’s hockey journey had humble beginnings.
As a hockey-playing teenager, his equipment was primitive, stripped down to the bare necessities. Years later, he is afforded the benefits of playing hockey at the highest professional level in the world.
But Sekera has not forgotten his roots.
“When we were 15 back home, I had a wooden stick, one pair of skates and equipment that was five years old,” he said. “The situation was what it was, and I wasn’t from a rich family, so I was happy for every single thing.”
The Hurricanes acquired Sekera in a draft-day trade in the summer of 2013, sending their second-round pick and defenseman Jamie McBain to Buffalo in exchange for the seven-year NHL veteran blue liner.
The expectation then was that Sekera would be a boon to the Canes’ penalty killing, as he could play a shutdown role they were seeking. 57 games into the regular season, it’s apparent the team got that and then quite a bit more.
“Reggie has been a real great addition. His presence in the room, as far as being a leader and real professional, he’s the first guy here in the morning and prepares himself mentally and physically, which is great for our young guys,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “On the ice, I like his competition level. Whether he’s playing well or not, he pushes through it. He’s played against the top players, he kills penalties and he plays on the power play. I think he’s been pretty effective with them all.”
“Yeah, he’s been a really nice surprise. Not in just a casual way, but in a real positive, upbeat way. He’s exceeding his expectations, and I think he’s enjoying his time here,” assistant coach Dave Lewis said. “He’s helping our team in all areas. He’s worked with (Justin) Faulk an awful lot to make them our one-two shutdown pair or our one-two offensive pair. They do a lot of things that top pairs do, and I’m really happy that he likes it here.”
In just 55 games, Sekera has already posted career highs in goals (9) and points (32), ranking him third on the team and first among team defensemen in scoring. He also ranks tied for 12th among NHL defensemen in points and holds a plus-5 rating.
“We liked him a lot. We knew he’d upgrade our defense, but we didn’t know he’d exceed what he could do for us as much as he has,” said Canes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford. “It’s one of those things where guys in a certain time in their career just get in the right situation. They get in the right city where they like the city, they like the fans, they like the coach and they get the good chemistry with their teammates. He’s got good chemistry with his teammates and good chemistry especially with his defensive partner.”
Together with U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk, the two combine to form the Canes’ top defensive pairing that plays in all situations. To date, Sekera ranks second on the team (behind Faulk) in average ice time per game with 23:33, including over 2:30 on both the power play and penalty killing units.
“You put [the pairing] on paper, but I think he’s exceeded his expectations,” Muller said. “We knew we were getting a good hockey player, but he’s really performed very well.”
Born in 1986 in Bojnice in what is now Slovakia, Sekera began playing hockey as a young boy with neighborhood friends.
“Youth hockey is way different than here. It was go somewhere and have fun. It wasn’t as professional or as serious as it is here,” he said. “There were a bunch of kids from apartment buildings, kind of like project-style Communism-conquered apartments. There were 15 of us in the same age group that would play soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter.”
Sport then was mainly a hobby. There were dreams of the professional life, sure, but it was perhaps unrealistic to imagine that materializing.
“You just play for fun. You’re dreaming about the NHL, but the way the conditions and the things are in Slovakia, when you’re just a regular family, it’s kind of tough to support hockey because it’s pretty expensive. Hockey is more for the rich people,” Sekera said. “We used to get all kinds of stuff when we were younger because the government wasn’t as bad as it is now. There was still money for sports and stuff like that. Right now, there’s money nowhere.”
When Czechoslovakia dissolved into the two independent nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in January of 1993, Sekera was six, about a half-year shy of his seventh birthday and certainly not old enough to comprehend the politics of that time.
“I didn’t really pay attention. I was just happy to be outside playing soccer or hockey,” Sekera said. “I didn’t pay attention to political stuff, but when you get older you start to realize what people are saying.”
What people are saying is that the Slovakian hockey pipeline is drying up. The country last medaled in the IIHF World Junior Championship in 1999, earning bronze. In the 2013 NHL Draft, just two Slovaks were chosen – as many as were drafted from Austria and Denmark – which totals just eight in the last four years.
Per QuantHockey.com, 80 Slovakians have played in the NHL, including Sekera and 13 other active players.
“It just shows that something was going right way at a certain point in time, but nowadays it’s corruption,” Sekera said. “Everyone tries to steal money any way they can, and that’s the way it is back home.”
Youth hockey, for a myriad of reasons, is suffering.
“We had 35 or 40 kids on the team when we were young,” Sekera said. “Now, if you have 15 kids, you’re happy.”
Sekera tries to help in any way he can, including being involved with charities that help alleviate the financial burden on families who support their children in youth hockey.
“I try to help my hometown because I know when I was younger and they were playing the first division, we had 3,500-4,000 capacity rink. It was sold out then,” he explained. “Nowadays, if there are 200 people going to the game, that’s the biggest amount you will get. The city doesn’t support the sport anymore, and it’s tough to find sponsors in a small city.”
As a young boy, Sekera attended a specialized school that groomed his hockey skills.
“Elementary school through high school, there was a special school for sports guys – basketball, swimming, soccer and hockey. You could choose the sport you like and go there, or you could go to the regular school,” Sekera said. “I stuck with hockey, also with my brother who used to play hockey, and then he coached us. My brother was a year older, so we basically had the same friends and teammates.”
