Thursday, 17 January 2013

Mike Danton and Ned Lukacevic talk about...

A new / second part of season, both in Europe and North America. Some life, and some emotion. Read all about it:

NHL is starting on 19th while most of European leagues are getting really close to Playoffs. Somehow I feel like we're in early September with all the fantasy drafts, trade rumors and talks about first, last seeds and possible underdogs. While NHL starts soon, Europe is nearing trade deadline (Feb 15th). What will it bring remains to be seen. Hopefully it will be fun couple of weeks!

In Zagreb there's just one difference. There's like 60 cm of snow so far. And its fun. Except for guys. After a loss (and not important at all for 2nd seeded team in EBEL) in "big" Arena on Sunday to last (and worst) team of league they were sent shoveling:

Everyday I'm shoveling: Brandon Buck, Arena employee, Dennis Bozic, Ivan Šijan and Gal Koren. Working hard. 
Sam Gagner and Andy Chiodo (Edmonton / EC KAC) both rediscovered twitter. It's something of a "get a room you two" conversation. Oh boy.

Then I stumbled upon an interview by NHL network with Dustin Jeffrey.

I guess he really liked playing here. Good thing we're all basically literate and can speak English to some degree. Just like any proper country. Right guys?

I've talked to Mike Danton and Ned Lukačević. 

These two guys were extremly nice, and happy to respond to few of my questions. Danton, 5th round draft pick for NJ Devils in 2000, and Lukačević, a 4th round pick for LA Kings in 2004 have something in common. Both are currently playing in Banska Bystrica of Slovakian Elite league. 

Mike Danton in a practice jersey of HC '05 (Banska Bystrica, Slovakia)
Q: Mike, from making to the big league, NHL, to Canadian CIS league. From Sweden to Czech (Austrian EBEL) and back, and now in Slovakia. Quite a trip so far. What are your expectation of this season?

Mike: My expectations for this season are simple: be successful. This year was a little different for me because I became a father in the off-season. So, my priorities for the season were centered around my son. We felt it important to be in a similar culture to Canada for the upbringing of our son. That is why I intended on playing for the Coventry Blaze this season in the UK. However, my criminal background interjected once again and the UK border agency denied me access after two attempts. At that point, I just wanted to play hockey in a country that I was familiar with. So, I signed in Sweden. I played well there and got an opportunity to play here in Banska and it has been great so far. Hopefully, with the talent and speed that we have, we can make a strong push in the home stretch and go as far as possible.

Q: As player vast life and hockey experience, you are regarded by your teammates as a natural leader and something of a "life coach" in every team you play in. Do you consider yourself a changed man?

Mike: Yes, I consider myself changed, but not entirely. I am the same charismatic and entertaining guy that I have always been. That will never change. However, I have matured in life and mentality. I have been through so much in my life that I have a wealth of knowledge in so many areas. I hav eben up and down so much in my life that I have learned from all of those scenarios and can help guide younger players when I recognize similar situations they are going through. That is also a new aspect of my life that I enjoy. I do not mind it at all.

I've talked to Ned as well about Mike, and about having many lockout players this season on team. He talked quite a bit. Ned just loves to talk. 

Q: Your team (Banska Bystrica) had quite a few lockout players on roster. Now that they're gone, how does the team feel?

Ned: Having the NHL lock out players here was great for our club, and also great for the city. The city had a lot of buzz and it was really nice playing along side Micheal Handzus in particular for myself, he helped me really establish my game in the Extraliga. We have been struggling as of late to string together some wins, but the great thing is we're still in a playoff spot, and we feel good about the team we have in front of us.

Q: Your newest teammate is Mike Danton, a guy with huge history and obviously skill. Do you think you can learn a lot by playing with guys like Mike and Handzuš?
Mike Handzus and Ned Lukačević during a game for Banska Bystrica

Ned: Meeting Mike (Danton) for the first time, was a great experience for me and something I'll always remember. Mike has always been judged on his past, and the mistake he made... But just like anyone he deserves a second chance, I'm glad to say he is getting it, in life and in hockey. He (Mike) is a good person with a good heart. On the hockey side of things, he can still play- it's really interesting that someone who was locked up for 7 years is still as good as he is. It just shows why he was where he once was.

