EDMONTON — When Andrej Sekera was junior-aged, he would drive from his hometown of Bojnice, Slovakia to play hockey in a city called Trencin. His path would take him right past a giant factory that made all things rubber, called Vegum A.S.
Its exports include, since 1952, every hockey puck a Canadian kid grew up with that was stamped "Made in Czechoslovakia." Or later, after the wall came down, "Made in Slovakia."
There was never a shortage of hockey pucks, where he grew up.
"No," laughed Sekera. "We were lucky for that."
He is the son of a Slovakian coal miner — "That’s where I learn the hard work from," —who grew up relatively near the world’s leading supplier of hockey pucks. So it should be no surprise that Sekera, whose work ethic has pulled him through two major injuries, is the Edmonton Oilers nominee for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, recognizing the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the game.
Sekera snapped the ACL in his left leg in the 2017 playoffs. Then, after having made it back to finish the 2017-18 season, he tore his right Achilles tendon almost all the way through while training last August.
At age 32, he had to admit, he wasn’t sure he could do the rehab all over again.
"I definitely had a thought about that," he said. "Thirty one and I have the ACL. Now the Achilles? It could be a rough ending to my career. You know how long it takes. No matter what the doctor says, it’s always five to six months.
"But (those thoughts), they went away after about 15 minutes, I knew exactly what lay ahead for me, and started getting ready for that."
Sekera is 32 now, and he has become one of those players that the game is actually coming back to. He is that heady, slick passing defenceman whose value in 2019 is likely even higher than when he broke in with the Buffalo Sabres back in 2006-07, in a time when smaller defencemen were challenged by bigger players who fought and bodychecked more often than today.
Sekera is that smooth European defenceman who doesn’t have the huge blast, but just helps the machine run more smoothly. Think Lubomir Visnovsky, or Jyrki Lumme. Josh Morrissey, or Nick Leddy.
"What he does with the puck rubs off on everybody else," said Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock. "When you bring patient players in, people who have composure, everybody else seems to have more composure. It’s like when you add defined skill to your group, it seems like you have more skill with other players.
"What Sekera does for us is he brings the composure level up. There is no panic under pressure."
These are the defencemen that are in vogue now. The ones who can dig pucks off the boards, turn up ice and deliver a pass to a forward’s tape — in stride — 10 feet inside the defensive blue line.
It’s about processing the game quickly, and making the accurate first pass. More and more, that pass is coming in the middle of the ice. That puts accuracy and execution at a premium.
"I mean, if you can think quicker than a guy can skate, you’re going to be in a pretty good position, right?" said defenceman Kris Russell.
The amazing thing is that Sekera has been as effective as he has this season, coming off back-to-back serious injuries. Look at how William Nylander has struggled, and he only missed time due to a hold-out — not two serious leg injuries. Sekera got in 36 games at the end of last season, and will play the last 24 this year — at a much higher level than most people expected he’d be at.
"If a guys going to do it, it’s going to be him. He’s so even keel," Russell said. "He’s a top player. Maybe our best defenceman a few years ago, then he had the injuries. But he’s such a smart player. He can slow things down. He’s an elite thinker, and plays it simple."
Sekera will go to the World Championships, assuming the Oilers miss the playoffs, being held in Slovakia. He’ll almost certainly captain the Slovaks.
"I need to play more hockey," he said.
Then he’ll spend another summer training back home with countrymen Tomas Tatar, Richard Panik, Martin Marincin, and the next crop of young Slovaks in CHL.
Like Sekera, growing up between the old coal mine and the puck factory, those young guys might just be in the right spot, training alongside Sekera.