Thunder D Martin Nemcik Letting Play on the Ice Do His Talking
Standing in the hallway following a recent game, it is easy to see that Wichita Thunder defenseman Martin Nemcik is a bit uncomfortable when the media spotlight is on him. Part of it is that the Slovakian native is still learning to master the English language (if anyone has ever been able to do this), but there is also a certain humbleness that makes the 6-4, 223-pound uncomfortable when he is the focus of attention.
While his English skills may be lacking in some ways, there is no doubt that Martin has a lot to say. He doesn’t use his words, however. Instead, he lets his physical play and hockey skills do all the talking for him, quickly making himself one of the most trusted players for new Head Coach Malcolm Cameron.
Playing Just for Fun
For those who meet Martin Nemcik after a game, the smile says it all. The 24-year-old is one of the friendliest people you will meet, who always seems joyful boasting that huge smile. In a sport where missing teeth are almost a badge of honor, Martin proudly displays a perfect set in his mouth, and they are a great representation of why he plays hockey.
Martin got into playing hockey out on the streets in front of his home in Povazska, Slovakia. The sport was an opportunity to hang out with his friends and he loved that opportunity. He also became interested in playing hockey because he lived very close to the first player to come out of his native city to play in the National Hockey League, Andre Meszaros.
“I used to play street hockey like with my friends in front of the buildings where I grew up. I just liked to play with the stick and that’s pretty much it. My neighbor was like first hockey player from my city to play in the NHL so maybe that really helped to motivate me.”
While loving playing hockey, Martin acknowledges that he was not very good at it when he was younger. In fact, he credits his lack of skill early on in how he became a defenseman.
“When I was small I was like really bad, so I had trouble with skating, and that is why the coach put me as a defenseman. I stayed there and kept playing there and even after I got better at hockey, better at skating I really liked playing defense. With my size it was perfect for me.”
For most of his youth, Martin played the sport simply because it was fun. He saw no real prospects in playing hockey professionally until he turned about 18. That is when he joined the Slovakian Hockey League.
Late in the 2011-2012 season he became a member of Trencin Dukla and would stay there for two more seasons. Trencin offered Martin a great opportunity. He would play in 82 total games there, becoming one of the team’s primary defenseman, especially in season three. The biggest advantage, however, was that this is the team that many NHL players played for before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play professional hockey. This was an excellent opportunity for sure.
“I thought this was a big chance for me in Trencin. This is the most famous city for hockey in Slovakia because all of the pro guys, (Marian) Gaborik, (Marian) Hossa, and (Zdeno) Chara, who are big NHL stars all played there. It was really nice when I played there. I practiced with them and that was really great, a really great experience to see how they train and how they lived.”
In 2014 he would move to the Austrian Hockey League, joining Znojmo Orli HC where he would play in 47 games, scoring 4-goals and adding 7-assists. He helped the team reach the playoffs in his first season. He would return there the next year but, 12 games into the campaign, he was signed by the Wichita Thunder and came to America. For the defenseman, this was a dream come true.
“It was always my dreams to play in the United States. This was such a great opportunity.”
Coming to America
Last season, Martin Nemcik joined the Wichita Thunder for the final two-thirds of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) season. He appeared in 48-games, scoring 4-goals and adding 7-assists.
It was a fine start to his career, but the 2016-17 season could have meant a return to Slovakia. The Thunder hired Malcolm Cameron to be their new coach, figuring he could bring the same kind of magic to Wichita that he had with the two other last place teams he was hired to turn around. He has been a miracle worker with these kinds of teams, but has also followed a pattern of completely rebuilding the club.
That looked to be the case in Wichita as well, as only four players from last year’s team are on the Thunder’s current roster. Martin Nemcik happened to be one of those.
The season did not get off to a grand start for Martin, however. It took a little time for him to work out getting his visa to come and play in the United States, putting him a little behind the rest of the team when the season began. This meant limited action in games as he looked to earn the trust of his new coach.
