GRAND FORKS, USA – Back when Dave Hakstol was the head coach of the University of North Dakota and not the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers, he tried very hard to recruit Slovak netminder Matej Tomek. Most notably he actually adjusted the time of his wife's birthday dinner because of an official visit from Tomek to the UND campus.
Hakstol was very pleased when the Flyers drafted Tomek, one of Slovakia’s candidates at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, and sees him as a potential number-one goaltender one day in Philadelphia.
It's been a long road for top Philadelphia Flyers goalie prospect Matej Tomek to get to where he is today. The 6-foot-3 (191-cm), 19-year-old from Bratislava is known for being a very technically sound butterfly goalie that covers up a lot of net.
Growing up in Bratislava as a youngster, it was at the Ondrej Nepela Arena in Bratislava where Matej first recalls playing hockey.
"The first memories I have playing hockey were of waking up very early in the morning, at like 6am with my dad and heading to the hometown arena where the KHL team (Slovan Bratislava) plays now," said Tomek. "Most of my early memories of the sport are kind of blurry, but I remember that me starting hockey was a direct result of our men's national team winning the World Championship in 2002. It made a big boom in our country for all the young boys and girls that wanted to start playing hockey, and I was one of them."
Matej's favourite goalie growing up was Martin Brodeur. Other guys he likes in today's game are countryman Jaroslav Halak, and other top goalies Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Tuukka Rask. It was very early on after Tomek learned how to skate that he started heading in the net to play goalie every chance he got.
"Well, there's a couple different stories about that!" explained Tomek. "My mom, dad and myself all have a different story on how I started being a goalie. My dad always said that during the practices early on when the coach split the team to play each other, I usually went right to the net, fell to my knees and started playing goalie. Dad decided one day to buy me goalie equipment and let me try it, and it stuck. My mom says that from the time I was around three years old, I was sketching goalie masks, so probably me playing goalie was something that was just meant to be."
Playing a few different sports while growing up, Matej had to choose pretty early to take either swimming or hockey seriously going forward. He ultimately chose hockey, but if it was up to his mom, Tomek might have been an elite swimmer instead of the elite hockey goalie prospect he is today.
It's very accurate to say that Bratislava as a city has struggled to produce high quality hockey players ever since the early 1980s. In fact the only player to reach the NHL from Bratislava since the Stastny brothers is current New York Islanders netminder Jaroslav Halak.
"I have to be critical of hockey in Bratislava nowadays because things changed from the Velvet Revolution on. People changed and the sport became a business. So it's changed big time. Before that there were plenty of great hockey players that came from Bratislava, and now there haven't been that many, with the exception of Jaroslav Halak of course," he said.
"I believe this is because Bratislava has always been influenced by different cultures. We used to have many imports from Austria, Hungary, along with Czech and Slovak people, so that kind of mixture brought up competition between different neighbourhoods of the town. Growing up there would be tournaments that were set up by people in town and these different places in Bratislava would all compete."
"I think (my brother) Marian was one of the first to be picked to play in one of those tournaments. I think it was really good for the game and developing players, especially when we didn't have television or Internet. Everyone was outside trying to compete. That was probably the biggest reason why a city like Bratislava had plenty of good players in my era."
Tomek believes that although the development for player growth in Slovakia has dipped in recent years. He feels that it is once again on the rise and will soon be churning out more and more world class players in the years to come.
"I think that the development in Slovakia is slowly getting better, but our prime generation of guys like Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, and Marian Gaborik is coming to an end. We value those players a great deal on the national team and it will be really hard to find replacements for them when they retire," said Tomek. "Growing up there were three hockey clubs in Bratislava and now there are four. I pretty much started playing hockey with Slovan Bratislava as a kid, learning how to skate and the basic fundamentals."
"Soon after, I decided to move with my father to another club called Hoba Bratislava, a very small club with only one rink basically and not many players. I decided to join there because they were playing games and Slovan wasn't at the time for young kids. So I developed with Hoba until I was around 12 years old. Then I went back to Slovan for midget and won the Euro midget's."
Later on Tomek was a part of Slovakia's U18 national team program and was one of their top goaltenders. After representing his country in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship he decided to come to North America in 2014/15 for the chance to play college hockey.
"My parents always valued education with hockey because there could be a point in my career where hockey might not be an option anymore, so I think it's a really good 'Plan B' to have an education in your hands," Tomek said. "My parents thought that as well, they put that on me, and because of that I was leaning towards college hockey more and more when I was playing junior hockey back in Slovakia. I then started to look for options on how to get there, and moving to Topeka was the best option for that."
Tomek joined the NAHL's Topeka RoadRunners for the 2014/15 season. For him it was his first season playing outside his home country of Slovakia, and despite feeling home sick at times, he excelled in Topeka and was named NAHL Goaltender of the Year and earned All-NAHL honours after going 24-7-2 with a 1.83 goals-against average and 92.8 save percentage. His strong play garnished attention from many NHL scouts, and at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft in Sunrise, Florida, Tomek got his wish and was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the third round (90th overall).
"It's a dream come true. Every kid growing up dreams of the NHL, and even though being drafted doesn't necessarily mean you'll play in the NHL one day. It's the start of one day playing in the National Hockey League, and it's truly an honour to be a part of the Flyers organization."
After being drafted, Tomek was college bound for the University of North Dakota. Unfortunately, he would miss his entire freshman year at UND because of a groin injury that required surgery. Despite an injury to Tomek who was in line to potentially come in as the starting goalie, North Dakota went on to win the National Championship. It was their first title since the year 2000.
"I didn't get to play last year because of a pre-season groin injury that needed surgery, and recovery time from it," Matej said. "But I was really happy to be on the team we had last year. It was an amazing group of guys that was able to accomplish a big thing after sixteen years of our program not winning a National Championship, so everyone was really excited when we won. Everyone on the team was really happy about it, so it was a great first college hockey experience to be a part of the National Championship team even though I didn't play."
This upcoming season is crucial for Tomek. He's finally 100% healthy and is looking for a breakthrough season to stabilize his position within the Flyers organization as an upcoming prospect, while playing strongly night in and night out at UND.
"Expectation for me personally is the same as when I first came here. I want to be the number one goalie and play as much as I can. This is also my last year to try and play in the World Juniors for Slovakia so I think the World Juniors and becoming the number one goalie at UND is the prime goals."
For Slovakia at the World Juniors, Tomek will be battling with last year's starter and New York Rangers draft pick Adam Huska for ice time between the pipes. It should be noted that this will be the first and only time in Tomek's career that he will get to play in a World Juniors, and he is incredibly excited to represent his country at the international stage in front of the big audience that will be on display at the Air Canada Centre and Bell Centre come Boxing Day.
"Last year with the injury, I didn't get to play any games before the World Juniors so it wasn't really an option. This year's World Juniors is something that I would definitely love the chance to go and represent my country. Growing up I was with the 1997 birth year group of guys so it would be something really amazing to play the World Juniors in Canada this year."