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Bemidji State goalie Tomcikova to play in Olympics for native Slovakia

Zuzana Tomcikova started playing hockey against boys in Slovakia. Now she's headed for the Olympics. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

Zuzana Tomcikova wants a test at the Vancouver Olympic Games.

The Bemidji State University sophomore goaltender will get her wish when she leads the Slovakian women's hockey team into pool play games against 2006 gold medalist Canada on Saturday and 2006 silver medalist Sweden on Monday.

"I enjoy tough competition that's not easy," Tomcikova said. "I like to be challenged."

Easy and challenging are modest words to describe what Tomcikova and the Slovakians will go up against in the first three games of the tournament.

Slovakia has the lowest world ranking out of the eight nations participating and just reaching the Olympics took an extraordinary run in the 2008 Olympic qualifying tournament in Germany.

Tomcikova's Olympic qualifying story with Slovakia sounds familiar to the hockey fans in northern Minnesota who watched the Bemidji State men's hockey team make an unprecedented run to the Frozen Four in 2009.

The Slovakians, ranked No. 17 in the world during qualifying, pulled off a major upset victory by defeating No. 8 Germany and followed with a win over No. 10 Kazakhstan to reach the Vancouver games.

"We were definitely not expected to get there (the Olympics)," Tomcikova said. "But we didn't feel any pressure and then we beat Germany for the first time. Then when we played the Kazakhs we didn't want to let the opportunity to slip through our fingers and we played just a great game."

Now ranked No. 15 in the world, the Slovakians will take on the No. 2 ranked team in Canada Saturday.

At the age of 21, Tomcikova's Olympic experience is just the latest stop on a self-motivated world hockey tour.

Her journey to Bemidji State and Vancouver began on the outdoor schoolyard rinks in her hometown of Bratislava, Slovakia. She was introduced to the game by her father, Pavel, and started following her older brother, Martin, to pickup games when she was 9 years old.

"It would usually be all guys and me," Tomickova said. "And they needed a goalie."

By the time she reached the age of 16, she wanted to continue playing hockey at a high level and that desire brought her overseas.

Tomcikova explored hockey options in the Americas and went to play at Caronport High School in Regina, Saskatechwan. She played her junior year on the girls team and moved up to play on the boys team her senior year for a bigger challenge.

After graduation she returned to Europe, played amateur hockey in Sweden and went back home to play for the Slovakian national team.

When the Slovakians won the Division II gold medal at the 2007 World Championships in North Korea, the team was promoted to the more competitive Division I level and later won the 2008 silver medal at the World Championships in Latvia.

It was during that 2007 season in Sweden that Tomcikova began feeling the need to plan for life after hockey.

"I really wanted to get my schooling done because you just can't play hockey your entire life. You'll never make any money," Tomcikova said.

But she was not quite ready to leave the game, and that was where Bemidji State fit in.

Tomickova sent out e-mails and highlight videos to college hockey programs across the country asking coaches for the opportunity to play.

One of those e-mails came to Bemidji State head hockey coach Steve Sertich, and he decided to take a chance on the relatively unknown Tomcikova.

"I can honestly say I didn't know what she was really going to be like," Sertich said. "We recruited her by video and on some advice from people who had seen her play because I never saw her play live. I knew she was tall and quick. I didn't know she was going to have such an impact here."

It did not take Sertich long to know how lucky the program was to land such an asset.

"It was a couple games into the (2008) season," Sertich said. "I don't even remember who we were playing. but I know it was here in Bemidji. I could see that she was something special."

As a freshman, Tomcikova finished with 1,025 saves and became the second goalie in the 10-year history of the program to finish with more than 1,000 saves in a season. She tied the school record for three shutouts in a season and was named to the All-WCHA Second Team - a major accomplishment in the 10-team league where world-class goalies are the norm.

Her .917 save percentage and 3.09 goals-against average marks during her first season are more remarkable considering the Beavers finished the season with only five wins in 31 games.

Tomcikova has improved even more as a sophomore to help key a resurgent season for the Beavers. She had five shutouts along with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage before leaving for the Olympics two weeks ago.

She has averaged 32 saves per game in her first two seasons with the Beavers. Those saves have come against some of the world-class players in the WCHA she will go face-to-face again in Vancouver.

Tomcikova's technically sound fundamental game is accentuated by the wild spine-bending techniques and leg-flying style made famous by eastern European goalies, but she insists there is a method behind those wild highlight-reel saves.

"I usually do not pay attention to those things and I try to stay calm for my team," Tomcikova said. "I want them to know and feel confident when I am in net. It's hard to do that if I am flipping and throwing the stick around."

Her competitive drive translates into confidence for the rest of her teammates.

"She keeps us in every game with some huge saves," Bemidji State captain Erin Cody said. "Every player in Division I sports is competitive, but she just takes it to another level and takes it very personal if we lose. She will blame it on herself and of course that's not true because we win and lose as a team. If you don't have a good goalie in our league you struggle. And we definitely have a good goalie here."

Sertich could not put the number on how many games BSU has been competitive in based on Tomcikova's goaltending.

"I know she gives us a lot of chances to win games or get points," Sertich said. "It's really comforting when you know you have a good goalie standing back there. She's a great teammate, well respected and well liked because she plays hard."

Sertich and the Bemidji State women's hockey team will welcome Tomcikova back after the Olympics, possibly for a first-round WCHA home playoff series at the end of February at John Glas Fieldhouse.

"I think the most important thing is that she has such a good feel for the game and it's not something a lot of goalies have," Sertich said. "She has that intangible I see in her that some goalies don't have."

Tomcikova is studying mass communications at Bemidji State and aspires to find a broadcast journalism career in Slovakia with "a dream" of covering hockey someday.

Slovakia has a strong hockey tradition, and Tomcikova believes there will be support in Vancouver despite the lack of attention women's hockey receives in her home country.

"I think they are excited because they will have two teams to watch there," Tomcikova said. "We always have a lot of individuals at the Winter Olympics and this is exciting. But we also are in the shadow of men's hockey in Slovakia and most of the girls hockey just flies by most people."

Tomcikova grew up in a prosperous time for Slovakian men's hockey as players like Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa and Pavol Demitra brought notoriety to the country with success in the National Hockey League.

Tomcikova says she does not look up to or pattern her game after those players.

"I do not have an idol or anything like that," Tomcikova said. "I think that every player needs to be themself and grow in their own way or they will not reach their full potential."