For any team to be successful at a tournament with the magnitude of the IIHF World Junior Championship every player on the team must embrace his role. Team Slovakia’s Tomas Slovak has done just that, and his commitment to the team has helped it get into a position to bring home a medal in 2003 from Halifax..
This year has been a breakout season for the young defenseman who has scored 39 points in 33 games this season playing Canadian junior hockey. The Nashville Predators draft-pick leads the WHL in offensive output from the blue-line, but he admits that he has not assumed the same role here in Halifax. "The Slovak system is different. It’s a lot more defence. My coach here told me that I don’t need to get lots of points, that I should keep the other teams from scoring lots of goals against us. I’m committed to defence here."
At 6’1, and 190 pounds, Slovak is not a physical presence on the ice, but that has not stopped him from leading the tournament in penalty minutes. Some 22 of his 34 minutes came on one play against the United States. At 11:21 of the third period, his team trailing 2-1, Slovak threw a seemingly clean open ice hit, and the American player hit the ice grasping his face. Slovak was assessed a two minute elbowing penalty and a ten-minute game misconduct. While trying to explain to the Swedish referee that he did not use his elbow, Slovak was assessed a 20-minute penalty for verbal abuse. He insists that the whole play was a misunderstanding: "I am so mad about the whole play. I hit the American player clean, shoulder-to-shoulder. It was very hard but very clean. When he fell to the ice, he grabbed his face, but I know that I did not hit him there because my elbows were tucked into my sides for the shoulder hit. Then, when I tried to talk to the ref he said that I cursed at him, even though I was very calm. It was only after he gave the 20 minute penalty that I really got mad."
Slovak said he reached the boiling point when he got to the dressing room and saw that the player he hit was on the ice 30 seconds later, skating on the power play. "It makes me so mad that he acted like that, and that the referee believed him. I got  minutes in penalties on a shoulder check, and they got an extra goal."
Despite the incident, Slovak is optimistic heading into the medal round. He knows that his team’s semi-final match against Finland will be very difficult and that the players need to keep their composure. "There will be no more elbows," he laughed, shaking off the frustration that had just been in his voice as he discussed the play from the U.S. game. "Finland is too good a team for any of us to be taking silly penalties. We are just going to play our game -- good defence – and hope that we can win a good, low-scoring game."
Slovak was born in Kosice, Slovakia but moved to Canada two years ago to play for the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League, a team that is coached by Team Canada’s head coach Marc Habsheid. Slovak credits the coach with helping him be a better player, and talked about playing against his junior coach in pre-tournament exhibition. "I think that we were not friends only for about 60 minutes while the game was going on, but as soon as it was over we were good again. I’d love to get the chance to play him again, obviously, because his team is already in the semi-finals." Slovak can play against his coach again at this tournament only in a medal game, but first the Slovaks need to defeat Finland and then face a tough Russian team in the semi-finals.
Slovak understands that just because he has offensive gifts does not mean he needs to put think offensively all the time, something for which he credits the Canadian coach. "I think Marc Habsheid is good with telling players their jobs, what they need to do. At Kelowna he tells me I can score so I think more offensively. Here I am different, though, because that’s what my other coach needs."
Slovak’s cerebral understanding of playing his role is something that should help take him to hockey’s next level. "I hope I get a chance to play with [Nashville’s] farm team, and I’d really love to get a chance to play in the NHL. I know I just have to keep working hard and do what my coaches tell me to do."
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