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Canadiens wing Sekac determined to make it in NHL

by Arpon Basu

Jiri Sekac did everything he could to get the attention of the NHL.

From the time he left his home in Kladno, Czech Republic in 2009, just after his 17th birthday, to come to North America, Sekac began his courtship of NHL teams, one that remained strictly one-sided as not a single scout from a single team ever expressed the least bit of interest in the left wing.

His attempt at playing the highest level of hockey in North America was short-lived, lasting eight games with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League before he spent two seasons with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League and was passed over in both the 2010 and 2011 NHL Drafts.

As he was halfway through his third season in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in December, Sekac was offered a contract extension by his club, HC Lev Prague in his native Czech Republic. The offer would have given him financial security after years of uncertainty surrounding his hockey career.

Sekac had made it, though not necessarily in the league he had hoped.

Sekac responded by rejecting the offer.

"Everyone knows that the KHL has a lot of money, which was awesome for me at that time," Sekac said. "But my agents told me I should wait, because if I keep playing on the same level there is going to be NHL contracts coming. Every single player with a normal mentality wants to play in the NHL. So I waited a little bit, and then I think I chose the right team."

Those offers came in droves, just as his agent Allan Walsh predicted, with reports of more than a dozen NHL teams attempting to secure Sekac's rights, though he would only say it was around 10.

Sekac, 22, decided to sign a two-year entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens on July 1 after a whirlwind few weeks where he was weighing his offers, cutting his list down to "three or four top teams" and choosing to come to Montreal based on a "gut" feeling.

"I was here for a visit and it made me feel like I want to play here," Sekac said. "I want to play for this organization."

Sekac visited Montreal soon after he was finished competing at the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Minsk, Belarus, and it was also just after the Canadiens had been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Canadiens have a fellow Kladno native on the team in center Tomas Plekanec, but Sekac insists that had little to do with his decision to sign with Montreal, nor was it because he felt it was his best opportunity to jump straight to the NHL.

In fact, it might have been the exact opposite.

"Montreal is probably one of the hardest teams [to make] that I could go to," Sekac said. "But I hope … not hope, I made the right decision because my feeling told me that."

Sekac's road to having a chance at making the Canadiens began Monday at the opening day of the team's week-long development camp.

Sekac, 6-foot-2 and 182 pounds, produced 11 goals and 28 points in 48 regular-season games with Prague in 2013-14, then had a goal and seven assists in 21 playoff games to help Prague reach Game 7 of the Gagarin Cup Finals, where they lost to Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

Sekac scored two goals in 10 games at the World Championship.

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said July 1 that Sekac would have a chance to compete for an opening at right wing created by the free-agent departures of captain Brian Gionta and Thomas Vanek.

"Sekac was a player that was very much in demand recently," Bergevin said. "He's a young player with some talent and some upside. You try to project when you have young players like this, and he has a chance to play on the top three lines. I always say that players make decisions for us, but we have a young player with talent that can help us at that position. So we decided to take a chance on him."

The road to Montreal has been riddled with obstacles for Sekac, and he admits his initial struggles in North America were a challenge for him emotionally, living in a foreign land at such a young age and watching his dream seemingly disintegrating before his eyes.

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"They were pretty tough times for me. At that point it wasn't easy for me," Sekac said. "I was almost crying to my parents, I never think I want to go back home but my dad really helped me. Actually my whole family, my dad, mom, girlfriend, they all helped me a lot. They were telling me to stay and go through it.

"It worked."

Sekac was drafted by the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL after his second season with Youngstown in 2011, but he also had a chance to try out with Lev Poprad, a KHL club in Slovakia that moved to Prague the following season. Sekac made the team for the 2011-12 season and decided it would be better for him to stay in Europe and play against men than to return to Canada to play junior hockey.

It was after that first professional season in the KHL that Sekac finally began seeing a little bit of interest from NHL teams, but nothing in the way of offers.

Two years later, the big contract offer came from Prague, and even though Sekac turned it down it gave him the confidence of knowing he would be able to make a living playing this game, and that comfort might have actually allowed him to improve.

"I didn't have that much attention, so it was great for me," Sekac said of the contract offer. "I was already thinking about what I will do and how great it's going to be to be at home and stuff. Then I just tried to do what my agents thought was the best for me at that time. So they helped me a lot. It was good that I had that offer, but I would rather play here than have a lot of money in Russia.

"I wasn't actually nervous because I knew I would get a contract in Russia. So I didn't have to be stressed or nervous, and that was good for me, it helped my game."

Sekac finished the 2013-14 KHL regular season with a flourish, scoring five goals with seven assists in his final 12 games, setting off a competition for his NHL rights first reported by TSN's Bob McKenzie on June 6.

The Canadiens won out, and though Sekac will get to skate with some of the team's prospects this week, it is in the fall at the team's full training camp that his real test will come. But Sekac says no matter what happens, even if he gets cut and sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League, he is ready to give his NHL dream every chance to succeed.

"I came here to make the NHL and I'll do whatever it takes," Sekac said. "If I get sent down [to the AHL], I will definitely not go home right away.

"I want to stay here as long as I can."

After everything Sekac has gone through to get here, you can hardly blame him.

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