall by the Canucks in 2006. Simek didn't make it to Vancouver.
"I was with my girlfriend," explains Simek. "My agent wrote me an e-mail, and I was really happy to hear the Canucks had drafted me. It was a great moment."
Simek shone at the team's rookie camp last fall, earning an invitation to skate with the best-of-the-best in Vernon a week later. Hitting the ice at the Canucks' main camp was an experience that he won't soon forget.
"It was probably the biggest moment of my life. It showed me that I did everything right in my life to be there. It was an amazing experience - to play with the big guys. I hope to do it again next year too."
Following the camp, Simek packed his bags and headed to Brandon, Manitoba, where he hit the ice as a rookie for the Wheat Kings. Most expected a few stumbles as Simek adjusted to the North American game; instead he excelled. In fact, he's currently ranked fifth in rookie scoring, with 22 goals and 23 assists in 40 games, and more surprisingly - he's demonstrated an intensity and grit rarely seen in European players at the junior level.
"The first couple of weeks weren't easy, without family and friends, but I had no problems with my teammates, coaches, billets - everything was fine. I'm really happy here - although maybe it could get warmer." WEARING THE WHITE CROSS
Simek recently had an opportunity to represent his adopted country of Switzerland for the second consecutive year at the IIHF WJHC, which was held in Mora and Leksand, Sweden. The significance of donning the red jersey and white cross on behalf of his countrymen didn't escape him.
"I think it's a great honour for every player to play for his country," says Simek. "I was so excited to play really well there. I had a good feeling through the whole tournament - from the first moment to the last."
And Simek isn't exaggerating about his performance on hockey's world stage. He went to Sweden and did what he does best - he owned the ice in the offensive zone, tallying four goals and one assist in six games. His dominating play turned heads, to say the least, earning him "Best Player of the Game" honours in three of his team's six matches.
The Canucks scouts certainly liked what they saw from Simek in Sweden. "He's had some games that we were very impressed with," says Canucks amateur scout Ron Delorme. "He's scored some nice goals."
How does Simek feel about impressing his potential big-league team?
"I'm just happy that they were happy with me!" he says with a modest laugh.