Author: Bill Hoppe | NHL.com Correspondent
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- It was exciting at first. When Tomas Jurco began performing some of his incredible stick and puck tricks earlier this season, the slick Saint John Sea Dogs right wing instantly became an Internet sensation.
Jurco looked more like an illusionist than a hockey player in January at the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game festivities in Toronto. The videos peppered all over NHL.com and YouTube have received hundreds of thousands of hits.
The 18-year-old lifted the puck off the ice on a breakaway and then quickly whipped it across his back and into the net like a lacrosse player. In the dressing room, he placed a puck on his blade, and then twirled the stick like a baton, never letting it fall off. Those were just a few of his gravity-defying tricks.
But the spotlight has started to be become "a little bit annoying" for Jurco, NHL Central Scouting's No. 20 prospect in the final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft.
While Jurco likes some of the attention, he doesn't "want to be known just as a guy with a stick."
"I'm not a clown," Jurco said Monday prior to his scoring the game-tying goal in the Sea Dogs' 3-2 overtime win against the Owen Sound Attack in Monday's MasterCard Memorial Cup game. "I'm a hockey player."
He certainly proved that as the Sea Dogs erased an early 2-0 deficit and earned a trip to Sunday's final. Before Sea Dogs left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, Central Scouting's No. 3-ranked North American skater, roofed a shot in from the slot with 2:35 left in overtime, Jurco showcased his scintillating skills here inside the Hershey Centre.
Jurco tied the game with 3:27 left in the third period, quickly grabbing the puck beside the net and stuffing it past Attack goalie Jordan Binnington. The Owen Sound goaltender is No. 3 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American goaltender.
In the second period, Jurco's dazzling effort helped set up the Sea Dogs' first goal. He put the puck between his legs in the slot and beat Attack defenseman Matt Petgrave, narrowly missing a scoring chance. Seconds later, he got the puck in the left corner and fed Stanislav Galiev in front, and the Washington Capitals' 2010 third-round pick scored.
"I'm real excited for him because his (NHL) upside, it's scary," Mike Kelly, the Sea Dogs' director of hockey operations, said about Jurco.
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For all the attention Jurco has received for his nifty moves, three teammates ranked higher by Central Scouting -- Huberdeau, defenseman Nathan Beaulieu (No. 5) and center Zack Phillips (No. 15) -- have overshadowed his Draft status.
"He's obviously got the sick hands and the good moves and stuff, but I kind of feel bad for him because he's being overlooked for his play," Beaulieu said.
"They don't know him as much as (others), but to some degree he's a bit of a sleeper," added Kelly.
Jurco probably will return to the QMJHL next season, as he feels he needs another season to develop prior to making the NHL. That hasn't made him any less excited for the Draft, however.
"For me, from a small town in Slovakia, it's a really big thing since I was little I was playing the NHL on the computer and Xbox, just the game," Jurco said. "Now I can be part of it."
Jurco clearly is proud of his Slovakian roots, and it runs in the family. His older sister Petra Jurcova, 23, played for Slovakia's women's hockey team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The two have supreme chemistry when they skate together.
"We played lots of times together just for recreation," Jurco said. "I think we're a really good couple. The other guys we played against said we were like the Sedins."
Slovakia, a country of about 5 million people, has a long history of supplying NHL talent. Fourteen Slovakians played in the league this season, including Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and Chicago Blackhawks right wing Marian Hossa, two elite talents.
Jurco said he patterns his style after Hossa, a three-time 40-goal scorer.
"He's one of my favorite players," Jurco said. "I'm kind of proud of him because he's from a small country like Slovakia. He's one of the best players in the NHL, so I really like him. Sometimes I just watched videos of him, and I try to do the same stuff on the ice."
Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant has noticed the similarities between the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hossa, and Jurco, who's 6-foot-2 and 187 pounds.
"He's obviously got the sick hands and the good moves and stuff, but I kind of feel bad for him because he's being overlooked for his play." - Nathan Beaulieu
"His upside is a Hossa-type of player," said Gallant. "He's big, strong, he can skate, he's got good hands. When he has that breakout year, that's the type of player I see. I really do."
That breakout year could come next season. Jurco missed all of training camp so he could finish the school year in Slovakia, and then began the season slowly.
"It put him a little bit behind, and then he just never got his legs under him," Kelly said.
Jurco, who said he "just couldn't score" early, finally caught fire in the second half, and finished with 31 goals and 56 points in 60 games. He added 6 goals and 18 points in 19 QMJHL playoff games.
"He's a very dynamic, skilled, competitive hockey player," Kelly said. "In his words, he said, 'I'm a sick player. I just had a bad year.' He really had a bad first half. He said he had a bad year. His numbers are still pretty good."
Just like the North American competition Jurco wanted to face. A few years ago he decided leaving home would enhance his development. He honed his skills well in Slovakia, though. Jurco started practicing his tricks constantly at home when he was about 13 after his teammates watched Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby score a highlight-reel goal.
"All the guys were going crazy about Crosby," Jurco said. "So a few guys were doing tricks with the puck. I just stayed with it longer."
It's paid off.