By Kyle Kujawa || AHL On The Beat Archive
Only one active member of the Grand Rapids Griffins has played more games with the club than Tomas Tatar. Despite that fact, you won’t hear too many call him old, as the veteran believes his best days are still ahead of him.
The summer after he was drafted 60th overall by the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar entered his first North American training camp hoping to accelerate his development. He knew he wanted to move overseas and was drafted into the OHL, but having played with men in the top Slovakian league, his desire was to move directly to the AHL at the age of 18.
“This is my fourth year, so I do have more experience than some guys who are older than me,” Tatar said. “I’m kind of like a veteran, and it’s nice to be able to share my experience with the younger guys and help them out.”
While not a veteran by the AHL standard of 260 professional games played due to the number of games he played as a teenager, Tatar will hit his 300th professional contest with his next appearance and, fittingly, sits just one point shy of 200 as a pro.
“I’ve been here for a long time, but I’m still young in age,” said Tatar, just as his roommate and countryman Tomas Jurco interjected to say that, in his opinion, Tatar was old.
Joking aside, four professional seasons mean Tatar has experienced many ups and downs. For example, his highest high came when he scored a goal during his first game with the Detroit Red Wings – Dec. 31, 2010 versus the New York Islanders – sparking a memorable and exciting celebration. There have been some lows, however, like not seeing game action with Detroit last season.
“I was really disappointed,” said Tatar, who was called up on two occasions due to injury but was scratched both times after a full-timer was cleared to play. “I was down last year after coming back, it was in my head.
“But now I won’t let it bother me anymore. I just want to focus on my game and play my best.”
Known for his offensive skill and creativity, Tatar feels the four seasons in Grand Rapids have helped him grow into a well-rounded player. Despite his smaller stature (5-foot-10, 186 pounds), few would accuse him of being unable to play in the corners or not finishing his checks.
“I’ve learned to play better defensively,” he said. “Even the style of hockey, I’m more like a North American player than a European. In Europe, you don’t need to finish as many hits because the ice is bigger and you don’t want to waste energy running around if you don’t need to. Here, it’s a smaller rink, so I’ve started using it in my game.”
Perhaps an even more noticeable difference is his growth off the ice. As a rookie, Tatar was one of few words, grasping only parts of his teammate’s conversations, having lived his whole life in Slovakia. Now, Tatar’s on-ice enthusiasm is on full display in the Griffins locker room on a daily basis.
“That’s been the biggest thing for me,” said Tatar. “I feel at home here now. I don’t speak the best English, but I understand everyone. I can talk to anyone, watch movies, that kind of stuff. I knew a little coming over here, but not enough to make whole sentences. It was hard, but I picked it up hearing other people speak in the locker room and from TV shows. It’s not a hard language to learn, you just have to listen and you will learn fast.”
As time has passed, Tatar has racked up more than a few milestones in a Griffins uniform. He tallied a pair of goals in a 3-1 win over Rockford on New Year’s Eve, giving him 77 for his career – enough for fourth place in franchise history. Only former teammate Jamie Tardif (78), current teammate Francis Pare (91) and Michel Picard (158) have lit the lamp on more occasions.
“I don’t really read those statistics – I didn’t even know that,” said Tatar. “Obviously, it means I did something for this organization; it’s nice to be in one place for a long time. I hope I will move up if I stay here longer.”
Tatar spent his first three seasons with the club playing for Curt Fraser and found himself having to adapt this season with Jeff Blashill at the helm. Although his role is slightly different, Tatar has appreciated the opportunity he’s had to play big minutes on a first-place club.
“When Fraser was here, I played in all situations, even penalty kill,” he said. “Blashill uses us way more on the power play. Last year we used three power play lines, this year just two, and our line always starts. I like the new system, and I’m happy we have him here. He’s talking with [Mike Babcock] too, so he can give a good report on the players. It’s good for something new.”
With his focus on helping the team hold onto the top spot in a tightly-contested Midwest Division, Tatar is hoping his hard work and patience will one day pay off, giving him another shot to claim a spot on the Red Wings.
“You have to show you’re a good player and you have a strong mind,” he said. “I’m one of the youngest guys here to get called up, so I know I have to wait. This league is so tight, if you get in a losing streak you won’t be in first anymore.
“We just have to keep working hard. If we stick with what we’re doing, it will pay off.”