Mursak, Tatar take friendship to Detroit

by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive 

The pace of their journeys to the NHL have been very different, but during the final week of 2010 both Jan Mursak’s and Tomas Tatar’s dreams came true as they each made their big-league debuts with the Detroit Red Wings within five days of one another.

Each made their mark, as Mursak became just the second Slovenian-born player to play in the NHL, while Tatar tallied his first goal during his first contest.

Mursak, who turns 23 this month, was called up on Dec. 27 and skated in Detroit’s 4-3 overtime win in Colorado that night. He was soon to be joined by the just barely 20-year-old Tatar, who made his debut on New Year’s Eve in the Wings’ 4-3 overtime loss at home against the Islanders, a contest in which his first NHL goal forced the extra session.

Although their paths never crossed until last season in Grand Rapids, it is only appropriate that the young Europeans shared in their first NHL experience together, as they each list one another as their respective best friends in hockey.

Now in his third campaign with the Griffins, Mursak was bound to pull a red and white sweater over his head this season after his development soared during his sophomore year in 2009-10. That year, he enjoyed the largest goal turnaround in Griffins’ history by leading the team with 24 goals in 79 contests, a vast improvement from a sub-par rookie campaign when he netted just two goals and nine points in 51 games. Meanwhile, this season he was off to a start that saw him earn 23 points (10-13—23) in his first 33 games prior to his recall.

“I’m really happy the coaches gave me a chance (this season),” said Mursak. “My first year in Grand Rapids was pretty rough and I was not expecting that. My second year I just wanted to come back to Grand Rapids and have a really good season, which I was able to do. I have been playing pretty well this year, so the coaches were able to see I could probably play in the NHL and I am just glad to be given a chance.”

A Griffins’ top-line forward on the cusp of being a Darren Helm-type energy player at the NHL level, Mursak netted his first NHL goal during the Wings’ 5-4 loss in Colorado on Jan. 10 in his eighth contest with the club, and has averaged 7:33 of ice time. He was happy to be the first forward called up to Detroit this season, but knows the phone could ring just as easily for another player.

“I was happy to be the first one to go up, but you never really know who it could be since there are a lot of good players in Grand Rapids and you never know what Detroit needs at the time,” said the Wings’ fifth choice (182nd overall) in the 2006 Draft.

Although not first in this next category, Mursak’s home country will forever consider him among the elite foundation of what it hopes will only grow into another of Europe’s hockey producing nations. Hailing from the small country of Slovenia, Mursak became just the second Slovenian-born player to skate in the NHL, after the Los Angeles Kings’ Anze Kopitar broke the mold in 2006-07.

Similar to Kopitar, who played in Sweden prior to his NHL career, Mursak knew in order to climb the hockey ladder, his chances were better if he left his homeland.

“It means a lot to me to be the second Slovenian and I hope to see many more” said Mursak. “Slovenia is a small country and we have a lot of good hockey players, but it is pretty hard to get out of Slovenia to go somewhere else in the world. I was lucky to be able to go to the Czech Republic pretty early and work my way up by coming over to the Ontario (Hockey) League as well.”

Following his one year in the Czech junior league, Mursak logged 119 OHL contests between Saginaw (88) and Belleville (31) from 2006-08, racking up 144 points (44-100—144) along the way before turning pro with the Griffins in 2008-09.

The journey for his friend Tatar has been quite a bit different, and at times even seems a little more accelerated than some would have thought.

Prior to the 2009-10 season, Tatar entered Red Wings training camp knowing he had one more year of junior eligibility and may end up somewhere in the OHL, despite coming off his first full pro season in his native Slovakia. However, Tatar turned heads during camp and the Detroit brass decided to place him in the AHL for his first North American campaign at just 18 years-of-age, making him the league’s youngest player and the first skater in Griffins’ history to begin playing for the team during his draft year (Detroit’s 2nd choice, 60th overall, in 2009 draft).

From there, the young forward’s development took off. He concluded his rookie campaign by ranking among team leaders with 16 goals (T5th), a plus-8 rating (3rd) and three game-winning goals (T2nd), and this season continues to lead the team with 29 points, 20 assists and a plus-11 rating despite his recent absence.

Appropriately enough for the pace of his development, Tatar fit right in at the NHL level during his first contest, netting his first goal and skating in 12:18 of ice time. Now five games into his call-up, he averages 10:16 of ice time and maintains an even plus-minus rating.
Although being the only current Red Wing with a birthdate in the 1990’s, Tatar is not surprised by his ability to play alongside hockey’s elite.

“I’m not too surprised,” Tatar said of his fast-paced development. “I have a lot of friends that have already played a couple games in the NHL, so I was really just waiting for my chance to be there. I am glad I have had the chance now.”

His quick path to the NHL may not have surprised Tatar, but he was still caught off guard when he tallied his first goal in a Red Wings’ uniform, which he celebrated exuberantly by grabbing the winged wheel while pumping his chest with youthful enthusiasm.

“I didn’t expect that I would score in my first NHL game,” said Tatar. “I was so happy the goal was for a tie in the game.”

Both Tatar and Mursak have enjoyed sharing their first NHL action together.

“It was fun to hear he was coming up too,” Mursak said of his friend Tatar. “It looked like we were following each other and could not stay apart for too long, so it’s fun to be here (in Detroit) and spend some time in the NHL with him as well.”

Spending time together in the NHL on a permanent basis seems on the horizon for the two young Euros. Having made their marks in their action thus far, it is only a matter of time before they list one another as best friends in an NHL team’s media guide.