That is exactly what he has done. Martin has quickly become one of Coach Cameron’s most reliable players and finds himself on the ice for over 20-minutes a game. The Coach cannot express how impressive the defenseman has been.
“I’ll tell you one guy who I have a great deal of trust in now – Martin Nemcik. He has worked his butt off here,” the Coach explains. “The visa issues put him a little behind but he has become someone that I trust. He gets a lot of big minutes now because I know he understands what we are trying to do here and works hard every time he hits the ice.”
The trust that the Coach has given to Martin has been well rewarded. Among players on the active roster, he is fourth on the team in plus/minus rating and has added a goal and 2-assists in 15-games. That goal came nearly two weeks ago, when he was helping to kill off a penalty in overtime. Nemcik gained control of the puck and passed ahead to Vincent Arseneau who passed it back to Martin near the goal. The defenseman tipped it in for the short-handed, game-winning goal. That gave him two-points in the game.
The game-winner was the icing on the cake of a great weekend for Martin. He not only had the game winner on Saturday, but led two end-to-end rushes in the weekend and was flying on the ice. The young man who was put on defense as a kid because he could not skate well was flying high and proving to be one of the best skaters on the ice.
While his has shown some flashes of offensive skill, it is his defense that Martin most cherishes.
“I’m not a scoring machine, but I really like to play defense. I just like blocking shots and to not let them score. That’s what I like the best. I think that makes me happy; when I don’t let them score. That keeps me warm in my heart,” he explains with a smile.
Letting His Play Do the Talking
One thing that clearly can be said about the Wichita Thunder defenseman is that he works hard to prove he can make it. As a boy he was not very good as a hockey player and not a very good skater either. However, he worked incredibly hard and finds himself as a key player on a professional hockey team, just two levels below the NHL.
It is a remarkable testament to the kind of young man that Martin Nemcik is, always pushing himself to improve his skill set, much like the players he has come to respect the most.
“I gain inspiration from pro athletes and their stories. Like how it was so brutal to try to get to where they are but they made it. They saw the goal and they just reached it. I think about Tim Thomas, the goalie of the Bruins, and how when he was 18 years old he switched position and won a Stanley Cup. I think things like that are really inspirational to me. Another one is Chara. When he was like 15 or 16 years old the coach told him to try out for the basketball team because he’ll never play hockey, ever! He wound up being the best defenseman with the hardest shot and has become my inspiration.”
While his skills on the ice have improved exponentially, the one area where Martin is struggling to adapt is in the language barrier. On the ice, he communicates well and knows how to get across a message to get his teammates into the right position, but he admits that communicating off the ice is a whole new challenge.
“I don’t talk too much because I’m from Slovakia and I don’t know the language as well. I think I’m more like a funny guy than a serious guy. I like to joke around with guys, but I don’t do that here as much because it is hard for me to say things that are funny in English.”
He finds the communication barrier a little frustrating. Not because there is an issue on the ice, but because his teammates are missing out on what he believes is one of his best traits.
“I have always been like the guy who other guys were laughing with. Who always had a joke. I wish that I could speak English and say things like I could in Slovakia so that guys could laugh more every day. They would be enjoying it here much more,” he explains laughing.
There may be some issues of communication that comes with any person who is looking to learn English but, make no mistake, Martin Nemcik is communicating well in many other ways. He is an impressive defenseman who battles hard and makes smart plays. He skates well and has earned the trust of his teammates and coaches.
Even more importantly, the Wichita Thunder defenseman has proven that there is no obstacle that he cannot overcome. He was once a poor hockey player, but is now playing professionally at a very high level all because he put in the work and was open to being coached. Maybe he will never go higher than the ECHL, but no one should dismiss him too quickly. If there is one thing that Martin Nemcik communicates well it is that he overcomes obstacles to reach his goals. That is why it would not surprise to anyone to one day read, “Martin Nemčík, NHL hviezda.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Johnny Raymond
By Robert Pannier