By Kyle Kujawa –
To say that Grand Rapids Griffins forward Tomas Jurco had a successful junior career would be a massive understatement.
From a statistical standpoint, Jurco flourished. He scored over 25 goals in all three of his seasons with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs and went off for 97 combined points between the regular season (30-38—68 in 48 games) and postseason (13-16—29 in 16 games) in 2011-12.
But when most fans talk about the Sea Dogs, it’s not Jurco’s performance they rave about. Even his 29 points in 16 postseason games, nearly two points per game, were only good for fourth on the team. The Sea Dogs were one of the most dominant clubs in major junior history while Jurco was there, capturing the QMJHL’s President’s Cup in back-to-back seasons while appearing in the league finals in three consecutive years, and winning the CHL’s Memorial Cup in 2011 as the top junior team in Canada.
The club was 161-34-2-7 during Jurco’s career, winning 81.1 percent of its games. But it wasn’t the winning that prepared Jurco for the professional ranks, it was the competition.
“It helped me because I was always fighting for ice time,” said Jurco. “There were a lot of good players and high draft picks. It taught me that you have to be really good every game to play first line or on the power play.”
Generally, every junior team has a handful of NHL drafted players who play big minutes. Jurco certainly had a big role on the club, but the Sea Dogs had other options all throughout the lineup. That includes Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and a trio of other first-round picks who, like Jurco, find themselves transitioning to the AHL this season: Nathan Beaulieu (Hamilton), Charlie Coyle (Houston) and Zach Phillips (Houston).
“For sure, winning the Memorial Cup was the highlight,” said Jurco. “The whole tournament was great. I was playing great after a not-so-great season. I scored some really important goals, so it was really good for me.”
Getting to the Memorial Cup is no easy task. In the QMJHL, just like the NHL, it takes 16 wins to capture the league’s championship trophy. The Memorial Cup then pits the champion of the QMJHL, WHL and OHL along with a host team that rotates through the leagues, forcing junior clubs to prepare for teams they would never play otherwise. Jurco’s Sea Dogs won the Memorial Cup in 2011 but fell short the following year.
“It didn’t bother me that much because we won already,” said the Kosice, Slovakia, native. “I knew what it felt like. Of course I was sad and it was hard to get over, but it would have been way worse if we lost both years. At least we won it before.”
Jurco hopes the challenges of finding ice time on his junior club will prepare him for the professional ranks. Despite being a high draft pick himself, 35th overall by Detroit in 2011, he is in a familiar situation with the Griffins, as he’s behind other high picks on the depth chart, many of whom have had several years of AHL seasoning already.
“I’m looking to find a spot on the power play in a short period of time,” he said. “I just need to earn [head coach Jeff] Blashill’s trust some more. Hopefully, he’ll see what I do on the ice and how I play and trust me to go on the power play and score some goals.
“It’s getting better each game,” he continued. “Each day I’m more and more confident. [Turning professional] is a real big step to make, but I’m going to get used to it more and get better every day.”
Most Detroit Red Wings fans became familiar with Jurco when a video of him stickhandling off the ice surfaced after he was drafted. It was even shown during the Griffins’ TV broadcast on Fox Sports Detroit on Oct. 26. But Jurco knows his special skill isn’t what will help him in the pros the way developing into a two-way player will.
“I just want to be even all-around, not just stickhandling,” said Jurco. “I’m trying to work on my defensive game, and I think I’m getting better at it, like being in a good spot and not leaving anyone open.”
Although he was flattered by the attention the video got, he says he’s glad that his new Griffins teammates haven’t brought up his YouTube fame too much yet.
“Younger guys watch it, so it’s more in junior,” Jurco said. “Maybe only a couple here have seen it, maybe nobody. I’m fine with them not knowing. Hopefully, I’ll make some new highlights on the ice.”