4 February, 16:57

NHL 1-on-1: quality time with Lubomir Visnovsky, virtuoso D

NHL 1-on-1: quality time with Lubomir Visnovsky, virtuoso D

By David Kerans

WASHINGTON (VR)– In all likelihood, Lubomir Visnovsky is the most exciting defenseman you have never closely watched.

His teams have only played 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games in the last 11 seasons, because he's been off the map and under the radar for years now, with Edmonton, Anaheim, and the New York Islanders. But Visnovsky has huge skills.

Even at 37, he has excellent speed; he had enough to win the fastest skater competition at the Slovakian all-star game before he turned 20, and won the same contest a few years ago among the Edmonton Oilers when he played there. He has a superb shot, and terrific offensive instincts: in his top season, with Anaheim in 2010-11, he put up 68 points and was deservedly part of the Norris Trophy conversation.

Lubo peak year

Juking through the neutral zone for Anaheim in late 2010         Photo credit: © Harry How, AFP

He is a slick puckhandler and a superlative skater, with manueverability and agility comparable to the very best defensemen in the world. And he is no diva: he has played through very serious injuries, and will sell out to protect his goalie.

Lubo block

Divas don’t do this: a very dangerous shot block to protect Nabby

Photo credit: © Frederick Breedon, AFP

At 5'10", matchups with the bigger forwards in the NHL can be a problem for Visnovsky, obviously. He is not Slovakia's answer to Shea Weber (that would be Zdeno Chara, of course). But he is not a liability in his own end, either, especially because he is so adept at lugging the puck or passing it out. It was no accident that the Islanders tightened up in their own end and began a long run that would carry them to a playoff berth last year after Visnovsky joined the team, in February.

Luba matchup

Big forwards can be a big problem (Lubo dealing with Malkin)

Photo credit: © Bruce Bennett, AFP

Visnovsky's biggest challenge came early this year, when a concussion sidelined him for three months and kept him away from exercise for most of that time. A fascinating discussion of his concussion history and the new treatment that helped him recover from the latest one, "prolotherapy", is here.

When we asked Islanders coach Jack Capuano about Lubomir, he seemed very relieved to have him back in the lineup.

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Kerans: Coach can I ask you one about Visnovsky please, with how he's coming back. Any concerns, any considerations?

Capuano: Oh, I think it's been great. Obviously, he's been out for so long, and a guy that came back his first game and played over 20 minutes that night, his conditioning level is great. We talked about the power play a little bit for him and what he needs to do. But you know when you are out that long the biggest adjustment that you have to make is the physical contact, the bumping and the grinding down low against big forwards. But I'm real pleased with his play over the last few games, and he makes a difference in our hockey club.

Capuano added that he was bit surprised that Visnovsky's return has not yet reignited the Islanders power play. He suspects Lubomir was observing during his absence from the lineup how potent John Tavares is, and has been trying a bit too hard to get him the puck. Capuano loves seeing Visnovsky wind up his slapshot, and has encouraged him to shoot more.

Note to Snow: Sochi an option

Notice that Capuano did not question Visnovsky's readiness for action. Lubomir has recovered from his concussion and is in top shape, meaning that Slovakia would love to have him in their lineup for the Olympics in Sochi, beginning next week. Islanders GM Garth Snow sang a very different tune recently, stating that "As much as Lubo would like to represent his country and participate in the Olympics, our doctors and I are not comfortable with him going to play."

So does that exclude Visnovsky going to Sochi? Not exactly. Visnovsky is a very thoughtful and reflective person, "an interesting, complex cat" as the top NYI blog introduced him to readers when the team acquired him via a trade in 2012. He is far too experienced in life to let Garth Snow push him around, and we raised the prospect of the Olympics to him in our meeting. We chose not to pry, just to let him speak as much or as little as he liked. Fans can judge for themselves where Visnovsky's Olympic thoughts lie...

Quality time with Lubomir Visnovsky

video by Molly Seder

Kerans: Can you tell me, please, when you started out, was it your older brother who got you started, or your father? When you were growing up in Slovakia, how did it happen for you?

Visnovsky: How I started playing hockey?

Kerans: How it began, yeah, at what age? How old were you when you began skating?

Visnovsky: You know I have a brother who is between one and a half and two years older than I. I was five and half or six when I started. I remember the first step on the ice was unreal, and I said “this is what I do, I like it,” and I’m still playing.

Kerans: Was it a local club, a small club?

Visnovsky: Yeah, I’m from a very small town in Slovakia, Topoľčany, and it’s a great memory being with this team.

Topolcsany town hall

Topoľčany town hall      Photo credit: © Janos Korom Dr.

Kerans: Golden years, when you were beginning. Were there a lot of Hungarians in your town, or all Slovak? {Slovakia has a significant admixture of Hungarians in some places, with Hungarian bookstores, etc.}

Visnovsky: Slovak, all Slovak, no Hungarians.

Kerans: And the rink, was it outdoors, or indoors?

Visnovsky: No, it was indoors, everything was indoors. And the senior team of the club was not playing in the best league in Czechoslovakia, it was in the second division. And my first step in senior hockey was there, I played one season there, and after that I went to the top league…

Kerans: To Slovan?

Visnovsky: Yeah, Slovan Bratislava.

Kerans: What about equipment? It’s the 1980s…

Visnovsky: It was no problem, everything was okay, nothing bad. Not like here…

Kerans: But not like Russia, it was better than Russia?

