Slovakian-born winger Marek Hrivik was a bit of a surprise addition to the Connecticut Whale’s roster last weekend, and the call to join the Whale came as somewhat of a surprise to him as well.
“The day before (coming to Connecticut), I was supposed to leave to go back home (to Slovakia),” Hrivik said after Wednesday’s Whale practice. “My flight was 2:30, and they let me know at 12:00 that they want me here in Hartford. So I said, ‘for sure, I’m coming.’ It was kind of a quick decision.”
And the 20-year-old Hrivik, who signed an Amateur Tryout (ATO) agreement with the Whale just before making his pro debut in Saturday’s 3-0 home win over the Adirondack Phantoms, had virtually no time to think about it before he was suddenly in uniform in an important late-season AHL game.
“It’s all about adjusting as quick as possible,” Hrivik said. “I just came here and went for a nap and went for a game. I did feel good out there, that’s the main thing, and we did get two points out of the game, so that’s great.
“It’s going pretty well. It’s a really good team and the guys are helping me a lot. I just have to adjust a little bit to the style of hockey. It’s quicker, stronger, so I just have to win some battles in the corners and bury my chances.”
Whale head coach Ken Gernander, who wasted no time in giving Hrivik a chance to show what he could do in the AHL, has been pleased with the 6-1, 197-pound youngster’s effort so far.
“I’ve thought he’s shown himself well,” Gernander said Wednesday. “He’s got a little bit of size to him, he makes good decisions both with and without the puck, and with the puck he’s fairly poised as well. I think once he gets a little more acclimated to the pace of play here at the pro level, he’s going to be able to convert on some of these offensive chances. He’s kind of been in and around the net there with a couple of shots, and made some passes that were close to scoring chances but didn’t quite come to fruition, but as time goes by, he’ll probably cash in a little bit here.”
It’s not often that an undrafted tryout player can come to a pro team that is in the middle of a heated battle for playoff position and immediately earn quality ice time, but that is what Hrivik has accomplished. That was after a season in which he tallied 29 goals and 70 points in only 54 games for Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats, his third straight solid QMJHL campaign. Those three years were an excellent preparation for his transition to pro, according to Hrivik.
“The Wildcats are pretty much run as a pro team,” he said. “Everything we have there is on a high level and first-class, and the owner takes care of us very well and we have great coaches there. So I was pretty much ready for the next step, and we had a lot of meetings and stuff, so it was very close to what it is here.”
The Whale coaching staff was unfamiliar with Hrivik before he arrived in their locker room, but several of Hrivik’s new teammates knew him from the Quebec League, both from having played with him and against him. One familiar face was Kelsey Tessier, whom the Wildcats acquired from the Quebec Remparts late in Hrivik’s first year, 2009-10, on the way to a QMJHL championship and a trip to the Memorial Cup.
“Hrivik was my rookie, he came from Europe,” Tessier remembered from that year. “Big player, very offensive, he turned into a two-way player. Seeing him these last two games (with the Whale), he has improved a lot. Great speed, he went wide around the defense once, and his shot got a lot better. So he’s more of an all-around player now.
“He was on the second line (with Moncton in 2009-10) with (Nicolas) Deschamps (Anaheim second-round pick, now with the Toronto Marlies) and (Randy) Cameron (the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer that year), two great guys, and I think he learned a lot, and he’s improved the last few years, from what I’ve seen in practice since he’s been here. He contributed a lot for the Wildcats when I was there, and now he’s doing real well here.”
For his part, Hrivik was happy to see an old friend in the Whale locker room, and had good memories of his previous experience playing with Tessier.
“He was a very good addition for our team back in ’09-’10,” Hrivik said. “He was a very good leader in Moncton, and he seems to be a leader here in Hartford too. It’s great if you come to the team and you know someone, it’s going to help you out with the stuff around the city, so that’s very good.”
Fellow Whale winger Ryan Bourque, who spent the last three seasons with the Remparts, got an eyeful of Hrivik in the QMJHL from the opposing side.
“When you play in that league, the CHL, you’ll see a lot of European players and they’ll be very offensive,” Bourque said. “But the thing that I noticed most about Marek was that he could bring a two-way game to the table, with both his defensive play and his offensive play. I think through that you see his speed and skill that he can bring, and I think you saw a little bit of that in the two games that we played this weekend. It was really nice to see, and I think he’ll be a good addition to the team.”
From Hrivik’s point of view, the respect flowed the other way too when Moncton played Quebec, which also featured the talents of Whale second-leading point-scorer Jonathan Audy-Marchessault.
“There is always a big rivalry between Moncton and Quebec, and they were their best players,” Hrivik said. “Marchie (Audy-Marchessault) was one of the top scorers in the league, and Bourqueie was a very good player too. You always think about, what kind of players are they in the (locker) room too, if you are playing against them, and now you get to know them.”
Another player from the Whale roster whom Hrivik already knew is defenseman Peter Ceresnak, a fellow Slovakian import who joined the Whale March 21 after completing his Ontario Hockey League season with the Peterborough Petes.
“We trained the whole summer, before the season, so we know each other very well,” Hrivik said of himself and Ceresnak. “That’s another good thing, that there is another guy here who can speak the same language as me.”
Not that language has been an issue since the personable Hrivik arrived in Hartford, or in his three years in Moncton. Despite living so far from home at such a young age, Hrivik has taken the adjustments in stride.
“You just have to learn as quick as possible the things that are different,” he said. “You have to make sure you know their language, you understand what the coaches are saying in the meetings and stuff. Then you have to adjust to the style of life here, the food is different, so there are a lot of things you have to take care of, and just make sure that you are ready for playing your games.”
Interestingly, Gernander has not only given Hrivik a good look in the two games since his signing, he has also played him mostly on the same line with another young player getting his first taste of the pro level on a tryout, former University of New Hampshire Wildcat Steve Moses. The two new additions are both eager to make impressions quickly, and have meshed together well.
“He’s a great player,” Hrivik said about Moses. “He’s got great skill and speed. So he kind of jumps into the empty spots and I’m kind of a playmaker so I can find him in empty spots, so hopefully we’ll have some success.”
AHL All-Star Teams Announced
Neither the Whale nor their Nutmeg State rivals the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the top two teams in the Northeast Division, were represented on the 2011-12 First and Second All-Star Teams, which were released today. The First Team consisted of Oklahoma City’s Yann Danis in goal, defensemen Mark Barberio of league-leading Norfolk and Paul Postma of St. John’s, left-wing Chris Bourque (Ryan’s older brother) of Hershey, his teammate, Keith Aucoin, at center and Syracuse’s Kyle Palmieri on right wing. The Second-Team goaltender was Ben Bishop of Binghamton (formerly of Peoria), Rockford’s Brian Connelly and Clay Wilson of Abbotsford were the defensemen and the forwards were Norfolk’s Cory Conacher (left wing), T.J. Hensick of Peoria (center) and South Windsor, CT native Jon DiSalvatore of Houston (right wing). The All-Star selections were voted on by coaches, players and media in each AHL city.