HELSINKI – Last year, as Slovakia battled its way to the World Championship final, all eyes were on two players on the team. There was Jan Laco, the goalie who played more than any other goalie in the tournament, and there was Zdeno Chara, the towering defenseman, who was impossible to beat, and who seemed to reach every puck anywhere in the rink.
Both Laco and Chara were voted into the tournament’s All-Star team, and both men were also the tournament directorate’s choices for best players in their positions.
Right behind them, though, there was a third pillar of strength. When it was time to choose the three best players on the Slovakia team, coach Vladimir Vujtek picked Chara, Laco and then ahead of Miroslav Satan, and Michal Handzus, defenseman Andrej Sekera, who also quietly led the team in scoring, with two goals and nine points in ten games.
This year, there’s no Laco - who’s injured - there’s no Chara - who’s in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Boston Bruins - but Vujtek still has Sekera, and he’s shown he still has a lot of faith in the Buffalo Sabres’ 26-year-old defenseman, who’s playing in his fifth World Championship.
In Slovakia’s first three games in the tournament, against France, Finland, and Germany, Sekera has played over 73 minutes, or 24:29 per game, most on the team by far, and in the Top 5 in the whole tournament. With no Chara on the team, Sekera has to be one.
“Chara is missing, but I just try to do my best and help the team win some games. I try to keep it simple and move the puck,” he says.
Last year he was the team’s leading scorer, also playing big minutes, even if his ice time wasn’t even close to what it is today. On the other hand, he’s now collected just one assist in the three games, while Slovakia has scored nine goals.
“I was doing the same thing last year, too: moving my legs, passing the puck, end getting pucks to then net. Sometimes things go your way, like they did last year.
“I’m trying to play my game, and if there’s a chance to join a rush, I’ll do it, but if not, then I’ll try to help the team in other ways,” he says.
In the NHL, Sekera averaged about 21 minutes a game, and played over 25 minutes - his World Championship average - in just two games this season. Playing more, and playing more in the international level, means that Sekera has to be smart with managing his time out on the ice.
“I have to manage my shifts more, and make sure I don’t stay too long on the ice, so I’ll have to keep my shifts short, or I won’t have the same energy,” he says.
“Basically, you have to go hard for thirty seconds, go off, get some rest, and then be ready to go back out,” he adds.
Last year, Slovakia clinched its playoff berth in its last preliminary round game against France. This year, with a 2-1-0 start, the team is in a good position early in the tournament.
“We had a good team last year, and everything went our way. We battled hard in every game, and then had a little luck,” says Sekera.
“There are no easy games in this tournament, every team can play hockey, so just the fact that some teams don’t have NHLers on their roster doesn’t mean anything, they all can play,” he adds.
Slovakia’s captain is Miroslav Satan, 38, who’s playing in his 11th World Championship, with Tomas Kopecky and Branko Radivojevic as his alternates. The unassuming Sekera doesn’t have a letter on his sweater, but he leads the team by example on the ice.
“We’re missing some of last year’s leaders, like Handzus, Laco, Chara, and Dominik Granak, which means that others have to take on different roles. So far it’s been working for us, and we hope to keep it going and win some more games,” says Andrej Sekera.
Next up: Latvia on Thursday. Expect to see a lot of Slovakia’s number 44.