By: Alan Adams
Photo Credit: HHOF-IIHF Images
LEKSAND, Sweden - It wasn't the way he wanted to bow out of his final appearance at the World Junior Hockey Championship but some things were way out of Martin Hanzal's control.
It was 10 minutes after the Czech Republic beat Finland 6-2 to secure fifth place in the 10-team world junior tournament and Hanzal was talking about the road ahead rather than the road he had just traveled here in the middle of Sweden.
"It's time toy (get) back to junior and put some points on the scoreboard," said Hanzal, who was the Coyotes first pick, 17th overall, in the 2005 Draft. "I am anxious to get back."
The Czechs just never got on track at the world junior championship and the 11-day tournament isn't kind to teams that don't bolt out of the gate with all engines running at full throttle.
Hanzal, meanwhile, said the tournament was a learning process.
"It was tough but you learn from something like this," Hanzal said. "This was my last tournament and I wanted to make it my best but it was tough. You have to play every game like it is your last game and we did not do that.
"It was pretty nice to come back and play for my country, especially since the tournament was in Europe. It was great to be back with some friends I have known for five years or more. But it is time to get back and get my team into the playoffs."
Hanzal plays for the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League and he was leading the WHL in scoring 54 points in 34 games when he left a month ago for the world junior championship, and it took a month for his closest competitor to equal his output in the scoring race.
The Rebels are coached by Brent Sutter and he runs a tight ship in an atmosphere that is as professional as they come. Sutter is a no-nonsense coach who knows how to get the best out of players.
"My goal in the second half of the season is to get 50 or more points and get my team into the playoffs," says Hanzal. "We missed the playoffs last season and we have to make the playoffs and then I will think about Phoenix."
Hanzal and Peter Mueller of the United States were the Coyotes' top prospects in the high-pressure world junior championship, and they play a big part of the Coyotes' future.
Hanzal made a personal commitment to play in the NHL when he left his home on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to adapt his skills to the North American game.
"It was pretty hard at first. You have to lean English and you are in a new place and it is hard," said Hanzal. "But you have to stay positive and keep going."
He played 24 games for Omaha of the United States Hockey league last season and had five goals and 20 points. The USHL is not as heavily scouted as major junior hockey and the Coyotes feel they found a diamond in the rough in Nebraska.
This season, the Coyotes placed Hanzal in Red Deer because they believe the Rebels' is tailor-made for their prized prospect.
"It could not be better. He is a good place, in our opinion as good as any, so we are very pleased with that," says Coyotes Director of Player Personnel Tom Kurvers. "He is getting acclimatized to pro hockey life in Red Deer."
Hanzal readily admits that he barely knew that Red Deer was on the map, let alone knowing anything of the Sutter work ethic. But he has come to appreciate both the city and the coach.
"I did not know a lot about Red Deer but it is a great place to play. It is a great hockey town an every day you hear about the game. People think about the game all the time and they talk about the game all the time," he says. "All you have to do is play hard and you have to play hard for Coach Sutter or you do not play."
Sutter is all about commitment.
By plying his wares in Canada, Hanzal saw just the mention of playing in the world junior championship sent Canadian fans into a feeding frenzy. The WJC is the first championship tournament of the winter and Hanzal saw first-hand how Canadian players take it seriously.
Kurvers feels that Hanzal will learn from this experience and learn from playing in a hockey-mad environment like Red Deer.
"He saw what playing in the world junior meant to Canada and you would like him to bring the same feeling back to Red Deer when he returns," Kurvers.
Red Deer is battling for a playoff spot with Calgary and Lethbridge, and Hanzal is ready for a fight to the end.
"It is going to be an exciting second half," he says.
Team Canada defenseman Kris Russell plays for the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers and he's faced Hanzal enough to know the Coyotes prospect is tough to contain.
"He is a great player. He has the size and the patience and the skill to score goals. He is a tough guy to handle down low and every opportunity he has, he takes advantage of it and he is tough to defend against," says Russell.
"You see him when he steps on the ice because of his size. He is one of the bigger guys in the league, if not one of the biggest. As soon as he is in your zone, you know it. He is a presence in there."
And he should soon have a presence in a Coyotes' uniform.