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Touring Slovakia

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
Envision the rustic beauty of an old city, submerged deep inside a lush green valley (known as the Liptov Basin) with a beautiful river running along the city’s edge (the Vah River) and surrounded by the snow-covered peaks of the Tatra Mountains. This destination, a town barely more than 33,000 people, is in the Northern region of Slovakia called Liptovsky Mikulas.

Do to its close proximity to luxurious ski resorts the town has become a famous tourist attraction. But it is also home to the historic Church of St. Nicolaus, which was first mentioned in the written word in 1299 (some 700 years ago).

While this small European city is rich in history, it’s also the hometown of New York Islanders defenseman Milan Jurcina.

The Isles blue-liner boarded a plane to Slovakia’s capital city of Bratislava last Sunday. But going back to his hometown to see his family and friends is just part of the reason why he took the 12-hour flight. This year’s International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships will be held in Slovakia for the first time since the country has become an independent nation, and Jurcina has been named to Team Slovakia.

“I am so happy to be playing in the tournament,” Jurcina said. “It’s my dream come true. In Europe, this tournament is huge. The World Championships are the biggest tournament of the year. Everyone can’t wait. Everyone is excited for it.”

Therefore, Jurcina isn’t the only elite hockey player who will be traveling halfway across the globe to Slovakia in the next few weeks. Teams from 16 different countries will be assembling to compete for the rights to call their native country World Champions, including three additional Islanders: Al Montoya will be participating for the United States, while John Tavares will put on a sweater for Team Canada, Jesse Joensuu will skate for Team Finland and Radek Martinek will take the ice for the Czech Republic.

Jurcina described Bratislava and Kosice, the two cities where the tournament will be held, as “old country cities” with plenty to do. On the western side of Slovakia, bordering Austria is Bratislava, where the newly renovated “Orange Arena” awaits its grand opening. The nation’s second largest city, called Kosice, is some 5 hours east a few miles north of Hungary.

He said, “You have old towns and new towns. Bratislava and Kosice are both old towns with a lot to do. Hockey is the number one sport in both cities, so it’s going to be exciting.”

With all of the excitement surrounding the tournament, Jurcina said all of the television commercials back home are about the World Championships, making tickets even harder to find.

“Right now, everything is sold out,” Jurcina said. “Before everything was put on the market they were gone. It’s really hard to find tickets. So hopefully, as a team, they’ll have a few tickets at least for my family.”

Part of the reason tickets sold so quickly is the capacity of the arenas, which are roughly half the size of a modern-day NHL arena. First opened in 1940, the renamed “Orange Arena” has been renovated before, but due to the World Championships, it was closed for reconstruction in 2009 and will increase capacity from 8,350 to 10,000 fans come April 29.

“I haven’t seen the new rink, where we’re going to be playing in Bratislava, but when I talk to people around it, they said it’s pretty awesome,” Jurcina said. “The tournament is going to be the first thing that happened in the new arena. They just rebuilt it completely. I played in the old one and that was nice too, but they needed a more modern one for the tournament. I can’t wait to get there.”

Milan Jurcina #68 of Slovakia saves the puck during the ice hockey men's semifinal game between the Canada and Slovakia on day 15 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 26, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jurcina has also played at the arena in Kosice. First opened on Feb. 24, 2006, the Steel Arena holds 8,343. “It’s a really loud building,” Jurcina said. “It’s only five years old, so it’s still pretty nice.”

Hockey and national pride aside, the heart of a good “welcome home” often resides in one’s stomach. Thus, Jurcina’s 3.5 hour trek from Bratislava to his hometown will be well worth the drive as his mother has already started to prepare a home-cooked feast.

“I don’t really have favorite things, but the cultural food is a little different than in the United States,” Jurcina said. “I have a few dishes my mom already asked about for when I get home, but I still have to think about what I want.”

You know, aside from being a world champion.
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