Tomas Jurco started his illustrious hockey career as a tag-along -- the real love of puck belonged to his older sister, Petra.
Even though their hometown of Kosice, Slovakia, didn’t have an organized girls hockey program, it was the then-10-year-old Petra who finally convinced their parents to sign her up in the local boys league. Tomas, then five, came along for the ride.
When they arrived at the rink, the family was met with a cold reality.
“We cannot take the girl,” said the coach. “But the boy can come tomorrow for practice.”
So as Petra’s dream was put on hold, the decision was unwittingly Tomas’s lucky break.
“I tried it the next day and I started playing hockey,” said the now-18-year-old.
It wasn’t long before an Internet star was born. Type the name Tomas Jurco into YouTube and you’ll find several web pages featuring video on his goal-scoring handiwork both at home in Slovakia and in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where he stars for the Saint John Sea Dogs. One of his most recognizable videos was shot when he was only 14 and playing for his hometown HC Kosice in the Slovakian junior league. The video shows Jurco, in white pants, baseball cap and polo shirt, turning his gravity-defying stick tricks on a desolate local playground.
“One of my old teammates brought a camera and recorded it,” said Jurco, who was drafted fourth overall in the 2009 CHL import draft. “We put it on a Slovakian website -- just a little website -- and someone probably downloaded it and put it on YouTube.”
Now with hundreds of thousands of views on his resume, Jurco is the Canadian Hockey League’s undisputed Duke of Dekes and Dangles. There’s no surprise, then, that he handily won the breakaway shootout event at CHL’s Top Prospects skills competition on Tuesday night.
Jurco earned a near-perfect score of 39 out of 40 by scooping the puck up on his stick and whipping it into the net -- lacrosse-style -- while spinning around.
"I don't know if I would be gutsy enough to pull that off the way he does," said teammate Zack Phillips, who also participated in the Top Prospects showcase. "Out here (in front of scouts) I didn't think he'd try that, and not only did he try it, he pulled it off."
Jurco, who will also play in the Top Prospects game on Wednesday night, said he too was a bit surprised the goal worked, because he had only ever tried it a few times in practice.
"That move is just about luck whether you are going to score or not," said Jurco on Tuesday night. "You can't really aim the shot because you're in a turn, but it was really nice."
His amazing shootout goal from last season during a game in Cape Breton, N.S., is simply titled “unbelievable Tomas Jurco” and has close to 250,000 views alone. In the clip you can hear fans boo as the slick-skating winger takes his start from centre ice and cuts a swath wide to the left side before closing in on Screaming Eagles netminder Olivier Roy. Jurco then slams on the brakes with the puck right in front of the 2011 Team Canada WJC goalie, does a spin-o-rama and taps the puck past Roy’s outstretched stick.
"Seeing it live, I was on the bench and I was going nuts," said Phillips.
The jeers quickly turn to cheers as the play-by-play announcer yells, “Oh, what a sick move that was!”
“Not everything I do in practice I can do in a game. Unless I’m 100 percent sure (I can score), I won’t try it in a game,” said Jurco of his spectacular skills. “I’ve been doing some of these moves, like that spin-o-rama, for years so I was sure I could do it. If I’m not going to score, it doesn’t matter what I do.
“It would look really bad if I did something like that and I didn’t score.”
Jurco does his fair share of scoring in regulation as well. In his first QMJHL season, he was among the top five scorers on the Sea Dogs with 26 goals and 51 points in 64 games. He also led the entire league in shootout goals scored, going 9-for-11. His sophomore season with the CHL’s top-ranked Sea Dogs (35-5-1-2) has been no different with Jurco scoring 18 goals and 33 points in 36 games and going 3-for-4 thus far in shootouts.
There are three other players on Saint John competing in the Top Prospects event -- forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Phillips, and defenceman Nathan Beaulieu -- meaning the Sea Dogs are a hot ticket for anyone in the NHL scouting community.
“I know scouts are watching, but I don’t think they care about (my tricks),” said Jurco, who is ranked 24th in North America by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service. “It’s about how you play in a game, not how you score in a shootout. I don’t want people to just see me as a great shootout scorer. I want to be a player who can be good 5-on-5. All those moves are great when you’re alone, but (playing) 5-on-5, it’s really hard to do.”
Adapting to the North American style of play and culture, as well as the smaller ice surface, has been challenging, but Jurco seems to have embraced it. On this night, he’s dressed in black jeans, dark hoodie, high-top Converse and a flat-billed San Diego Padres ballcap, like he’s just walked off the set of The Cool Kids’ latest video. His English has improved remarkably since he first arrived and he’s very well-liked by his teammates.
"He's always joking around and he's the guy you go to if you need a laugh," said Phillips, Jurco's teammate and good friend. "He doesn't let the language barrier stop him from making some jokes, sometimes it makes it even funnier. He's a good guy."
Still, there are those amongst the old school set that believe he’s too much of a hot dog, out to embarrass goalies with his flashy dangles.
“No, I’m not cocky,” said Jurco with a smile. “I think I’m just a nice guy, or trying to be a nice guy and funny. I have no reason to be cocky, all those moves I do, it’s not because I’m cocky … It’s just because I’m trying to be a creative player and have fun on the ice.”
Oddly enough, it’s the same medium that propelled Jurco into the spotlight that gave him the inspiration for his plays in the first place. He said he learned his shootout spin-o-rama -- and many of the other moves in his repertoire -- from watching players like Sidney Crosby and others online.
“It was random people, I would just try to (copy) them,” said Jurco. “Sometimes I would type ‘best goals ever’ on YouTube in the search and try to do that.”
The 6-foot-2, 193-pound forward would then practise until he could perform them and then modify them to make them his own. Most of the time, he would test his skills out first on the ball hockey court to perfect them. He said the off-ice work has helped his game -- especially when it comes to his deft puck-handling skills.
“All the moves I make come from the summer playing ball hockey, and then I tried them on the ice,” said Jurco. “It helps your stickhandling and all those skills. It’s really good if you have some free time in summer to go and play some ball hockey instead of sitting on the couch.”
Matching him skill for skill -- whenever she gets the chance -- is Petra, who never gave up her dream and eventually got her own shot at a hockey career. Most recently the 23-year-old represented Slovakia in women’s hockey, wearing the same No. 13 as her tag-along younger brother, at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“She’s playing now,” said Jurco with a smile. “We both play hockey now.
“She’s pretty good … for a girl.”