Q: You're a student of criminology. Does the understanding of human nature and psychology help you in hockey games?

Mike: Actually, I am a student in Psychology and Criminology with my focus being in sports psychology. In saying that, my education definitely plays a positive role in my hockey career. It is amazing to learn how significant the mind is when it comes to playing sports. I wish I was schooled in this field when I was playing in the NHL. One of the main concepts that I have really focused on the last two years in confidence and self-motivation. It is true: without belief, you really have nothing. Proper self-motivation and confidence can become your best friend or worst enemy in sports.

Q: You played a good season in Czech, and your former colleague at Saint Mary's Univ Kyle Wharton came to the club this season. Why didn't you stay? Can you compare the league to other top leagues you played in?

Mike: Znojmo was a great experience for me. I played well, and the fans were absolutely amazing. However, hockey is business and most of the time emotions do not make the best judgements for contractual agreements. Like I said earlier, we found it important to play in a similar culture to Canada this season because of the birth of our son. Playing in a country where English was not spoken too often would have hindered our situation if something were to happen to our son and daily errands that would have needed to be completed. The EBEL is a very good league. It is fast, skilled and tough like North America. There are many North Americans playing in that league which bring an element of physical hockey to their teams.

Q: What are your plans for this season and future? Do you see yourself working in hockey after you end your player career one day?

Mike: My plans for this season are simple: be as successful as possible. I want to perform as well as I can and help the team win as many games as possible. In the future, I want to play hockey for as long as I can, but I realize that might not be able to happen. Whenever children enter the picture, priorities seem to change. Whatever is best for my son and family is what I will decide to do. I would love to stay in hockey to some degree after my career whether that be coaching or in some type of psychological setting. I guess we will see.

Big thanks to Mike Danton for this great opportunity to talk to him. After I've finished with Mike, I went back head to head with Ned. While he loves to talk (did I mention that?) his second passion is hockey, and third probably poker. For next interview I might call him to play some heads up. 

Q: So Ned, you're in Slovakia for a while now. This is your second stint in Europe. How do you like it so far? Have you been to any of the great cities?

Ned: It's been a great start to my European career. Obviously with my brief stint in the Allsvenskan (Swedish 2nd league) last year, this is my first real taste at European hockey fully. It's a great pace, great life style, and hockey has become fun again. My favorite city I have visited so far has definitely got to be Vienna. 

Q: You played a few games in Sweeden (Allsvenskan) and some in Slovakia now. How do you compare those leagues? How do they compare to AHL and ECHL?

Ned: I think the difference between Allsvenskan and Slovakia is a few things. The conditions are a lot more modern in Sweden, rinks wise. Facilities are a little newer, but the fans in Slovakia are real passionate about hockey and are very loyal. Both leagues were up pace and real up tempo. On paper Allsvenskan is probably touted by general managers as better but I think the top teams here would be good teams in Allsvenskan as well. 
Ned Lukačević during 2008. Flyer's camp sporting a jailhouse jersey

Q: You've been regarded in past as top prospect by LA King's organisation and you eventually decided to play in Europe. Was it a hard decision? What do you miss the most?
Ned Lukačević while playing with Adam Miller (Medveščak Zagreb)

Ned: Obviously everyone's goal playing pro is to play in the NHL some day. At some point you either have to realize you may not make it, for whatever reason. It may be politics, luck, or just not being good enough. You just have to do what's best for your career at that moment, and at the same time enjoy the game of life because at the end of the day hockey is just a game. 

Q: Being born in Podgorica, MON, and you speak fluently the language. Did you find it hard to adapt to Slovakian? 

Ned: Being originally from (and born in) Montenegro , I can pick up bits and pieces of the Slovak language. It is still much different and hard though. It's nice to be close to my heritage as well, and hopefully even closer next year with a possibility of joining the bears (in Zagreb).

Thanks to both Mike Danton and Ned Lukačević for this opportunity. I wish you guys all the best in upcoming games this weekend and hopefully playoffs. 

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