Slovakia has produced many talented hockey players, including Stan Mikita, Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara, but for Jurcina, his early years were all about soccer. That was until the age of seven, when his friends convinced him to come out and watch one of their hockey games. He only had to watch it once to know that it was what he wanted to do.
“From the first time I saw it, I fell in love,” Jurcina said. Soon after, his parents bought him skates and the accompanying gear.
Jurcina spent time on the pond outside of his home in Liptovsky, a town of approximately 33,000, but knew he needed some practice before joining an organized league. He took his self-taught skills and ventured to the public skating arena.
“I knew how to skate a little bit before I went out on a real ice surface,” he said. “So I learned on the public rinks and then took the stick and gloves and went out there with the boys.”
Jurcina said that hockey has a big following in Slovakia and that everybody keeps up with the World Championships and international tournaments. Following the NHL, though, was a little bit tougher, given the drastic time difference. Slovakia is six hours ahead in the summer and five in the winter.
And East coast fans think waiting up for a 10 o’clock game is rough.
Jurcina would get his NHL fix on Saturday nights, when there was a weekly half-hour NHL special, chronicling the best goals, saves and hits of the week.
“Every week watching that stuff, I was pretty amazed,” he said. “I didn’t really get to see the games, especially the Stanley Cup Finals, but it’s the best hockey league in the world. So I was definitely looking up to it.”
His favorite teams growing up: the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens. His favorite player: all-star defenseman Chris Pronger, although, even at 6’4 and 236 lbs, Jurcina says playing against the towering defenseman is no treat.
In 2000, the Halifax Mooseheads drafted Jurcina into the QMJHL, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He said that moving from minor hockey in Europe to junior hockey in Canada was a huge adjustment.
“It’s totally different,” Jurcina said. “It’s a smaller ice surface. Everything is quick, everything is hard, so it’s a really big difference.”
What he took away from his time in Halifax was the relationship with one of his favorite coaches, Shawn McKenzie. Jurcina said that McKenzie is an intense coach, who is straight up with his team.
“When you’re a hockey player, that’s what you wish for, a coach talking straight to you,” Jurcina said. “When he didn’t like something, he’d tell you eye-to-eye. That’s probably the best thing and that’s what I learned from him.”
The Mooseheads had some success during Jurcina’s tenure, going all the way to game seven of the 2003 QMJHL finals and falling one win shy of a birth in the Memorial Cup. Playing in the league finals and the World Juniors for his native Slovakia were personal highlights of his junior career.
In the minors, it can be an emotional roller coaster for young players, but the best way to the NHL is to put your head down and work through it.
“One day you’re all the way up, one day you’re all the way down,” he said. “You just have to go through it. It doesn’t matter how hard it hits you. You have to love what you do, you can’t just quit like that,” as he snapped his fingers for emphasis.
Originally drafted 241st overall by the Boston Bruins in 2001, Jurcina spent two years playing for their AHL affiliate in Providence [2003-2005] before getting called up. He played 91 games over two seasons for the Bruins before he was traded to the Washington Capitals. In Washington, he helped the team qualify for the playoffs twice, picking up valuable experience.
During the 2009-2010 campaign, Jurcina was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets then back to the Capitals for the playoffs, before signing with the Islanders that offseason.
Being away from home, Jurcina didn’t have his family around for constant motivation, but he says they didn’t have to say much. He always wanted to be at the rink and on the ice. To Jurcina, it’s about self-motivation.
“You just want to prove something to yourself and something to your coaches and your teammates,” he said.
Entering his second season with the Islanders and his ninth season in the NHL, Jurcina has certainly proven that this is where he belongs.