by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive
It is expected that young European rookies will have a learning curve while adjusting to the American Hockey League. Add in the off-ice culture shock and a slight language barrier, on top of being the youngest player in the league, and it could make for an even tougher time getting acclimated to new surroundings.
But for 19-year-old Grand Rapids Griffins left wing Tomas Tatar, it took nothing more than getting his immigration finalized and moving into an apartment before his nascent North American career began to blossom.
Tatar, a native of Ilava, Slovakia, was sidelined the first four games of the season while his immigration paperwork was being finalized, but he began contributing as soon as he put on a Griffins jersey. He earned an assist during his AHL debut on Oct. 18 at San Antonio – at the tender age of just 18 years, 10 months and 17 days – then netted his first goal just three appearances later on Oct. 29.
Tatar’s time with the Griffins began as a trial run, with the Ontario Hockey League serving as Plan B. But by the conclusion of Red Wings training camp in September, Detroit’s second choice (60th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft had not only convinced the Wings’ brass to sign him to a three-year entry-level contract, but also to place him with their primary affiliate in Grand Rapids.
Recognizing his flashy scoring punch and untamable skill, Detroit felt he might be ready to develop his ability among the men in the AHL. Because of this, Tatar became the first Red Wings draft pick during the teams’ eight-year affiliation to start a season with the Griffins in his draft year.
“Tomas really stood out in both the prospects camp and main camp in Traverse City,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “We were going to give him two or three weeks to see how he would fit in with the competition at this level, and see if it would be more beneficial for him to go back to junior or if he could stay here. And ever since he has been in the lineup, he has earned the right to be here with us.”
As such, Tatar’s trial run with Grand Rapids has turned into a permanent gig. Although he recorded just two points (1-1-2) in his first eight games, the 5-foot-10, 179-pound forward quickly proved he could score at this level, rattling off 11 points (5-6-11) over a 10-game span from Nov. 13-Dec. 5. During that stretch, he notched both four-game goal and five-game point streaks (4-5-9) to lock up the Griffins’ consecutive nominations for the Reebok/AHL player of the week award (Nov. 23 and 30).
In addition to the scoring punch he has provided, Tatar’s solid two-way style tied him for the team lead with a plus-11 rating as of Dec. 9, a rating that also tied for third among AHL rookies.
For the young European, the scoring came easier once he was relieved of the off-ice stresses that come along with living in completely new surroundings. “When I came here, everything was new for me and I did not have anything. There was a lot of waiting for everything to get settled,” said Tatar. “Now, I am finished and I have a car and an apartment, so I am ready to just worry about hockey.”
Although he has solidified his spot with the Griffins this season, Tatar will be leaving the team from mid-December to early January to play with Team Slovakia at the World Junior Championship in Saskatchewan, marking the second straight year he has earned the privilege to represent his country at the tournament. Proud to represent his native land, Tatar is looking forward to the tournament without the pressure he faced last year.
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“This year will be a little different for me, since last year I was fighting to be drafted and for a contract,” said Tatar, who helped Slovakia to a fourth-place finish last year by leading his team with 11 points and finishing second in the tournament with seven goals. “Now that I have been drafted and have a contract, I am just going to and try to help my team have a good finish in the tournament.”
The world juniors will be a familiar environment for Tatar, but adjusting to his new environment in West Michigan is something he has embraced despite his young age. In his mind, his age has not been an obstacle to overcome, despite playing against players who in most cases are at least several years older.
“I do not have any problems being the youngest player,” said Tatar. “Each year I have taken the next step up, since two years ago I was playing in Slovak junior, then last year on the men’s team, now here. Every year I have been able to move up a level to be around stronger players, so I think it is normal.”
Developing players within their own system has always been preached by the parent Red Wings. So far, all early indicators show that Tatar is willing to do exactly what Detroit wants, with no sign of homesickness.
“I am happy here and want to stay,” Tatar said. “It is a much different living style from in Europe, but I like this country and feel I am good here. It helps me to work harder for Detroit to one day play there.”
Of course, Tatar has the guidance of many AHL veterans in the Griffins’ locker room, including Patrick Rissmiller, who has played alongside Tatar since he arrived on loan from the New York Rangers six games into the campaign.
“We have been really fortunate that the chemistry clicked right away when coach put us together,” said Rissmiller. “Tatar has had a great attitude considering all the circumstances with the language barrier and being so young over here. He is really willing to learn both on and off the ice, and when a player has that kind of attitude it makes the learning curve even quicker.”
Also helping to shorten the curve is fitting in with both the team and the new living situation, something coach Fraser can relate to from coaching two seasons in Belarus from 2006-08.
“That’s just it. It is fitting in off the ice with everything, from finding an apartment, learning the language and everything else that goes along with it. Then you have to find a way to fit in with your teammates, which are all huge challenges for any kid coming over from Europe,” said Fraser. “The on-ice stuff is easy once everything else falls into place, and Tatar has done a really good job of dealing with all of that and has impressed a lot of people early on this year.”
Age may be but a number to Tatar, but only time will tell how far this precocious Slovak may one day rise.