PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - Thomas Pock likes the idea of playing meaningful games.
Pock played the last six games of the regular season for the New York Rangers, an audition he feels went well considering the rookie had two goals and four points in his short stay in the NHL.
Now he's playing for Austria at the 2004 IIHF World Championship and the Austrians have been perhaps the most surprising team in the 16-team tournament.
The Austrians have shed the tag as an easy two points and have built their team around a youth movement with players like Pock.
Austria threw a scare into Canada in the Preliminary Round and the defending world champions had to rally with two late third period goals for a 2-2 draw. And now the Austrians have taken aim at advancing to the medal round which would be new territory for their hockey program.
Pock was asked to reflect on his six-game stint with the Rangers and how he's played for Austria here in the Czech capital.
"I just wanted to show the Rangers that they made a good choice by signing me and show them I can play on this level and show them for next year I want to be a big part of their team," he says. "I want to play in the NHL next year. Here, every game is like a playoff game."
The World Championship is Europe's version of the Stanley Cup Finals and Europeans like Pock like coming back to play for their country because they feel a sense of duty and they know how much it means to the fans in their homeland.
The 2-2 tie with Canada was front-page news in Austria, and Pock hopes renewed interest prompts more kids to play the game.
"Just the media coverage in the last couple of weeks. It is getting bigger and bigger and it helps," he says. "Kids want to play hockey and the more and more we play, the better we will get."
Rangers Interim Head Coach and Vice President of Player Development Tom Renney is an Associate Coach with Team Canada and has kept an eye on Pock to see how he fares in the pressure-packed world tournament.
Renney says there is a lot to like about Pock.
"The upside certainly identifies with the attributes he has now and that would include his skating skills," says Renney. "He also shoots the puck hard and with authority. Those things will help allow this kid to most likely be a good transition defenseman. We realize he is in the infancy of his career but the upside is we anticipate he will be able to play sooner rather than later given his age and maturity. He has NHL upside."
"He is not a shy kid with the puck," Renney continued. "We want him to be pro active and we want him to play to his strengths, given the nature of the game here and the wide rink. At the end of the day we want him to read through the rush a little better and give particular attention to how he processes inside our blue line with the attack and the cycling and who he has got and how to say on the net side of people."
Pock joined the University of Massachusetts four years ago with the aim of making it to the NHL. He could have gone to play in the major junior Ontario Hockey League but with only one year of junior eligibility left, he opted for the college route.
He played 130 games over four seasons at UMass, scoring 44 goals and finishing with 102 points. When the world tournament is over, he's going back to Massachusetts to finish the work needed to get his degree in sports administration.
Renney wouldn't guarantee Pock a roster spot on Broadway for next season and you can't blame him.
"It would be premature to say we would pencil him in but we will give him every opportunity to impress us at the beginning of the year the way he did at the end. The six game stint he had with us was positive. Having said that, we will leave the door open not only for Tommy but other players in our organization."
The Austrians are coached by Herbert Pock, who just happens to be the father of the young defenseman.
"My dad has been part of my hockey career since I have been playing at age four and he is there for me all the time," Thomas said. "He is the biggest influence in my hockey career. He is my coach on the ice and off the ice. He's my dad and he has a great balanced with it. There have never been any problems."
Pock knows Austria, like many clubs, is in a tough spot in the world tournament.
Like the NHL, the world stage is highly competitive. The Germans have Olaf Kolzig of the Washington Capitals in net. The Czechs have Jaromir Jagr, Martin Rusincky and 20 more NHLers. The rosters of Canada, Finland and Sweden are also stocked.
But Pock hasn't abandoned hope.
"Going to the Quarterfinals would be great for us," he says. "We want to go there and then you never know what happens. It is a one-game series and maybe one of the big teams goes out there and doesn't play that well. Anything is possible and we saw it against Canada. We almost got a win out of there."
"The Quarterfinals and that is what we came here to do," he continued. "On any given day you can upset one of the big teams but if you really look at it we might need a couple of years of experience, a couple of years to learn how to beat everybody. The Quarterfinals would be great and I think we have a shot at going to that level."
The Canadian game gave the Austrians a confidence boost.
"Coming out and being up 2-0 against the Canadians was a bit of a surprise but we knew we had to go out there and play our hardest and play the system the coaches gave us and play very physical. We were a little lucky and then we got two goals up. But at the end we were struggling in the last 10 minutes. . . I think it was a well-deserved 2-2 tie.
Austria is the host country for the 2006 World Hockey Championship and Pock and his teammates have served notice that they can't be taken lightly.
"From what I have heard, we have the youngest team in the tournament and this is good for our national team,"he says. "More and more kids are playing hockey and the better we do, the more they will hear about us and maybe more kids will play,"
Renney understands the importance of this tournament for Austria, the host of the 2005 tournament.
"It looks great on Austria and these are all meaningful games to say the least," Renney says. "And if Thomas has professional experience in North America or he is back here doing his thing, he will be an important guy for that team."