POPRAD, Slovakia – In Northern Slovakia at the foot of the Tatra mountains, lies the city of Poprad. A gateway for tourists who visit the region to enjoy winter sports.
Two decades ago, in 1988, Tomas Marcinko and David Skokan saw first light in Poprad. Although they parted ways quickly after, the duo have a lot in common. Most of all, they share the same dream: To make it to New York and into the NHL, one in an Islanders jersey, the other in a Rangers.
This summer they came one step closer to fulfilling that dream.
Marcinko, a 2006 fourth-round Islander draft pick, is fresh off two seasons in the OHL with the Barrie Colts and was recently signed to a three-year entry-level contract.
The same happened to Skokan, who played three seasons in the QMJHL and was signed to an AHL contract. The forward was a seventh-round choice of the Rangers in 2007.
From an early age, it was destined that both Marcinko and Skokan would become hockey players. Marcinko’s father, Miroslav, is a former national team defenceman. He was part of the Slovakian team that fought its way up from the C-pool (now called Division II) after the split-up of Czechoslovakia. Marcinko helped the national team get to the top division. He also played in the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Tomas followed his father and soon left Poprad for Kosice where his father played. “I was always watching my father play and I wanted to become a hockey player too,” Marcinko admits. “Basically, I grew up at the rink. I didn’t think about other sports. I liked tennis and football but hockey is all I know.”
Once again, David Skokan’s story is eerily similar. “My father was a hockey player and I was always watching him at the rink,” Skokan remembers. “Also I played hockey myself all the time, there was only hockey on my mind.”
And now, so is the NHL.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Joe Sakic,” Skokan says in fluent English. “I was thrilled to have his player card. I adore his style. He always comes out hard every time he steps on the ice.”
As a standout through his junior career with HK Poprad, Skokan jumped to North America at the first opportunity. With just eight pro games under his belt, the forward left for the Rimouski Océanic of the QMJHL. He had to make a transition from a familiar junior league close to home, to a more competitive league in a strange country while living on his own. He immediately tried to make his presence count, registering over 140 penalty minutes in his first season. Skokan on his transition: “I like the small ice. It makes play faster and there’s more hitting.”
Skokan, who also lists Lubos Bartecko and Peter Bondra as his favourites, caught the eye of the Rangers staff. “He is a two-way centre who has good hockey strength. He has the courage to play in traffic, he competes hard, and gives a good second effort,” Rangers Director of Player Personnel Christer Rockström said.
The Slovakian forward is with the Rangers’ ECHL affiliate Charlotte Checkers where he is expected to lead the team’s offence. With the Checkers, he’ll meet countryman Tomas Zaborsky and will receive the ice time he needs to continue his development.
The young Slovak knows he needs to work on putting his skills together especially in front of net. “I will need to shoot more often to be more effective.” The 19-year-old has improved his goal tally from six to 19 in his three seasons in the QMJHL but will need to keep up the trend at the pro level.
Scoring is also a concern to Tomas Marcinko. He has yet to reach the 20-goal plateau, and wants to work on that area. “My game needs more offence and I need to work on my shooting,” the defensive forward said. “Although it’s not about who scores the goals as long as the team wins,” he adds.
Marcinko made it to the AHL this month where he'll dress for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ affiliate. When the organization drafted him, he became the first Slovak drafted by the franchise.
“He was a leader and captain of Barrie after the trade deadline and led his team to an upset victory in the first round of the playoffs,” Islanders Assistant General Manager Ryan Jankowski said. Jankowski praises the offensive package Marcinko brings to the ice, but adds his defense makes him an ideal two-way player.
Asked whether he is willing to play in the minors for awhile before getting a chance in the NHL, Marcinko cuts of the last part of the question. “Of course I am. I want to play in the NHL, every guy wants to the NHL.”
Skokan is proud that he has the opportunity to make his city proud. “It’s great to be born there. There are big mountains over there. The city is pretty small but cute,” Skokan tells. “If we can both make it to the NHL that will be perfect. It has been a dream of both of us to play in the NHL,” he knows.
“Our first goal was to get drafted, our second to get signed,” Skokan says. “Whether we’d play against each other or together that doesn’t matter.”
Two young Slovaks hailing from Poprad showing the fire in their eyes to make it to the big league. If things turn out nicely, the 55,000-inhabitant city can wave flags and be proud of what they have produced. Notebook:
- HK Poprad, has been a mainstay in the Slovakian Extraliga but has yet to win the title. They came close in the late nineties with two straight third-place finishes. In 2006, they lost to Zilina in game seven of the finals.
- Although a relatively small team, HK Poprad has had several former NHL players including Lubos Bartecko, Michal Handzus, Peter Bondra, Radoslav Suchy, Tomas Surovy and Lubomir Vaic.
- HK Poprad is not off to a great start. After 14 games they rank 11th in the 13-team league with 10 points. Their 26 goals-scored rank last.
- HC Kosice has pulled together after getting eliminated in the Champions Hockey League Qualifying Tournament. With 32 points, they lead the league ahead of MHK 32 Liptovsky Mikulas (32) and HKM Zvolen (31).
- Reigning champion Slovan Bratislava got off to a disappointing start. Together with the other giant Dukla Trencin, they are ranked in the middle of the table with just 21 points.
- Still going strong is Zigmund Palffy. After winning the scoring title last season, the agile forward has nine goals and 11 assists in his first 13 games. Only Lukas Hvila (Zvolen) and Juraj Faith (Kosice), have one point more.