A season away from the sport you love isn’t easy. Just ask Marian Gaborik. The young, talented winger is all about hockey. He eats it. He drinks it. He sleeps it. Even, he says he would be "bored" without it. The past year without NHL hockey was tough for the 23-year-old, but he managed.
He went home to Slovakia, worked on his game and got the opportunity to oversee the finishing touches on a hockey rink he has built in his home town. The past year was a difficult but rewarding one for Gaborik. He missed the NHL, but will never forget the smiles on the faces of the kids who got a chance to play hockey in his new arena.
Gaborik is back in Minnesota, but he’s been frustrated by a groin injury that he suffered during a skate the day before training camp opened. Slowly, but surely, he has nursed himself back to health. He finally appears ready to make this season, his fifth in the NHL, the best he's ever had.
How did it feel to walk through the Wild locker room doors again and see your equipment hanging in your locker for the start of 2005-06 season?
Obviously I’m excited. It had been a long time. I’m happy to be back and am looking forward to the new season. I can’t wait to play and see the fans. Hopefully, it will be a good season for us.
You didn’t have any trouble finding the rink did you?
No, oh no.
How about getting used to life again in the Twin Cities? Has it been an adjustment again after spending a year back home in Slovakia?
When I first got here (when I was a rookie), it was kind of weird. But I spent a lot of time around town and got used to things. Now that I’m back again, it hasn’t been too hard. I’m happy to be here, and am looking
forward to living in the Twin Cities again and playing for the Wild.
What did you miss the most about being away from the NHL for a season?
I missed playing in the NHL, playing in the best league in the world. And I missed playing for the fans. The fans here (in Minnesota) are unbelievable, and it is always a sell out crowd. I also missed the "hockey life". It is fun to be with the guys at the rink all the time. We have a lot of fun together.
Anything that you really missed away from the rink?
I missed having a good steak at some of the restaurants here.
Can you remember where you were or what you were doing when you heard the news that the NHL would be back this year?
There were discussions for about a week leading up to the announcement. Discussions saying, ’We’re gonna start...we’re gonna start.’ So I was getting very excited. Once we finally had a deal, all I could think about was moving forward and getting ready to play hockey.
The new rules have appeared to have a big impact on the game so far this year. The biggest might be the way referees call all the "clutching and grabbing" that goes on. How do you think the enforcement of that rule will affect the game?
I’m glad that they are going to be calling a lot of the hooking and the holding that goes on. That’s going to bring more excitement to the game. The players who are talented and can skate are going to be able to play their best and benefit from it. The tough part will be getting used to the new rules. Everyone is going to have to work and learn the things that you can and can not do. The little hook here or the little grab there won’t be allowed anymore. Everyone is going to have to get used to that because if you don’t you are going to wind up with a penalty. The players and teams that catch on the fastest are going to be better at the start and are going to benefit.
It seems that new rules will really help your game on the ice. What do you think?
Yeah, I think so. I will be able to get out there and skate, use my speed and attack players one-on-one. Hopefully, that will work for me and it will lead to some goals.
Another change is the new schedule that really emphasizes division play and rivalries, are you looking forward to skating against teams like Vancouver and Edmonton more often this season?
I really don’t think too much about it. Honestly, I just looked at the schedule for the first time when training camp started. Whatever the schedule is, you have to adjust to it and be ready to play whatever team you are going to play that night. I’m just looking forward to playing some games, taking it one day at a time and not looking too far ahead.
Let’s look back on the past year a bit. Did you spend all of your time at home in Trencin?
I was at home quite a bit, but I also went to Italy and did some vacationing in Greece. I played a month of hockey in Sweden, and also played in Slovakia.
How do the European leagues you played in last year compare to the NHL?
The NHL is a much higher level of hockey. The rinks are smaller over here, and the games are much more intense. The league in Slovakia wasn’t a bad league, especially the competition in the playoffs. There was a lot of motivation and intensity, and some good players skating against each other. The fans were good too, but you can’t compare the to the fans here. You get 19,000 people here having fun, but over there they can only fit 6,000 or so in the buildings. Also, the style of cheering is different than here. People will sing, chant and cheer. Over here, people have fun and when the crowd goes nuts it doesn’t compare.
How important was it for you to keep playing hockey during the lockout and not lose out on a season without being on the ice?
It was very important because I’m a young player and I’m still developing. A year off for me would have been bad because I would have been really bored. Also, I would have lost a lot by not playing. I was lucky because I was back home and got the opportunity to play in my hometown. That was a lot of fun and made it
easier to deal with what was going on in the NHL.
Was it tough to keep motivated and to keep working out with all the ups and downs of the past year?
Yeah, some days there were because you never knew. Some days I thought there was going to be a season, then the next you were disappointed because it didn’t seem like we were going to play. But what are you going to do? That’s how it went, and I kept focused on being ready for when we finally had a season to play.
You got the chance to see the completion of a special project while you were home over the summer. You and your family opened MG Arena, a hockey facility in your home town of Trencin. How did you get involved in that?
It was a great process to be a part of. While I was playing there I could watch and learn how the plans came together and how everything went toward its opening. We built the arena because I wanted to give something back to the community. I built it for the kids, and it is really meaningful when you see them and they tell you how great it is to have a place to play hockey. They ask for autographs and the parents come up to me and tell me how great it is. That is special, and it makes me feel good to know that I’m helping kids. I would go and watch they play and I could see them getting better. They all would have big smiles on their faces and be very excited. It’s a great feeling to see that.
What was the grand opening like?
I think people liked it a lot. We had an NHL players game, and kids got the chance to meet their favorite players.
How big is the rink and what special features does it have?
It probably holds about 800 people, and there are stands for them to sit in. There is a snack bar and cafeteria area overlooking the ice. Also, there’s a two-story fitness center, a mini-hotel with six guest rooms and a hockey shop.
Where did you get the idea to build something like this?
It was a family project, and it has worked out real well so far.
Having this rink is making a big difference for kids today. What was it like when you were a kid growing up in Slovakia? How hard was it for you to find ice time and a place to skate?
We had only one rink growing up. You had to get up at five in the morning, and you only got out on the ice on Saturday and Sunday. There was like 50 or 60 kids out there at one time all five and six-years-old so it was tough. But the coaching staff was really good and I learned a lot.
With the rink opening and your success in the NHL, do you see yourself as someone that kids are now looking up to and do you feel you are "growing up" a bit?
I feel a little bit older, but I still like things that I liked as a kid. I want to learn things and experience things in life, and I know that I will. But I’m excited for hockey and excited for kids to look up to me. Those are good things.
This will be your fifth season with the Wild, and there are plenty of guys younger than you in the locker room. How important was it for you when you were in their shoes to have veteran players who could help you along the way in the NHL?
Obviously when I got here the older guys really helped me. They helped me grow and tutored me so I would be ready to play in the NHL. We’ve got a lot of younger guys on this team, and we’ve got a lot of veterans here who want to help them so it should be a good mix. We don’t have any stars here. It’s just a bunch of guys who play together and really want to win.
What are you looking forward to most this season with the Wild?
First, I want to get 100 percent healthy and then get out there and play. I’d like to get out on the ice, make plays, score goals and win games.