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Great Expectations

by Rick Bowness / Detroit Red Wings
Tomas Jurco stands on the draft floor during Day 2 of the 2011 NHL draft at Xcel Energy Center on June 25, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Puck Magician. Dynamic Dangler. Tommy Toe-Drag. The Super-Slick Slovak. Highlight Factory.

In just two seasons in the Canadian Hockey League, Red Wings prospect Tomas Jurco has amassed more nicknames and had more hyperbole-laced terms used to describe his game than most star players amass in an entire career.

The moniker with which Jurco has become most synonymous – YouTube Sensation – is one that he is quick to cite as his least-favorite, however. Multiple video clips of Jurco showcasing his spectacular stick-handling abilities and highlights of his jaw-dropping breakaway maneuvers have indeed been viewed by nearly one million Internet-users, an achievement that places him in the elite company of cultural luminaries such as the Dramatic Chipmunk and Numa Numa Guy. As such, it’s not hard to see why he’s weary of the label and anxious to transcend it.

While grateful that his prodigious skillset has been embraced by the viral Web community, the 18-year-old Košician clearly has a lot more to offer than just gimmicky puck juggling tricks, a fact that led the Red Wings to make the highly-touted Saint John Sea Dogs forward their top pick at last month’s NHL draft. 

“It’s cool that so many people have enjoyed those video clips, but I really just want to be known as a good overall hockey player,” says Jurco. “I’ve worked very hard to develop my game since I’ve arrived in North America and hopefully I will continue to improve as I get closer to my goal of playing in the NHL for Detroit.”

Presently taking part in the Red Wings’ prospects camp at Centre ICE Arena, Jurco has already made a positive impression on team brass.

“You can see right away that Tomas’ skill level is off the chart,” said Curt Fraser, Grand Rapids Griffins coach and this week’s camp instructor. “He’s obviously a great addition to the organization and should be a very good Red Wing down the road.”

Originally selected by Saint John with the fourth overall pick at the 2009 CHL Import Draft, Jurco didn’t take long in making an impact with the Sea Dogs. The European-born playmaker set a franchise record for most goals by a rookie (26) in 2009-10 en route to finishing his freshman major junior campaign with 51 points in 64 games. It was his prowess in post-overtime breakaway contests that seemed to receive the most attention however, as the ultra-talented winger led the QMJHL in shootout goals with nine. His final such tally of the season  – a creative, physics-defying take on the spin-o-rama move that featured a behind-the-back pass to himself – paved the way for his Internet renown as the incredible highlight ultimately became a huge hit on the Web.

Jurco’s second season in the Q saw him achieving even greater success as he found the back of the net 31 times despite missing several games in December and January while moonlighting with Team Slovakia at the World Junior Championships. A key member of a talent-laden Sea Dogs team that cruised to a QMJHL regular-season title and the President’s Cup as league playoff champs, Jurco elevated his game to a whole new level at May’s CHL Memorial Cup tournament. The crafty sniper scored a team-high four goals in four games as the Sea Dogs wrapped up an unforgettable season in style by capturing junior hockey’s Holy Grail. A few weeks later, Jurco’s professional career officially began when Detroit picked him in the second round (35th overall) last month, making him the first Sea Dog ever selected by the Red Wings and capping off an unforgettable year for the young offensive dynamo.

In the eyes of Sea Dogs coach and former Red Wings star Gerard Gallant, Jurco became a much more versatile player during his sophomore CHL season, a development which predicated both his valiant playoff performance and his ascension of several NHL teams’ draft ranking lists.
“Tomas has worked very hard to become a complete hockey player and not just another one-dimensional skilled guy” Gallant said. “He obviously has a lot of natural ability but he’s also put in a great deal of time at the gym and in practice improving his game. He was absolutely huge for us at the Memorial Cup and I think he answered a lot of his critics who questioned his compete level as well. ”

Taking a page from the Book of Gallant, who was a prototypical power forward during his playing days, Jurco added a dimension of ruggedness to his game in 2010-11. The results of his doing so paid off in a major way.

“Last season Tomas created a lot of offense by going hard to the net and fighting through traffic,” said Gallant, who collected 480 points and 1,674 penalty minutes during a 615-game NHL career. “He really paid the price for a lot of the goals he scored, which was great to see. He didn’t do that as much as a rookie but as he’s matured physically and gotten used to the way the game’s played in North America he’s added a bit of grit to his game and he’s gotten really good at creating scoring chances using the cycle deep in the opposing team’s zone instead of relying purely on the rush. He’s got good size (6-foot-2 and 195-pounds) and really knows how to use it now.”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Gallant, who has been named the CHL’s Coach of the Year in each of his two seasons in southwestern New Brunswick, lists a pair of elite scorers when asked to compare Jurco to current NHL talent.

“The way he sees the ice, his hands, and the way uses his power and vision to generate offense reminds me a lot of a Jaromir Jagr or Marian Hossa,” he said.
While undoubtedly thrilled with his coach’s praise in comparing him to the likes of Jagr and countryman Hossa, Jurco himself has often named Wings center Pavel Datsyuk as the NHL star he’d most like to emulate. For Citizens of Hockeytown, this association is definitely most welcome, and while unintentionally-pejorative handles like YouTube Sensation will likely fade in the coming years, the phrase Jurcovian could very well eventually join ‘Datsyukian’ in the lexicon of awesomeology.

For the time being, Jurco will most likely be returning to Saint John in the fall after getting his first taste of the pros at multiple training camps this summer. Clearly in good hands in what Red Wings Director of Development Jiri Fischer calls, “One of the best programs in all of junior hockey”, Wings fans who remember Gallant’s unique blend of brash physicality and deft scoring touch are certainly glad that the team’s highest-drafted prospect of 2011 will continue to learn from the four-time 30 goal scorer and 1989-90 Second Team NHL All-Star. Hopefully his positive influence will continue to yield dividends for Jurco, the Sea Dogs, and the Red Wings.
“Tomas has the potential to be a very good professional player in my opinion,” Gallant said. “He has the ability to make something happen every time he steps on the ice, which is definitely a rare gift. He’s a great kid with a bright future and he could end up being a real steal for Detroit as a second-round pick.”

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