Tomas Tatar has set his sights on fulfilling the promise that he first showed as the youngest player in the American Hockey League.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
The tattoo of a long, sleek tiger stretches the length of Tomas Tatar’s ripped right arm, extending from shoulder to elbow, a refined rendering revealing a regal predator ready to pounce on its prey.
While inked impressions are often memories of impulsive indiscretions, drunken debauchery or wagers with little meaning, Tatar’s new tattoo came with clear intentions.
“It is my favorite animal,” he said. “A tiger battles his whole life in the jungle. He is proud. He works hard to survive. He is kind of like me. I want to battle through everything to make the NHL.”
Given the popularity of bengals in Detroit, it seems an even wiser decision, but this young Slovak is more likely to be watching tennis than America’s favorite pastime.
As it is, Tatar is one hungry hockey player, ready to earn his stripes. He comes into the 2011-12 season prepared to demonstrate his territorial improvements, having worked to add bulk and power to his fit frame – a puck carnivore in the making.
“It was a long summer and I tried to work my best during it in order to get stronger,” Tatar declares in his slowly improving English. “I lifted weights, I run a little bit, I do a little bit of everything.”
He took time for a vacation in Bulgaria, the Balkan state to the far south of his homeland, but otherwise kept his eyes on the prize.
Still only 20 years old, Tatar knows time is on his side, but he has no interest in waiting. Like a tiger on the hunt, he wants to be ready to strike when the opportunity presents itself.
“I am still young,” said Tatar, who was the youngest player in the AHL when he joined the Griffins as a rookie two years ago. “I know I can get much stronger. We will see how long it is before I hit my max, but hopefully it will be soon.”
The Red Wings organization has great interest in taming Tatar, whose talents and temperament attracted their attention in 2009 when they selected him in the second round (60th overall) of the NHL Entry Draft.
Griffins head coach Curt Fraser said there is plenty to like.
“We’ve got to remember he’s still a young guy playing against men in a tough, tough league,” he said. “But he is more than capable of putting up some really good numbers. He’s maturing nicely and I think this is his year to really shine.”
Tatar made great strides during his second year in a Griffins uniform. After a rookie campaign that saw him register 16 goals and 16 assists in 58 games, he tallied 24 goals and 33 assists in 70 games last year.
“My first year, everything was all new: new language, new life in USA, different hockey,” Tatar said. “My second year, I know what to do and I get to play in all important situations.”
He admits that he felt fatigued after the finish of his first year, having started his workouts the previous June, then having played in the IIHF World Junior Championship at Christmas and traveled to Germany for the IIHF World Championship after the conclusion of his first AHL season.
“My whole body felt tired,” he said. “I got a good rest that next summer to prepare for my second year.”
His sophomore season included his NHL debut. He played nine games for the Red Wings in 2010-11, scoring a goal on the first shot of his first game against the New York Islanders on New Year’s Eve.
“I tried my best when I was there,” Tatar said. “It’s not easy when you play on the fourth line, so I tried to skate and bring some energy and maybe hit somebody.”
The experience helped him greatly. “I felt so much more confident, like I could do more in Grand Rapids,” he said. “When I was sent back, I felt stronger, both physically and mentally.”
Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill has gone on record to say that he believes Tatar has the talent to be a top-six forward. "He can score, is competitive and is strong on the puck. He's got a good chance of being a scorer at the next level.”
The Detroit organization rewarded Tatar with the opportunity to serve as a “black ace” during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It left a strong impression on the young player.
“I thought I had done pretty well on the farm team, but I didn’t expect it,” he said. “It was something new for me because I went to the World Championships the year before. It was good to see how the guys prepare for a playoff game. It was a great experience.”
Tatar felt refreshed after a long summer, and it showed when he came to Traverse City for the Red Wings’ training camp.
“He had an excellent camp,” Fraser said. “Getting another good year under his belt will prepare him much better for next year.”
As much as Tatar improved during 2010-11, Fraser hopes for even bigger and better things this season.
“He just has to work on his game and continue to improve – get faster, stronger, find the net and produce more goals,” Fraser said. “He’s improved a lot, but he still has a long ways to go. But in the back of your mind, you’ve got to remember that he’s still very young.”
Despite his relative youth, Tatar showed stretches of brilliance last season. He set a franchise record for points in one game when he recorded seven (two goals and five assists) last Nov. 27 in Chicago. He was the first AHL player to score seven points in a game since Chicago’s Jason Krog accomplished the feat four years earlier.
Tatar insists that he doesn’t want to get wrapped up in his own statistics. He desires to help his team win, whether or not his name is on the scoresheet.
“The numbers will come,” he said. “It’s more important how the team does. If the team plays well, my numbers will be higher. I’m just going to try my best for the team.”
From the standpoint of team performance, Tatar would be the first to admit that last year was a disappointment. Missing the playoffs did nothing to further his career aspirations.
“We worked hard the whole year and we got close but never took that final step to catch the next team,” he said. “It was disappointing, for sure.”
He seems confident that the Griffins can avoid a similar fate this season. “We have a team that’s even better, so hopefully we can make the playoffs. I would be happy because it will make me stronger for my future.”
It is a future that excites many Red Wings fans.
“If Tomas continues to work on things here, everything will take care of itself when he gets to the Wings,” Fraser said. “This is a good learning ground for him because it’s tough to play in the AHL.
“While it’s hard to play in the NHL, it sometimes is easier for a good player because the passes are a little bit sharper and people are in the right spots.
“Hopefully he’ll continue to grow into the player that Detroit hopes he will become.”