Visnovsky: No, Russia was okay. It was not a problem. People think there was nothing there, but they had everything there, just…

Kerans: I remember talking to Russian players in the 1980s, the young ones, and they said sometimes they couldn’t get a right-handed stick…

Visnovsky: Yeah, I played in the ‘90s and the new millenium, and by the ‘90s everything was okay. Sticks, equipment, everything, no problem.

Kerans: I’ve heard you in other interviews say you knew a little bit about the NHL. You knew about the Stastny brothers, of course. And you said you liked Paul Coffey. Did you like Peter Svoboda maybe as well, or Raymond Bourque?

Visnovsky: I know Peter. Ray Bourque was unreal, I played against the guy. I like player who is a good skater and good at moving the puck, like Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque. And last, it was good experience for me in Anaheim, where I played with Scott Niedermeyer. He was fantastic. You know, I watched how he played, and I was a better player for it.

Kerans: Did your family have to sacrifice much for you to play, or was it well enough organized in Topolcsany that it wasn’t a great strain, you didn’t have to forfeit a lot or sacrifice a lot of money? It was okay, right? You had decent conditions, and you got to play.

Visnovsky: Yeah. Topoľčany gave me the first steps, you know, and…

Kerans: At what age were you when you first moved away from home?

Visnovsky: I was sixteen years old.

Kerans: Were your parents worried?

Visnovsky: My parents believed in me, because I was crazy about hockey. I was just thinking about hockey, hockey, hockey. You know I would wake up with hockey and I would fall asleep with hockey.

Kerans: So it was a natural decision (for you to leave home for a bigger team).

Visnovsky: It was not a problem. The first time I went away from home I was fourteen years old, because I started playing in international tournaments, and we would go like two weeks in Canada, or two weeks in Switzerland, or something like this. And I was ready.

Kerans: What about your position? Were you always playing defense? You are very fast. Did they want you to play forward sometimes, or were you always a defenseman?

Visnovsky: When I was fifteen years old I started to play in the Topoľčany senior team as a defenseman. I played some junior games as a center, which was a good experience for me, and I liked it because I was everywhere on the ice. (But) I was better as a defenseman because I play offense (from there)…

Kerans: There’s no one covering you sometimes, you have more space as a defenseman, right?

Visnovsky: Yeah.

Kerans: When you were young you got a lot of ice time, and you are a great skater. Did the coach ever let you play 60 minutes, an entire game, just for fun? Did you ever try it?

Visnovsky: {laughing} Not possible! It’s not possible, you need a rest…

Kerans: Oh, I understand, but against a bad team, for fun, one day when you’re ten years old—it never happened?

Visnovsky: No, never!

Kerans: What about Soviet hockey? The political relationship between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union was not so strong {as in not so warm, after the 1968 “Prague Spring” upheaval}, but did you see many Soviet players, like Fetisov, Bilyaletdinov? They also moved the puck very well, but did you watch them much? Or you didn’t care?

Visnovsky: Oh! You know I lived in the communist system, and we didn’t have too many TV channels like here, where it’s 500 channels or a thousand. It was three or four channels. I was a kid, and we watched the World Championships, where Russia was nineteen times World Champion. The best line of Fetisov, Kasatonov, Larionov, Krutov, Makarov, it was unreal…

Kerans: So you saw them many times.

Visnovsky: And the coach was Viktor Tikhonov. I saw that and I was like “Wow, this is the machine. This is the team that I said ‘wow’”.

Kerans: You said once that you really liked the atmosphere at games in Slovakia. How is it different? There is more organized chanting, really loud fans, there’s a lot of passion? That’s what you like?

Visnovsky: You know, the best atmosphere wherever I have played was in Bratislava last season in the KHL. It was a brand new arena, holding almost 10,000 people. And the people were so noisy, and the team was like a rookie team in the KHL {it was their first season playing in the KHL}, and the fans helped us because it was great atmosphere and we played better hockey. This was a great experience for me, and I was very happy to play there.

Lubo Slovan

Celebrating a Slovan win in Bratislava last season

Photo credit: © Yaroslav Nevelov, RIA Novosti

Kerans: Final two questions. Have you played a lot against Ovechkin? You have (played some). I haven’t checked, but have you done very well against him? Is he especially difficult for you, or are you confident? {we were speaking eight hours before the Islanders-Capitals game}

Lubo practice

Light practice before NYI-WSH: ever seen a D-man with a shorter stick?  

Photo credit: © VR

Visnovsky: I know him. He’s a great guy, you know, an unreal player. He’s strong, a good skater, and his shot is unreal, you know. Don’t give him space. It’s hard to say something (critical). Almost forty goals this season, and he’s one of the best. Of course I gotta respect that, but of course I’m not going to respect him like “I can’t play against him”, you know.

Kerans: This is my last question: have you said publicly anything recently about Sochi? Have you already decided “yes” or “no”? You don’t have to tell me any secrets.

Lubo in the colors

Lugging it in Slovakia’s 2010 Vancouver Olympic QF victory over Sweden      Photo credit: © Cameron Spencer, AFP

Visnovsky: {laughs} I don’t know, you know. I read everything about Sochi, and look at this, I’ve got two kids, and a family, and of course I am scared. Every player’s dream is to play in the Olympics, and my dream is the same.

Kerans: So you would like to?

Visnovsky: Yeah, I’d like that.

Lubo celebrates

They all liked this: the Slovakian team arriving home after capturing the WC in 2002 (Visnovsky on right)

Photo credit: © Vladimir Benko, EPA

Kerans: I wish you the best of luck.

Visnovsky: Thank you.

hockey, NHL, Sochi Olympics, New York Islanders, VOR's NHL, Lubomir Visnovsky, Visnovsky interview, Slovakia, Slovan Bratislava, KHL
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