Sykora ready to take his best shot
|Sykora with the Cup in 2009. (NHL/Getty Images)|
Having spent last season playing in Europe, Sykora has set his sights on coming back for a 15th NHL campaign. He arrived at Prudential Center on Thursday morning while rookies filed in for physicals and photo headshots. Veterans were ready to report to training camp on Friday.
“To be honest, I didn’t look for any other [team],” Sykora said. “I told my agent, I only want to go to New Jersey. If there is a chance, that’s the only one that I’m going to go to. The chance came up and I jumped on the plane yesterday, traveled the whole day [from the Czech Republic] and I’m here.”
The 34-year-old winger split last year between his hometown club Plzen HC and Minsk Dynamo (KHL). The year before, he was limited by injury to 14 games with Minnesota. But the Czech native found himself out of sync with the European game and missed the North American style.
"I think it’s easier for me to play here than in Europe because the ice is so much smaller and I never related to European hockey, for some reason,” he said. “It’s a lot of crossovers, crossing, go behind the net, kind of all over the place. There’s no rhythm to the games. I kind of like it here: it’s up-and-down hockey, straight up, straight by the boards. This suits me better, and we’ll see how it’s going to work out.”
A veteran of 935 NHL games, Sykora has amassed 302 goals and 375 assists for 677 points during his career. Among his strengths, he mentioned a knack for burying one-timers from prime scoring areas. If blazing speed isn't what he's about, then finding the back of the net is. His résumé includes 10 seasons with at least 20 goals, six with 25 or more, and a pair of 30-goal campaigns.
“I understand my ability and I understand what kind of player I am," he said. "I’m just going to show up [Friday] and if I’m invited the next day, I’ll show up the next day. I have no plans, really. I just try to do my best and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Drafted 18th overall by the Devils in 1995, Sykora spent seven seasons in New Jersey before being dealt to Anaheim in 2002. After stints with the Rangers and Oilers, he landed in Pittsburgh, where he made back-to-back Finals appearances and hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Now he hopes for a second tour with the Devils, the club with which he won his first title in 2000.
“I know the management, I know exactly how it works here,” he said. “I’m not going to anything new. I started here and I have a lot of friends in the locker room here.”
Some familiar faces remain from New Jersey’s 2000 Stanley Cup squad, and Sykora knows he’ll find a comfort zone with former teammates Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias. The guidance of President/CEO/GM Lou Lamoriello was another part of Sykora’s decision.
“I’m friendly with Marty, Patty, and I think Lou was a big, big thing with it,” said Sykora, who notched a career-high 35 goals with the Devils in 2000-01. “I’m kind of thankful to Lou for what kind of career I’ve had because he really helped me out in the beginning and made me the player that I am.”
It’s been a decade since Sykora was part of the explosive “A Line” with Elias and Jason Arnott. The Devils reacquired Arnott last summer, then sent him to Washington at the February trade deadline. Sykora wouldn’t mind a reunion with Elias, but knows he has to make the team first.
“Right now I’m just the outside guy here,” he said. “I think I’m just a guy who’s going to try and maybe get into an exhibition game. I don’t even know what the plans are with me. I just showed up and Patty is somewhere else from where I am. Patty is a top player on this team and I’m just a guy that’s trying to make the team. I’m just happy to see him around the locker room and just to be around him. If I’m here one day, great. If I’m here two weeks, even better. If I’m here the whole season, it’s fantastic.”
Sykora played his last NHL game more than a year ago (Jan. 18, 2010), but compared the absence to a long-term injury and believes he has enough left in the tank to help get the Devils back to the playoffs. Before last season, the Devils hadn't missed the cut since 1995-96, Sykora's rookie year.
“Honestly, I don’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I don’t know what I missed the last year and a half. Before I left my wife [in the Czech Republic], I was really nervous and she told me, ‘Hey just relax and go enjoy it. Just don’t even worry about it. This is better than nothing. This is better than sitting here and playing in the Czech. I know you’re playing first line with Marty Straka, you’re getting a lot of ice time, but I know that you want to be in the States.’ I said, OK, I’ll try it. Who knows, maybe in some way I will get a chance, get a couple of one-timers, get a couple of passes and who knows, it might work out.”
He's about to get what could be his last shot. It's one he doesn’t want to miss.
“How my chances are, I don’t know, but I’m going to go for it.”