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Canadiens' Sekac takes long road to NHL debut

by Arpon Basu

TORONTO -- Tomas Plekanec was asked a question about his new teammate and Czech countryman Jiri Sekac during Montreal Canadiens training camp. He quickly corrected his questioner.

"Oh, you mean Forrest Gump?" Plekanec asked, a wry smile on his face.

That was the nickname given to Sekac by a Czech newspaper after he set a new Canadiens record in the beep test, a grueling exercise that measures an athlete's maximum oxygen intake, or VO2, during rookie camp last month. The test essentially entails the player running through a number of stages for as long as he can.

Sekac kept running, just like Forrest Gump did in the movie of the same name, a nickname Plekanec was only too happy to share with anyone who would listen in the hopes it would stick.

Montreal Canadiens forward Jiri Sekac's road to the NHL will culminate Wednesday when he makes his debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo: Francois Lacasse/NHLI)

Forrest Gump is the story of a man who happened to find himself in the middle of some of American history's most significant moments, and through a series of lucky events wound up becoming extremely wealthy in spite of an apparent lack of intelligence.

Sekac will be making his NHL debut Wednesday when the Canadiens face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first game on the schedule for the 2014-15 NHL season, but to say he was blessed with good fortune to reach this point couldn't be further from the truth.

He is, in fact, nothing like Forrest Gump.

Sekac first came to North America as a 17-year-old in 2009 to play for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, but after eight games he was jettisoned to the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League.

Leaving home at such a young age to try his hand in the junior league that supplies the NHL with a majority of its players, Sekac saw it as a great opportunity to make his dream a reality.

Eight games later it seemingly was over, at least in his eyes.

"It's unreal if I imagine all I had to go through. It wasn't always easy," Sekac said during training camp. "I was actually trying to get back home, but all the people were saying no, especially my dad.

"He was even a little bit angry, he said he wouldn't buy me a plane ticket to fly back home."

When Sekac arrived at Canadiens training camp, he quickly befriended Plekanec and asked him if he wouldn't mind asking the team if he could have jersey number 64, the number he wore during three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Plekanec said no.

"I wore number 35, a goalie number, for my first few years because that's the number they gave me, and I never asked them to change it," Plekanec said. "So I told him to take the number they give you."

Sekac was given number 26, one that was also worn by former Canadiens forward and Czech native Martin Rucinsky, who had a playing style that was somewhat similar to Sekac.

But the reason Sekac wanted number 64, a reason he did not tell Plekanec, was because it is the year of birth of his father, a nod to the role he played in Sekac reaching the NHL despite his difficult junior career and never being drafted.

When Sekac puts that number 26 Canadiens jersey on at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, he likely will have that number 64 in the back of his mind.

"Him and my mom are probably the biggest reasons I'm here," Sekac said. "They kind of sacrificed themselves, everything for my hockey."

In spite of his slow progression, Sekac caught the eyes of NHL scouts during the second half of last season in the KHL. He had 28 points in 47 with Prague Lev, but finished strong with 11 points in his final 11 games and helped his team reach the KHL final with a strong playoffs.

Sekac rejected a contract offer from Prague in the middle of last season on a suggestion from his agent Allan Walsh, who told him the NHL would come calling. About a dozen teams offered him a contract after the season, and Sekac chose the Canadiens, with whom he will be expected to play an important role.

Sekac begins the season playing on a line with Lars Eller and Rene Bourque, coach Michel Therrien's third line, but that will be leaned on to provide offense and take on some important defensive responsibilities.

"The biggest challenge for Sekac is to try and play a North American game, I mean north-south," Therrien said Wednesday. "He's used to playing on a bigger ice surface, east-west. I think he's making progression regarding the style of play you have to play if you want to have success in the NHL. I really like the way he played his last game. He's a kid with character, he's quick, his work ethic is always 100 percent. I think he's getting better and better."

Sekac's development in Europe is clear on the ice, where the east-west game Therrien is referring to becomes obvious. His introduction to North America's smaller rinks was a harsh one, coming on the first day of a camp Walsh organizes every August in Montreal for his clients. Sekac attempted to go wide around a defender and ended up crashing into the boards, to the great delight of everyone on the ice.

"They were giving it to me pretty good," Sekac said with a laugh.

But in spite of needing to get used to the lack of real estate on the ice, Sekac had some eye-opening moments in training camp, using his imagination and unique skill set to create plays and catch some teams off guard because of that European style of play, which allowed him to do things NHL players are not accustomed to seeing.

"He's a smart player," Eller said. "He can break the pattern a little bit sometimes with his creativity. You can't be as creative here because the ice is smaller and he's going to have less time, but I think he's going to be a nice addition to our offense."

At 22, Sekac is as old as his teammates Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival and Jarred Tinordi, and older than Nathan Beaulieu (21) and Alex Galchenyuk (20). When Sekac was Galchenyuk's age, there was no way he could know he would be suiting up for the Canadiens by now.

"His skill level is very high," Eller said. "I have never seen him before he came here, so I don't know what his progression is, but he seems to be more of a late bloomer than early. It doesn't really matter. If you're this good at 22, who cares how good you were when you were 18? He's here now, and I'm sure he's going to establish himself as a good NHL player."

Sekac has completed a long, roundabout journey to the NHL, but it will be up to him to prove he belongs. He's off to a good start in that department, and Sekac has no intention of slowing down.

He wants to keep running.

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