This article was originally published moments before the Canadiens announced Tuesday they had traded Sekac to the Anaheim Ducks.
It’s Saturday night in Montreal, and 17:16 into their game with the Columbus Blue Jackets Jiri Sekac nearly burns a hole through the net to put the Canadiens up 3-1. A cruel twist of fate sends his laser of a shot screaming off the crossbar and out.
Bar and in and the native from hockey factory Kladno, Czech Republic is celebrating his first goal in 21 games. What a relief that would offer any player in that situation, let alone a 22-year-old rookie swimming in a fishbowl like Montreal.
Three years of professional hockey in Europe have offered him much needed perspective on how to deal with hard times. "I’ve already been through all of this," he says. "I know how to act and how to prepare myself for these ups and downs. I’ll be okay," he reassures with a smile after Saturday’s win.
Canadiens fans would certainly forgive a frown from slumping Sekac. "Lately, it’s been kind of rough for me," he acknowledges. But the sunny side of him prevails as he finishes his thought. "I’m just trying to stay focused and enjoy every second that I’m on the ice."
Relief becomes less tangible on Monday, as Sekac finds himself slotted in the dreaded 13th forward spot at Canadiens practice.
Just a month ago he was enjoying All-Star festivities in Columbus, oozing confidence and soaking up everything he could from the game’s most prolific players.
But on Monday, he’s pushing through the extra workload a probable scratch from Tuesday’s lineup is expected to carry. It looks far from enjoyable, and this time around he’s wearing intensity on his face, banging his stick on the ice in frustration after missing a tip-in on a routine drill.
It’s moments like these that make you wonder if Sekac needs some support from outside of Montreal.
But his California-based agent–Allan Walsh of Octagon Hockey–knows his client can handle this.
"I’ve never had to settle him down," says Walsh. "We’ve talked about it at times during the season and it’s important not to overreact to what’s happening today as opposed to tomorrow or yesterday. Obviously, it’s not good news if you’re scratched from a game. He’s not happy about it. Like all players, he wants to play and he wants to play a bigger role."
Walsh knows the way out. He confirms that Sekac knows too. "He’s one of the hardest working players in the gym and on the ice. He won’t stop working."
Canadiens fans obviously recognize and respect Sekac’s work ethic.
Rarely can a player skate through Montreal on an extended scoring skid without drawing the ire of fans who expect the moon and the stars from a talent like this young Czech, but they continue to rise from their seats each time he storms up the ice with a head of steam; they universally petition his relegation from the lineup when Michel Therrien gives him the ‘rookie’ treatment; they aggressively lobby on message boards and talk radio for him to receive a promotion on a goal-challenged Canadiens team.
They were intrigued on July 1st when Marc Bergevin won a 12-team bidding war for this undrafted player who had recently come off a fantastic run with Prague Lev that culminated with a crushing game seven loss to Metallurg Magnitogorsk for the Kontinental Hockey League’s Gagarin Cup.
Sekac and his father visited Montreal as the Canadiens were on the final leg of their own promising playoff run. There was no better time to gauge what it’s like to be a player in this town.
"Jiri didn’t seem fazed by the spotlight attached to playing in Montreal," recalls Walsh. "He wanted to play for a team in a city where hockey mattered."
He impressed the Canadiens, and it didn’t take long for Sekac to draw the fascination of everyone else in these parts.
He compounded an excellent showing at rookie camp by posting the best score at the Habs’ main camp for a fitness challenge known as the beep test, in which a player runs to a series of beeps that incrementally increase in speed until the player can’t keep up. Sekac kept rhythm for 14.5 beeps.
Paul Gagné, who–during the summer–trains several NHLers out of Victoria Park Health Club in Montreal wasn’t surprised by his protégé’s strong marks.
"He’s always focused [in the gym] with a great attitude and his learning curve is really high," says Gagné.
Putting the beep test into context, Gagné surmises: "Jiri has a faster recovery rate than most players and he also has the capacity to repeat maximal effort over a long period."
The fans became smitten with Sekac after he put all that training into action to score his first NHL goal in his fourth contest; a broken play of serendipity against the Canadiens’ archrival—the Boston Bruins–as the puck found him by the crease with a yawning net calling. His father’s priceless reaction from the stands– captured on the Jumbotron and on television screens across the country–enriched the moment.
Infatuation with Sekac emboldened when he dazzled on the second of two goals he scored to bookend a 6-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings in December.
The play encapsulated a variety of skills. He double-clutched from second to fourth gear over the opposing blueline to catch a wobbling flip pass from Andrei Markov. He deftly corralled it and danced by superstar Drew Doughty by slipping the puck through his stick before he deked and spun away from goaltender Martin Jones. Curling off the goal line, with a fraction of an inch to find the back of the net, he ripped a snap shot into the top shelf.
Teammate Brendan Gallagher gushes. "I think [P.K.] Subban scored a pretty nice one against Colorado, but Sekac’s versus L.A. was nicer. It was probably the nicest one we’ve scored this year."
Gallagher suggests Sekac’s prowess is magnified when he has the puck. "He’s pretty creative offensively, and he’s got great hockey smarts."
Fellow countryman and one of Sekac’s childhood idols, Martin Havlat of the New Jersey Devils chimes in via email. "He’s a great skater with quick hands and a great shot. Jiri has top six potential," he says of his off-season training partner.
Canadiens leading scorer Max Pacioretty shared his opinion a couple of weeks ago. "He’s going to be an amazing player. I can’t believe how quickly he’s adjusted to the small ice. When I was in Europe it felt like I was skating on an ocean compared to the rinks over here."
What about the adjustment he’s had to make off the ice?
"It’s a little bit weird for the other guys with a new guy coming from overseas," says an empathetic Sekac. "I wasn’t even in the AHL with the other young guys, so it’s a little bit different for older players that were playing here because they see a complete stranger. I think it’s been clicking pretty well over the last number of weeks. I’ve gotten to know everyone a little better."
Gallagher and Pacioretty both admit Sekac is well-entrenched and loved by his teammates. With that settled, it’s back to the task at hand.
"Jiri has what I would call a healthy dose of restlessness. He’s certainly not pleased at all with where he’s at. He constantly wants to do more. He has a tremendous belief in his abilities; a confidence that, when called upon, he will deliver," affirms Walsh.
Until then, Sekac will bide his time working for his opportunity to prove his agent’s statement right; hoping that his next shot will offer sweet relief.