Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL [Print without images]

Monday, January 5, 2004
Gaborik trying to relocate roots

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

Trencin, now in the Slovak Republic, was founded about a millennium ago as a Roman military outpost. A Roman Catholic church remains as evidence of the city's roots, and an Old Town part of the city is startlingly well-preserved. Close your eyes, think hard enough, and you can hear the chariots rolling through the streets.

Several castles in the region, also called Trencin, date back as far as 900 years. The one in town, with its relatively recent tower addition, rises far into the skyline.

It was there where Trencin kids -- including Marian Gaborik -- routinely made visits, looking down on the only town they ever had known.

"There's a lot of history there," Gaborik said Sunday night. "I went there a lot of times. Everybody went there. You should know what has happened where you are from."

Gaborik and other Trencin children dreamed of the sorts of things that don't seem nearly as fanciful when they are conjured in castles, as in the classroom or living room. For a time, Marian -- the son of a carpenter, Pavol -- looked at his finished paintings, drawings and sculptures. The youngster proudly realized they showed a precocious and natural touch. Then, like a lot of Trencin boys, including the older Zigmund Palffy and Zdeno Chara, he switched his passion to hockey.

And so it was that 21-year-old Gaborik sat on the floor of the silent visitors' dressing room in the Pepsi Center, stretching and grimacing. It was after the Minnesota Wild's first road loss in nearly a month, so the result was a bit of a rarity.

This wasn't: Gaborik didn't score a goal in the loss to Colorado. At that point, 28 games into his post-holdout return to the Wild lineup, Gaborik had only five goals to go with five assists. His shooting percentage is a shade under 6 percent, horrible (for him). The Wild expected more for their $2.9 million this season and a three-year base package of $9.5 million, plus incentives.

So did Gaborik.

Funny thing is, he has been getting chances, most notably on breakaways. Gaborik has been to breakaways this season as bungling robbers are to banks. They all -- the curly-haired Slovak and the would-be thiefs -- come up empty-handed and frustrated.

Gaborik sardonically has joked about losing count of his misfires.

"I've had a lot of chances on breakaways, but they just haven't gone in," Gaborik said. "I have to be sharper. Maybe I'm squeezing the stick a little too much. If I just do things simpler, it will be better."

When Gaborik botched his first few breakaways, coach Jacques Lemaire all but announced to the world, in the tradition of former Chicago Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone: "Now let that be a lesson to you youngsters out there ..."

Gaborik's holdout, Lemaire maintained, left him rusty and out of game condition, and a long way from eradicating both problems. Perhaps so, but it also was a drain on the Wild's momentum after their back-to-back upsets of Colorado and Vancouver in the playoffs.

And while the Wild are back within shouting distance of .500 and one significant run will get them back in a playoff position, this is developing as a season of regression for Gaborik in virtually every way -- except financially.

His holdout had its bizarre elements, including Gaborik's changing of agents, his travel back and forth, a brief stay in Tulsa, Okla., to work out with a friend, and the Wild's surprising obstinacy after three seasons of rock-bottom payrolls and full houses at the Xcel Energy Center. Anxious as a painter who isn't being allowed to handle any brushes, he essentially told his new agent, Ron Salcer, to get it done.

Even Gaborik acknowledges that it's not out of line to link his three-week absence in the regular season to his current and ongoing struggles.

"Obviously, it has something to do with that past," Gaborik said. "But I've put everything behind me and just am trying to focus on every game right now."

He is trying to skate his way out of it, attempting to leave the frustration in his wake, and hoping to reassert himself as one of the top handful of young stars in the sport. Yet the holdout has made others prone to watch him buzz around, yet get nothing done, and reach the conclusion that the contract at least diminished his heart quotient, his competitiveness and his fire. Is that fair? If it isn't, Gaborik needs to show it. Sorry, even the relative inactivity involved in a holdout and working out away from the team does not explain this sort of regression.

So far, the reflexive and perhaps overly simplistic explanation -- that Gaborik is newly complacent, even if subconsciously so, and has lost enough of his fire to make him ineffective -- seems to fit. Those of us who thought the Wild's hard-line stance was curious and counterproductive have cause to be sheepish, at least at this point, because Minnesota isn't getting the bang for its bucks.

"I feel pretty good when I'm skating with the puck, trying to do things like give and go, and trying to create some chances for the guys," Gaborik said. "I think I've been playing better lately at both ends of the ice, but I haven't been productive. I know that."

For whatever reason, too, maybe this is shaping up as a snakebit season for Gaborik, that one where you're always losing the edge, always hitting the post, always shaking your head.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."