Marian Gaborik has all the tools: The speed, the shot, and the moxie to be hockey's next big thing.
by Bruce Leonard
Winter 2003
(Wild Post Season Special Addition)

It's a cold, gray wintry afternoon in Trencin, Slovakia and young Marian Gaborik is antsy. Antsy in the frenetic, impatient way 3-year-olds get when they want something bad, real bad.

His mom has promised him that tomorrow she will take him on his first skating lesson, but the anticipation is getting to be too much. He's sure he'll never make it until tomorrow. "I wanted to learn how to skate so badly," recalls Gaborik smiling at the memory. "My brother was playing hockey and I wanted to play too. When that first moment of being on skates finally came, it was special and it felt so natural to be on the ice."

Seventeen years after those first lessons from mom, Gaborik has gone from impatient tyke to NHL headliner whose game has made him the talk of the league. The Hockey News put him on the cover of their preseason issue proclaiming him one of the reasons to get excited about the 2002-2003 season. ESPN ranked him the 4th best forward in the game. Kings coach Andy Murray went even further, calling Gaborik one of the five best players period. The 20- year-old's reaction to all the buzz? "Of course it feels good to hear people say you're among the best players right now, but you can be there one day and not the next. You have to keep working hard to remain there. Otherwise it can be a different story."

At present, this story shows no signs of needing a rewrite. The Wild's third year right wing is on pace to double his 30-goal, 67-point 2002 season. He's among the league leaders in goals, and he tops the Wild in scoring, power play points, and shots on goal. Moreover, he's already elevating the play of those around him, the hallmark of any great player from Gordie Howe to Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux. "With Marian right now, you're seeing a confidence level that's higher than it's ever been," says Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough. "He feels he can affect games and that's the maturity of a good player."

Gaborik's not only affecting games, he's flat out taking them over. How, you ask? Let us count the ways. October 26th against Phoenix, he produces a two-goal, four-assist undressing of the Coyotes in a 6-1 Wild victory, becoming the youngest person ever to record a six-point game. It was a performance that earned him NHL Player of the Week honors and the raves of Phoenix head coach Bobby Francis. "He has all the skills to be something special. You give him an inch and he just blows by you."

November 2nd against Vancouver, Gaborik delivered a goal you had to see twice to believe. With his back to the net, he took a pass from Pascal Dupuis and in one fluid motion, spun and whipped a backhand shot that stunned Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier and dropped jaws all around the Xcel Energy Center. Cloutier said he never saw the shot coming calling Gaborik's talent "scary."

November 23rd against Nashville, Gaborik showed off all his enormous skill. He got things going by sending a slap shot past Nashville goalie Mike Dunham before Dunham could even raise his glove. He followed that with a blistering one-timer on the power play, and then he blew past defenseman Karlis Skrastins before beating Dunham with a nifty backhander to become the first player in the league to record two hat tricks this season. "Gabby showed why he is one of the top players in the league with that effort," said Wild defenseman Matt Johnson. "That's what great players do. They take a game over and win it." Even Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire who would rather not heap too much praise on his right wing couldn't hold back this time saying Gaborik "looked like an elite player."

That ability to take a game over was already evident to the Wild when they made the super Slovak the first draft pick in franchise history in June 2000. Even though Gaborik would make an immediate impact scoring the first ever goal for the Wild, the team brass had no idea just how fast he would speed through the NHL's learning curve. "When we drafted him, we knew he was an incredible talent, but none of us would have predicted he would have put up the numbers he has already," says Wild Assistant general manager/player personnel Tom Thompson. "Marian just has a certain flair about him, and when you combine that with his overall talent, you've got a special kind of player, an elite player."

Make no mistake, the Wild are privately doing cartwheels about Gaborik's emergence as a big time player, but the team has gone out of its way not to load up their meal ticket with too much responsibility or unfair expectations. They continue to praise his obvious talent while putting it in the overall team concept that is this team's mantra. "Hockey is a team game and you can't have it any other way," says Risebrough. "Our best players have to play both ends of the ice, offense and defense. Marian has accepted that challenge. He wants the team to be successful and he derives a lot of satisfaction from it."

Now that he's considered among the best, Gaborik finds himself driven to prove he belongs with the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Mario Lemieux. To better handle the added attention from opponents this season, he worked tirelessly in the off-season to improve his speed, strength, and shot. The extra work has paid off making him even more dangerous. "I went back home this summer and really worked on my conditioning and my shot. I feel very confident on the ice this year, which is very important. Guys are playing me closer to the vest so space on the ice is a little smaller. I've had to be quicker and think more and not just go and skate all over the ice. I have to think quick and make things happen."

It's enormously easier to make things happen when you have the talent to do so, and Gaborik has all the tools to stay on the NHL's "A" list of talent for years to come. Chief among his attributes is his explosive speed. With his ability to step on the gas at a moments notice and make any move at top speed, a defenseman has as much chance of staying with the Wild speedster as Wiley E. Coyote has of catching the Roadrunner. "Think about how much pressure it puts on a defensive player to see number 10 flying down the ice at full throttle knowing he can shoot, knowing he can make any move, and knowing that he can just blow right by you," says Wild defenseman Brad Bombadir. "Very, very few players in this league can do that. I'm just glad he's on my side."

Gaborik's speed is also invaluable on the defensive end. Just ask Nashville. The Predators broke out on a 2-on-1 only to have Gaborik skate hard all the way back to strip the puck carrier and snuff the chance without even as much as a shot on goal. "You have no idea what that does for our team when your best player back checks like that," says Cliff Ronning, who centers Gaborik's line. "It's not just him scoring amazing goals, it's him getting back when it's 1-1. Hess still young, but he is already one of the great talents in the NHL. I find myself going back to the bench after he scores a goal or makes a great defensive play, and asking, "did he really do that?"

Gaborik's speed is one thing, but how about that blink-and-you-miss-it shot of his? The kind of shot that once unleashed has the impact of a Barry Bonds homer into McCovey Cove. "What's so tough about Gaborik's shot is how incredibly quick it comes at you," says Phoenix goalie Brian Boucher who should know, since Gaborik's best games seem to happen against the Coyotes. "He'll fire the puck, and before you even have a chance to move, it's already in the net."

Scoring is something Gaborik loves to do. Nothing, he says, beats the feeling of lighting the lamp, especially at the sold out Xcel Energy Center, when the crowd goes crazy. But a perfect world, the NHL is not. Look closely, for Gaborik does not have an "S" stitched across his jersey. He's not superman and for every string of games where he has delivered two or three goals, there have been a string of games where he's been bageled. Learning to work through the bad though, is further proof of how special and mature a player Gaborik has become. "When those tough times happen, you have to work extra hard to get through it. Believing in yourself is key. Never stop believing."

Wise beyond his years, and at the age of twenty, the promise of a truly special NHL career is all before him. As he surveys the hockey landscape, where does Gaborik see himself going from here? "I want to be a true leader for my team, and I want to be on top of my game. I want to be someone like Peter Bondra. He was my hero growing up and still is. He is an excellent player with great speed and a goal scoring touch. I have to keep improving to be a player like that, but my goal is to be like him someday."

Someday? Many believe someday for Marian Gaborik is already here. Now that's scary.