On Dec. 28, University of North Dakota goaltender Matej Tomek started his first real game since international duty in the summer. But once again he did it for his country, not the Fighting Hawks. Playing for Slovakia at the world juniors, Tomek faced the unenviable task of taking on the eventual gold medallists from Team USA. He played admirably, but ultimately his squad lost 5-2. Tomek made 45 saves in defeat.
“I was super-excited,” he said. “It was one of my dreams as a kid, watching the tournament on TV. It was really satisfying.”
What is jarring is that Tomek had yet to play for North Dakota at the time, despite being a sophomore in Grand Forks.
Earlier this week, Tomek left the Fighting Hawks, deciding to play next season in the USHL with the Waterloo Black Hawks. While that may be a step backwards in terms of competition, at least the youngster will get to play some games. In two years with North Dakota, Tomek saw action in just two games, never getting more than a period of work. A third-round pick of Philadelphia in 2015, Tomek seriously injured his groin at Flyers rookie camp, causing him to spend much of his freshman season at North Dakota on the shelf. While he was healing, a relatively unknown sophomore named Cam Johnson stepped into the breach and propelled the Fighting Hawks to a national championship. Tomek said he probably could have played in early January, though he wasn’t 100 percent yet. As the weeks went on, he got healthier, but he still did not play.
Tomek returned healthy for 2016-17, but Johnson was entrenched as the starter. Coach Brad Berry liked the potential in Tomek (who was recruited by current Flyers coach Dave Hakstol), but wasn’t ready to test him.
“He came in as a young goaltender,” Berry said. “He still had a lot of work to do and he worked hard. There was some immaturity in his game, but he’s a great young man.”
Looking at North Dakota’s schedule this season, it seems like there were missed opportunities to get Tomek into action early. For example, the Fighting Hawks kicked off their title defense against Canisius College – a school that fared much better against its Atlantic Hockey conference foes than it did against bigger programs. But Johnson played both games, which North Dakota won by a cumulative score of 10-1. Berry maintains that even those early non-conference games were crucial to North Dakota’s return to the national tournament, since the Fighting Hawks got in on an at-large bid and non-conference wins help in the rankings. It helped the Hawks, but it didn’t do much good for Tomek, whose first action didn’t come until the world juniors. On top of the USA game, Tomek also got the start against Russia, where he again played well in a 2-0 defeat. UConn’s Adam Huska – who was amazing – played the other three games for Slovakia.
On Jan. 13, a week after the world juniors, Tomek saw his first NCAA action. Johnson was chased from his crease by Miami, making way for Tomek for the final 12 minutes of the game. Two weeks later, Tomek got the start against lowly Colorado College, only to get pulled after the first period and two goals against. North Dakota scored five unanswered goals with third-stringer Matt Hrynkiw in net to beat the Tigers.
Now, Tomek moves on. He can only play one season for Waterloo before his junior eligibility expires and from there, he’ll have another decision to make, in terms of turning pro.
“Honestly, I have a lot of mixed feelings,” he said. “I’m very excited to get an opportunity in a new place, but at the same time I’m really upset at leaving everything I’ve built here. I’ve found friendships that will last a lifetime.”
Could anything have been done to prevent Tomek’s loss of development time? It’s a tricky situation. Johnson is returning for his senior year at North Dakota, so sticking around probably wouldn’t have done Tomek any good. The only way to transfer schools is to sit out a season, which would have further damaged Tomek’s development track. Berry points out that the one-year stay prevents volatility in the NCAA and I can see the logic there; you can’t have “student-athletes” changing schools all the time when they are hypothetically working on degrees while they play hockey. But that is a disadvantage for players who find themselves out of favor. At least in major junior, a player can be traded or even waived through the league, giving them options across North America (plus the schedule is longer, meaning not every game is a must-win – this is particularly relevant in Tomek’s situation).
Through it all, Tomek is remarkably positive. He says his time at North Dakota only solidified his opinion that the NCAA route is the best for players who want to balance sports and academics and he’s still working on his psychology major (which seems like a great path for a goaltender, to be honest). He cites the 2016 national championship as his highlight thanks to the “special” team they had and for all the time he sat, the encouragement from teammates and coaches truly helped. As for his advice for potential NCAA recruits?
“Work hard every day and stay positive,” he said. “Come to the rink prepared to work the hardest – and do well in school.”
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