August 9, 2012
VANCOUVER, BC – For most 17-year olds in North America, their focus is on who they’re going to take to their graduation prom, and how they’re going to celebrate with their friends afterwards. But for Slovakian sniper Marek Tvrdon, girls, friends and even family had to take a back seat to his dream of playing hockey. His eyes were firmly fixed on a one-way plane ticket to Vancouver. Despite growing up playing soccer at first, he decided to follow the footsteps of his cousin and former NHL’er Stefan Ruzicka, who inspired him to play the game of hockey.
Despite never leaving Europe and not speaking a word of English, after being selected 13th overall by the Giants in the 2010 Import Draft, Marek didn’t have a second thought about his next move. “After the season (in Slovakia), I knew 100% I wanted to go to Canada,” Tvrdon recalled after being drafted. “That was my plan all along”.
After playing 3 seasons in his hometown for HC Nitra (where his cousin Ruzicka also once played), you would think that a 17-year old would be a little nervous about transferring to the North American game in the WHL. But not Marek. He knew he could play hockey, and that was the least of his worries. “I was scared about the language, that’s all, not playing hockey,” he admitted. “But my agent told me that (assistant coach) Yogi Svejkovsky was here, and he’s Czech, so I thought he could help me, since we speak the same language.”
And while the Giants assistant coach was a big help for Marek, dealing with the players in the locker room was another challenge to overcome. “I was shy for sure coming in” Tvrdon confessed. But luckily, Yogi wasn’t the only Czech he could turn to. “I just spoke to David Musil the whole time, that’s it,” Tvrdon continued. “He was my translator.”
When it came time for business on the ice, the 17-year old got everyone’s attention in the first month of the 2010-2011 season. He had 6 goals and 5 assists through 11 games and was quickly making a case to be the WHL Rookie of the Year. But October 16th in Chilliwack, he was dealt a serious blow. “One guy hit me and my shoulder went out. After I went to have an MRI, I knew the next day that I couldn’t play the rest of the season,” Tvrdon said solemnly.
So after leaving behind his family and friends in Slovakia to chase a childhood dream in Canada, suddenly Marek Tvrdon’s future was in doubt. “It was very hard for me, because I knew it was my draft year, so I was very sad, even angry. Almost every game I was told there were scouts in the building watching me. But after my injury, I didn’t think I would be drafted.”
But Giants General Manager Scott Bonner stuck by the kid’s side and lifted his spirits during a very difficult time. “He told me don’t worry about it, you’re a good player, and if you’re not drafted this year, you have next season to make an impression and you’ll be drafted for sure. That helped me deal with it a little bit.”
In the meantime, life came to a halt for Marek Tvrdon. “I waited about a month for my surgery, and that was tough, I couldn’t do anything,” he said. And as if missing the season to have shoulder surgery wasn’t enough, Marek had to deal with another twist. In order to fix his shoulder, the doctors had to open up his hip and take out a bone to insert into his shoulder. The end result was a tough one to deal with.
After the surgery, it was over 2 months before Marek could have a normal life again. “I couldn’t do anything with my shoulder. For 10 days I just lay there in my bed, because I couldn’t walk.” It was only after 2 months that he could start moving his shoulder and make his way back into the gym to start strengthening it.
As it turned out, almost a full season away from hockey didn’t deter one team from admittedly ‘taking a chance’ on the player they’ve compared to Marian Hossa. And that team has arguably the best draft history of anyone in the NHL – the Detroit Red Wings selected Tvrdon in the 4th round, 115th overall in the 2011 entry draft. And Marek literally didn’t believe it. He recalls “I was just sitting at home and my agent called and told me that Detroit drafted me. I was very excited, but I couldn’t trust him the first time.” Suddenly, Tvrdon was on a path to playing alongside his NHL idol, Pavel Datsyuk.
Now even though Detroit seems like a desirable destination for any aspiring NHL’er, due to his circumstances and only appearing in 12 games, Tvrdon felt very fortunate just to be given a chance by anyone. “I didn’t care about what team I went to, I didn’t care about anything, I was just happy being drafted,” he said. Although he is now drafted, Marek knows it’ll be tough cracking the Red Wings lineup with their depth of talent.
So last season, as an 18-year old, he embarked on a mission – a mission to show the team that put faith in him that they made the right decision. “I just wanted to show Detroit that they made a good pick by drafting me, even though I only played 12 games. I know it was a risk for them.” And did he ever show them. Marek Tvrdon emerged as a WHL superstar with 31 goals and 74 points in just 60 games, in addition to 3 goals and 6 points in 6 playoff games.
With a season full of highlights, maybe the biggest of them all was on October 21st vs Victoria, in front of Red Wings Director of Player Development Jiri Fischer (who was forced to retire after going into cardiac arrest during a game in 2005). That night, Marek, well aware of who was watching and extra motivated, came up with a dominant performance scoring 2 goals and 2 assists, and prompting a post-game dinner with the former Red Wing. Even to this day, Jiri calls Marek on a monthly basis to check in and give him a few pointers (in their shared language, much to Marek’s appreciation).
So after such an impressive campaign in 2011-2012, fans have to wonder what Marek has in store for an encore during his 19-year old season. Well Giants President and Majority Owner Ron Toigo has an idea. After watching Marek last season, on his recent appearance on the TEAM 1040 during Presidents Week, Toigo boldly stated that he believes Tvrdon has enough talent to lead the WHL in scoring in 2012-2013. How do you respond Marek? “I don’t know but I’m going to try. For sure I want more points than last year.” And the Giants will certainly look for more from #17, as they expect to be without last year’s goal scoring leaders Brendan Gallagher and Jordan Martinook.
But at the end of the day, individual goals and points only mean so much. Whatever happens personally, Marek still has the bigger picture in mind. “I want to win something. I never won anything in my life, no Cup, nothing.” As a matter of fact, his team in Slovakia, HC Nitra, never made the playoffs in the 3 years he was there, so last season vs Spokane was the first time in his life that Marek even participated in a playoff game.
In the meantime, this Slovakian prodigy has flown back home to spend 9 days catching up with family and friends, in advance of the Giants training camp starting August 23rd. And despite spending 2 years in Canada, he still considers himself a European deep down. “Definitely. I still haven’t changed my taste in clothes or food from Slovakia,” he admitted, adding that he’s a meat and potatoes kind of guy with absolutely “NO vegetables!” That might help explain how this European grew to be a manly 6’2 and 217lbs.
Oh, and as for that comparison to fellow countryman Marian Hossa, he simply responded by saying “I don’t feel like Marian Hossa, I feel like Marek Tvrdon.” And if he keeps developing at his current pace, that might be just as good.