Country roads, take me home
by Lucas Aykroyd|28 DEC 2019
Slovakia's Daniel Vladimir Tkac celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Kazakhstan at the 2020 World Juniors.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Slovakia’s Daniel Vladimir Tkac truly started off the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship on a high note when he scored the late third-period winner against Kazakhstan.

Even though the Slovaks had been expected to beat their opponents by a wider margin than 3-1, especially after walloping the former Soviet republic 11-2 in Victoria last year, the 19-year-old forward affirmed that they didn’t take anything for granted.

“We just came in with the same mentality as if we were playing Sweden or anybody,” Tkac said. “We just have to have the same mentality and keep playing as if it was Sweden.”

A broad outlook has served Tkac well so far in his young career. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a Pittsburgh-born kid who plays Junior A hockey for the BCHL’s Merritt Centennials to be representing Slovakia internationally, but here he is.

The dual Slovak-American citizen summarized his biography: “Both my parents were born in Slovakia. Two years before I was born, they came to the U.S. and I was born there. Later, we moved back to Slovakia. I played a couple of years in Slovakia, and then I came back to the U.S. to play. Now I’m in Canada.”

Tkac is comfortable giving interviews in both English and Slovak, having spent many summers in Presov, his parents’ hometown, while growing up.

Interestingly, over 30 percent of Slovaks who move to America reside in Pittsburgh. In 2015, Presov mayor Andrea Turcanova led a delegation that visited Pittsburgh’s Bishop Canevin High School, where Tkac studied and played hockey.

Presov has spawned some noteworthy IIHF talents. Defenceman Martin Strbak won silver (2000), gold (2002), and bronze (2003) medals at the IIHF World Championship in the glory years of Slovak hockey before joining the Pittsburgh Penguins. Forward Igor Liba, a two-time Olympian (1984, 1992), won five World Championship medals with Czechoslovakia, including a 1985 gold, and was inducted into the Slovak Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005.

Tkac, who grew up idolizing Penguins legends Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr, is still in the early stages of assembling his resume.

He made his IIHF debut at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Tkac had a goal and two assists in five games as Slovakia finished seventh.

His goal put Slovakia up 4-1 in an eventual 6-5 shootout loss to the host Russians in front of 7,367 passionate spectators at Traktor Ice Arena. He’ll never forget that experience.

“It’s an amazing atmosphere there,” Tkac said. “There’s just so much history. When we played against the Russians in that game, the atmosphere was crazy. It was an unbelievable feeling to play in that type of game when you're that young.”

Currently, Tkac is in his second year with Merritt, where he’s put up six goals and eight assists in 46 games this season. The town of 7,000 is a three-hour drive northeast of Vancouver and bills itself as the “Country Music Capital of Canada” after hosting many music festivals. Has this ambience converted the 180-cm, 82-kg forward into a country music fan? 

“It grew on me in the past year,” said Tkac. “I still like the classic music and stuff like that, but country is growing on me a little bit!”

With the goal of landing a NCAA hockey scholarship, he originally came to Merritt based on the strong reputation of then-head coach Joe Martin. Although Martin left the club back in April, Tkac is enjoying the chance to play for interim Centennials coach Derek Sweeter-Coult, and he’s working hard on his speed, strength, and puck-moving skills.

Right now, he’s also benefiting from the vast experience of Slovakia’s new World Junior coach, Robert Petrovicky.

Petrovicky, 46, was a first-round pick of the Hartford Whalers in 1992. His journey included not only 208 NHL games, but also the World Championship gold medal in 2002. The nifty forward from Kosice suited up in virtually every elite European league, from Russia to Sweden to Finland to Switzerland, before retiring in 2016. Petrovicky then served twice as an assistant coach with Slovakia at the Worlds, including this year’s ninth-place finish on home ice.

“It’s amazing,” Tkac said. “His experience with everything is just unbelievable. So it’s really good to have a coach back there like that.”

It’ll be important to stick to Petrovicky’s plan, as the Slovaks enter their second game against defending champion Finland on Saturday as underdogs. If Tkac keeps contributing and Slovakia pulls off an upset, the Slovak fans will be singing happy songs. This tournament is on Czech ice, but it feels like a Slovak homecoming at Werk Arena.