LJUBLJANA – Detroit Red Wings prospect Jan Mursak is playing for Slovenia’s men’s national team for the first time, on the first line with David and Marcel Rodman. His ambitious goals are to bring his country back to the best 16 hockey nations and to make the NHL.
Growning up in Maribor, Mursak did what many talented Slovenian players do. He left to play junior hockey elsewhere, first in the Czech Republic, and then in the Ontario Hockey League after getting drafted by Detroit.
His good performance with Ceske Budejovice in the Czech junior league and in his three World U20 Championships and two World U18 Championships (all Division I ) earned him a contract with the Red Wings. After two years overseas as a junior, he finished his second AHL season with the Grand Rapids Griffins and collected 42 points (24+18) in 79 games. He will join the Red Wings next week on the long list of the Stanley Cup contender.
After four games in the World Championship Division I, Mursak notched six points (4+2). IIHF.com talked to the 22-year-old forward before the deciding game against Hungary.
You left your native country early. Why did you go to the Czech Republic?
I played in Maribor until I was 17 and then I played at the World U18 Championship Division I in Maribor. I played pretty well and an agent from Austria offered to represent me. First I told him I would like to go to Sweden where he found a club, but he also found one in the Czech Republic and it was really close, so I could finish my school in Slovenia and I decided to play in Ceske Budejovice. It was a pretty good year and I got drafted by Detroit. They wanted me to come over to play junior hockey in Canada where I played in Saginaw and Belleville.
It looks like many talented Slovenes leave to play somewhere else.
I knew that I would have to leave Slovenia if I wanted to succeed in hockey. The Czech league is much stronger. There are more players, more teams and I could practise with the professional team. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play because only three imports were allowed and they already had three Slovak national team players so I didn’t get a chance. Nevertheless, practising with the professional team was good for me while playing in the junior league. Football is the number-one sport in Slovenia; it’s easier for hockey clubs to make money in the Czech Republic or in Sweden where hockey is the most important sport.
Did you also follow Anze Kopitar’s career?
Yes, I did. He left Slovenia one year before me and he had a good year in Sweden too, that’s why I also thought about going to Sweden. I’m really happy that he’s so successful and that he represents Slovenia so well in the NHL. He’s one of the best NHL players and is even getting better.
So you could be Slovenia’s “Next One” in the NHL.
I want to do anything possible to make it to the NHL, but sometimes you have to be at the right place at the right time, so we will see how it goes. I’m pretty close right now and had a good season in the AHL and Detroit added me to the playoff roster. After the championship, I’m going back to Detroit. I will practise with them and maybe get a chance to play if there are injuries. I’m really happy that they give me a chance and if I don’t play this year, I will hopefully get a chance next year to prove myself in NHL games.
How did you feel in the pre-season the last two years when you were on the roster during the camps?
In 2008, I had a really good pre-season and played six games. Last autumn I had a really good camp, but when the exhibition games came, I got sick and wasn't in shape to compete. But I had two good camps and hope to make the team next year.
How was it for you to play in the American Hockey League?
My first year was alright, but this year was really good. It’s a really competitive league with lots of young players who want to get into the NHL, but it’s also hard because of all the travelling. Almost every team travels by bus and it’s sometimes really hard to get enough rest and eat properly. A lot of times you play three games in two-and-a-half days and I think that’s the hardest part about that league. There are 80 games a year like in the NHL, so it’s hard to be in good shape all year long, but that’s the most important thing, to play well until the end and not to give up.
How would you describe your strengths and weaknesses on the ice?
I think my biggest strength is my skating. It helps me a lot because I’m not a really big guy, so my skating helps me to win the battles in the corner. I also have pretty good hockey sense. Perhaps I should be shooting more; but when I shoot, I can score. This year I had more goals than assists, although I’m used to be a playmaker. This year, the pucks finally started to go in.
How do you feel at the World Championship Division I?
I feel pretty good. I’m still somewhat tired from the season and there’s not much energy left, but I try my best. I think the biggest problem right now is to come to the bigger ice and to build chemistry on my line because I didn’t know my linemates, the Rodman brothers. We are still trying to find what everybody can do on the ice. Compared to the smaller ice in North America, the game is also has a better flow. It’s a different system, you have to skate more. I haven’t played on the big rinks for three years. I almost forgot how it is. But from game to game I’m getting better, so against Hungary I should have my best game.
But you still scored four goals.
Yes, I scored some goals, but the most important game is ahead of us. So I should score goals against this good Hungarian team and hopefully I will do that and we can win the championship.
You didn’t play for your national team before. How special is it for you to play in your native country with all the fans and media?
It’s my first championship with the national team. I just played one game one week before, an exhibition game against Denmark. I never had the chance to join because of the playoffs. I’m happy to be here and it’s good to play in front of a home crowd. We get media attention. I’m happy to be here and to represent my country. Hopefully we can finish the tournament tomorrow by winning it.
You might also have lots of people coming from Maribor to see you play.
Many friends and my family came to see the games. They haven’t seen my play for the last five years, so they didn’t know what to expect. But they saw that I got better and I’m happy about it.
Were there any players that surprised you on the team?
The line with Ticar, Urbas and Jeglic played really well. They play really nice hockey. They look like they have been playing with each other for a long time. I think they surprised all people here. Our team has four good lines and that’s our biggest advantage. All the guys can play, but I think the older guys including me have to step up in our last game against Hungary. If we will do that and go with our hearts on the ice, we can win.
What do you think will be the key in this game?
I think the key will be to play the better defence. They have a good team and a lot of good players. They have good chemistry too, because most of their players played on the same team (Fehervar) all season long. They haven’t conceded many goals, just two in the whole tournament. I think our offence will be good enough to score goals, but you need more goals than you get. I’m sure our goalie will play well, but everybody, also the forwards, have to help with defensive work.