Photo and story by Mark Newman
Dubnica is an old town of 25,000 citizens in Slovakia that has been fairly significant in the history of the Grand Rapids Griffins.
It has produced not one, not two, but three players who have been key contributors to the Griffins.
Pavol Demitra, who is now a member of the Vancouver Canucks after playing for Ottawa, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Minnesota, appeared in 42 games for the Griffins during the team’s inaugural 1996-97 season.
Demitra, who has posted 301 goals and 451 assists in 819 games during his 15-year NHL career, was the first player to graduate from the Griffins to the NHL.
Tomas Kopecky, who was recently named to the Slovakian Olympic hockey team along with Demitra, played four seasons in Grand Rapids before earning a regular spot in Detroit.
Kopecky’s best year came in 2005-06 when he tallied 32 goals and 40 assists in 77 games. He signed with the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer after three seasons with the Red Wings.
The latest Dubnica product to play for the Griffins is Tomas Tatar, the 19-year-old phenom who has been surprising people since his impressive preseason showing with Detroit.
Currently the youngest player in the AHL, Tatar had been pegged to play for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League this season, but he quickly convinced the Red Wings that he was ready for the pro ranks.
“He impressed a lot of people at the prospects camp in Detroit in July, then came to the camp in Traverse City in September and stood out there, too,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser.
“It’s not like it just happened by accident. This kid is a real good prospect with a lot of talent.”
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock felt Tatar would be best served spending a year in junior hockey, becoming acclimated to North America and the style of hockey played here.
“We didn’t want to keep him here and have him play a limited role,” Fraser said, explaining Detroit’s thinking. “You’ve got to be careful with young kids. You want to put them in an environment where they can be successful because that helps their development.”
Tatar, however, had other ideas.
“It’s a big step for me and my career, but I want to play in the NHL,” Tatar said. “If I want to play in the NHL, I think I must learn hockey here and I must work hard.”
As far as Tatar was concerned, going to junior hockey would have been a step backward.
“I wanted to stay here because I played in the men’s league in Slovakia last year and I didn’t think it was good for me to play junior hockey again,” he said. “Here it might be a little harder, but it’s good for me because I have to learn.”
Tatar has been playing against older players for most of his life.
Dubnica is in the Trencin area of western Slovakia, an area that is rich in hockey talent. Zdeno Chara and Marian Gaborik, as well as Marion and Marcel Hossa, represent some of the well-known players in the Trencin region.
The Tatar name is already highly regarded among Slovak hockey fans. Tomas has two older brothers who played pro hockey, not only in Slovakia but also in a number of other European locales.
Marek Tatar, who is almost 16 years older than his little brother, played in Germany, Italy and Slovenia as well as Slovakia. Tibor Tatar, who is 13 years older than Tomas, played pro hockey in Iceland, Romania and Spain in addition to his homeland.
“I remember going to the arena and hearing people scream for my brothers,” Tatar said. “It was a great feeling and I was very proud of them. They were like my heroes, so I wanted to play hockey, too.”
The Tatar family was very sports-minded. Jan Tatar, the patriarch of the clan, played pro soccer while Maria, the boys’ mother, was a gymnast.
“My father played professional football (soccer) for a couple of years, but the money wasn’t so good, so he wanted to work where he could make better money,” Tatar said, explaining that his father studied engineering before taking a job with the military.
Tatar played other sports growing up – tennis and ping pong were among his favorites – but he knew hockey was his future from a young age. His brothers, who frequently took him to the rink when he was small, have acted as mentors throughout.
“After games, my brothers would always tell me what I did good or bad,” he said. “They were like a coach to me.”
Before coming to the U.S., Tatar talked extensively with Marek, who played for the Olds Grizzlys in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 1993-94. The Grizzlys won the championship that season and Marek was honored with the team’s Unsung Player Award.
“He told me that it was a little bit different style of hockey here,” Tatar said. “He said that everybody plays hard, goes to the net and tries to score on rebounds.”
Tatar got a taste of North America when he represented Slovakia at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ottawa, Ontario. He had an outstanding tournament, scoring seven goals in seven games, including a pair that helped Slovakia upset the U.S. team on the way to a fourth-place finish in the event.
“Nobody knew me because I had been injured the year before,” he recalled. “I wanted to show the scouts that I can be a good player, so I just wanted to play 100 percent and help the team.”
He looked at the tournament as an opportunity to make a strong impression. “Scouts don’t come to watch the Slovak league, so you must show something in international play. I think I had some good luck there.”
Coming to the U.S. for this season was a big decision.
“Everything is so different – the food, lifestyle, cars. Once I found an apartment and a car, I was ready to play hockey. I want to give 100 percent every game. It is my job.”
So far he has avoided getting homesick, although he admits missing some of the hearty meals for which his country is known. His favorite is bryndzove halusky, a potato pasta with goat cheese and bacon, one of the national dishes of Slovakia.
“I miss a couple of foods, but the food here is good,” he said.
Tatar was excited that he was going to be able to represent Slovakia in the 2010 World Junior Championship in Saskatchewan. He had two goals and an assist in an 8-3 win over Latvia on Dec. 27.
“I am in a totally different position this time,” said Tatar, whose 11 World Junior points were the fourth most in the 2009 tourney. “Now I have a contract, so I must go there and help the team so we can finish in the best place possible.”
His play was watched closely by his brothers, who continue to critique his play. “They watch the game on the computer and we sometimes talk after the game for two hours on Skype,” Tatar said. “They have lots of advice and I listen.”
Both of Tatar’s brothers are now retired from hockey, but they’re still making a name for themselves.
Marek plays on the World Poker Tour. He won $40,845 at the No-Limit Hold’em Main Event at the Golden Vegas in Bratislava, Slovakia this past September.
In December, he finished tied for 10th among 233 entrants at a No-Limit Hold’em event at the Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
“Tibor is a pretty good poker player too, but he just started two years ago,” said Tatar, who plays cards on the team bus but isn’t the gambler that his brothers seem to be. He prefers to stick to hockey.
He is more intent on following in the footsteps of his fellow countrymen who have played before him in Grand Rapids. He had trained with both Demitra and Kopecky.
“To me, Pavol is the perfect NHL player,” Tatar said. “He came here just like me and playing with the Griffins was good for him and he learned a lot of stuff here. I like playing with older guys because I want to learn something new every day.”
NOTABLE LANDMARKS IN DUBNICA:
Dubnica's history goes back much further than 1936, the year its once-booming ammunition factory was founded. It was settled in the Paleolithic times, and the first Slavs arrived at the end of the fifth century. Here are a few of its more notable sites:
1. The pink church near the train station is St. Jacob’s Church. Originally a gothic building – the oldest record of it dates back to 1276 – it received a Baroque facelift in 1754, with colorful windows created by expressionist painter Vincent Hloznik.
2. Opposite the church is the town’s manor house, built in the 1670s in the early Baroque style and inhabited by a noble Hungarian family.
3. Behind the manor house is a large park named after the priest Jan Baltazar Magin. It remains a favorite place for walks and jogging under centuries-old linden trees and rare yews.
4. A sculpture of the Virgin Mary from the 18th century stands in Matica Slovenska Square. It features a richly latticed base, a double coat of arms and a rococo garland on the front side.