As a teenager from 2001-03, Sekera skated in two full seasons with the Trencin Jr. team, totaling 39 points (14g, 25a) in 100 games. As a 17-year-old, he played in three games with Trencin’s big club in Slovak Extraliga, the top league in Slovakia.
“I was fortunate that Trencin was interested in me, and they bought me out from the hockey club where I grew up. I spent three years in Trencin, and I got drafted after that,” Sekera said. “When you’re on a national team, you kind of know you have a little bit of talent. But as soon as you get drafted, you realize, OK, you actually have a shot to make it (to the NHL). Might as well fight for it.”
Sekera’s draft-day story isn’t as glamorous as some. Or, at least it didn’t begin that way.
In fact, he wasn’t even sure he’d get drafted.
“I wasn’t high on the radar. Nobody said I would be drafted,” he recalled. “They told me, ‘You might get drafted, or you might not.’ My agent told me, ‘This might be a good experience for you.’”
So, Sekera took a chance. He threw on sweatpants and a hoodie – customary for traveling with a hockey team in Slovakia – with a final destination set for Raleigh, N.C., the site of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
“My flight in Paris got canceled so I had to stay overnight. I got here on draft day, and my luggage wasn’t here. So I was just the guy in the sweatpants,” Sekera said with a smile. “We never wore suits back home for a game day or whatever. It was always sweatpants or whatever you wanted to wear – what was comfortable for you. And I realized I was probably the only guy in sweatpants here.”
It was no attire in which to be drafted.
“My agent made sure I had something normal to wear. I looked like Al Pacino from ‘Goodfellas.’ Just a different style,” Sekera said, laughing. “It was fun, though, and a good experience.”
As it turned out, the suit was a good choice. Sekera was chosen in the third round, 71st overall by the Buffalo Sabres. He phoned his parents at dinner to relay the good news.
After being drafted in the summer of 2004, Sekera came to North America to play junior hockey with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). In his rookie season, he posted 28 points (7g, 21a) in 51 games and appeared in six playoff games, as Owen Sound bowed out in the second round of the OHL playoffs.
In 2005-06, Sekera ranked tied for second among OHL defensemen in goals (21) and tied for eighth in points (55). He won the Max Kaminsky Trophy, given to the league’s most outstanding defenseman, and was a first-team OHL All-Star.
“I realized if I have a chance and I’m already here, why not fight for it and make it to the NHL?” Sekera said. “I came to the rink every day. First guy in, and probably the first guy out. The old saying of come early and you leave early. I’m a guy who always wants to do stuff before practice if there is a workout or something because after practice I’m just too tired.”
Off the ice, Sekera credited his teammates with easing his adjustment to North America. On draft day in 2004, he said his English was limited. 10 years later, he’s rather fluent.
“I knew a little English, but I didn’t speak it very well. I was able to say what’s my name, where I was from, the regular stuff,” he said. “But as soon as someone started talking to me faster, I got lost pretty quick. I was just like, ‘Yeah, maybe.’ [Someone would ask] what time it was, and my answer would be, ‘Maybe.’
“My first year (in Owen Sound), a lot of guys helped me – the U.S. guys and Canadian guys – in school, in the city and also with English.”
Sekera made his NHL debut on Dec. 9, 2006, skating in two games with the Sabres; he spent the majority of the 2006-07 season, his first full professional hockey season, with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League (AHL), posting 19 points (3g, 16a) and a plus-14 in 54 AHL games. Sekera split the 2007-08 season between the NHL and AHL, skating in 37 games for the Sabres and 40 games for Rochester. He registered his first-career NHL point on Oct. 26, 2007 with an assist at Florida, and he scored his goal just over a month later on Nov. 28 against Manny Legace and the St. Louis Blues. The 2008-09 season marked Sekera’s first full season in the NHL, where he’s remained ever since.
Sekera is now a two-time Olympian, having represented Slovakia in Vancouver in 2010, scoring a goal in seven tournament games.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It’s unique playing in this kind of tournament,” he said. “The first game, I didn’t know what to expect emotion-wise. But I touched the puck for the first time, made the first pass and it was back to normal.”
He’s not a stranger to other international competition, either, having represented Slovakia in five IIHF World Championships (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013) and two World Junior Championships (2005 and 2006). Sekera captained the 2006 Slovakian World Junior team, posting five points (2g, 3a) in six games. In the 2012 World Championship, Sekera record nine points (2g, 7a) in 10 tournament games.
For Sekera, the adjustment to the big ice should be much of a hindrance, and ultimately, it will benefit a swift-skating player like himself.
“There is not as much hitting, and people don’t chase you behind the net because it’s just too much to cover. European guys are very good skaters, especially on the big ice. There is a lot of room for skill guys to show their skills. Maybe people will be surprised with how difficult it might be for some NHL players to get used to it, because it takes you awhile,” he said. “I’m excited about it, but still you have to realize the size of the rink and things you can and can’t do. You can’t try to do too much, but I’m very excited for the whole experience.”
From a rudimentary equipment set to becoming a two-time Olympian, Sekera has progressed in his hockey career with hard work, a basic, yet sometimes under-appreciated trait he continues to display even in his eighth season as an NHLer.
“He competes really hard. Maybe you don’t notice that quite as much, but he’s a real great competitor,” Lewis said. “He plays to win. He’s the kind of guy who never takes a night off. Some nights might not go his way, but he still competes.”
“It’s hard to get [to the NHL], but it’s even harder to stay there,” Sekera said. “In 82 games, you have to be competing every single night.”