Many hockey players look back on their childhood with fond memories of skating outdoors, playing pond hockey on any suitable frozen body of water until the sun set.
Tomas Jurco isn’t one of them, which is why the American Hockey League matchup against the Toronto Marlies at the SiriusXM Hockeytown Winter Festival is going to be extra special for the Griffins’ star forward.
“I’m really excited, it’s the first time for me to play outdoor game and for sure it’s going to be something special, something I might never experience again in my life,” Jurco said. “It’s going to be still just a game and everybody will want to win but I think everybody will enjoy it and it’s going to be fun.”
After tallying 28 points in 74 regular-season games last season on the 2013 Calder Cup championship team, Jurco has already recorded 25 points through 24 games this year, an improvement coach Jeff Blashill attributes to the forward’s difficult but instructive transition to the AHL.
“The first half of last year was a bit of a struggle for him,” Blashill said. “He came in as a really highly touted prospect but in my mind had to really learn how to play the pro game and as a result he had a tough transition. I would say of those points that he scored, the majority of those would have been the second half. I would also say probably opportunity. He’s been given more opportunity this year than he was at the beginning of last year.”
Jurco also believes improving his defensive game and strength have helped him earn the trust of the coaching staff, and in turn, more ice time.
“I’ve been working on my defensive side since Coach, you know he didn’t play me a lot at first for a couple of reasons,” Jurco said. “One of them was he didn’t trust me as much defensively because I wasn’t really good so I tried to work on that and I think I’m way better at it right now. I was trying to be stronger with the puck and win more puck battles so those are two things I think I improved on since last year.”
The Kosice, Slovakia, native has taken advantage of the increased ice time he’s earned, ranked No. 9 in the AHL in scoring at the start of December with 11 goals and 14 assists, and has developed into one of the team’s top offensive threats over the past year.
“Tomas has been from about the midpoint of last season through where we currently stand, he’s been one of our offensive players including the time that he spent when (Tomas) Tatar and (Gustav) Nyquist and the likes were down here, he’s been right with those guys as one of our top offensive guys,” Blashill said. “He’s got a lot of both playmaking ability and the ability to score, he skates well, he’s got good size and at times he uses that size for physicality as well. He so far this season has been our most consistent offensive performer and he’s someone we lean on quite a bit.”
The Griffins leaned on Jurco in the team’s first meeting with Toronto this season, as the forward recorded one goal and one assist in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Marlies. Although he hopes the rematch in his first outdoor game will end in favor of the Griffins, Jurco knows it will be a great competition and experience for everyone involved, regardless of the outcome.
“They’re a really good team, they have good team last year and they have a pretty good team this year,” Jurco said. “It’s always hard to play against Marlies and I know every game at this level is hard but like I said they’re good and it’s going to be a really good game even for fans to watch.”
Many members of Detroit’s minor league affiliate have never had the opportunity to participate in an outdoor game of this magnitude, and plan on enjoying every minute of the festivities.
“We’re going to take the advice of many, many people that have been part of it in the Wings’ organization and just really enjoy it,” Blashill said. “We’re going to have a skate the night before that we’re going to enjoy with our families, we’re going really enjoy the time that we have and when the puck drops try to win a hockey game against a real good Toronto Marlies team.”