The Mariusz Czerkawski media circus grows by the day. Polish
television crews, magazine writers and newspaper reporters, all
of whom have traveled more than 4,200 miles from Czerkawski's
homeland to cover the country's first NHL star, crowd his
dressing-room stall. Among other things, they want to know what
he eats, what he does in practice and what he and his supermodel
girlfriend do away from the rink.
With movie-star looks, a Bond girl for a former wife (GoldenEye
actress Izabella Scorupco) and the distinction of being the first
Polish player to be named an NHL All-Star (in 1999-2000), the
31-year-old New York Islanders right wing has been a popular
figure back home for several years. But now that he is off to the
best start of his 10-year NHL career, Czerkawski, who at week's
end was second in the league with 10 goals, has stirred national
pride and become a media darling in Poland. (The only other
Polish player in the NHL is Calgary Flames enforcer Krzysztof
Oliwa.) "Every day he's on TV," says Albert Klosiewicz,
Czerkawski's friend who serves as an unofficial translator and
guide for the six to eight members of the Polish press. "I don't
want to say he's like Michael Jordan, but he's on that track."
The adoration is a far cry from Czerkawski's situation a few
months ago. After being traded from the Islanders to Montreal in
June 2002, he played only 43 disappointing games for the
Canadiens, getting five goals and nine assists. A 35-goal scorer
with New York three years earlier, he spent much of last season
with Montreal's minor league affiliate in Hamilton, Ont.
Czerkawski's bumpy year didn't end with the Canadiens' regular
season. He had planned to play for Poland in the world
championships last April, but Montreal told him hours before he
was to leave that he needed to report to Hamilton for the minor
league playoffs. "I thought, 'This is not fair,' but I didn't
want to give up," says Czerkawski, who ended up skipping the
worlds. "It would've proved they were right and given them the
Czerkawski has emerged as the winner. After the Canadiens bought
out his contract (they paid him $1.8 million for this season),
the Islanders signed him for $900,000 last July. Impressed by
Czerkawski's conditioning and enthusiasm, new coach Steve
Stirling put him on the top line with center Alexei Yashin and
left wing Oleg Kvasha. The trio clicked and has become one of the
hottest units in the league--it has combined for 39 points in 13
games this season. Czerkawski calls the line the Eastern European
Bloc Connection, and Stirling thinks their success is largely
based on Czerkawski's work. During the summer Stirling had asked
Czerkawski, who has a reputation for being a one-dimensional
offensive player, to improve his play away from the puck and in
all three zones. "I'm going to give him every chance," Stirling
says, "but he has to meet me halfway."
Czerkawski's success on the ice has caused him to have to work
overtime off it, serving as his own p.r. man to the Polish press.
While celebrities usually dodge the media, he actively helps
Polish reporters, many of whom don't speak English. Czerkawski
not only gives them his time, but he also gives them his phone
number so he can arrange for media credentials with the
Islanders. It's become a second job for Czerkawski, but if it
comes with the territory of being one of the top goal scorers in
the league, he'll take it over playing in the minors. "The
reporters are very friendly, and it's not so overwhelming that I
have to run away," Czerkawski says. "I've been on the other side,
so I appreciate all that I have now."
COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT/BBS/WIREIMAGE.COM (CZERKAWSKI) REASON TO CELEBRATE After a difficult season in Montreal, Czerkawski returned to New York and found his scoring touch.
COLOR PHOTO: SHELLY CASTELLANO/THN/ICON SMI Robitaille
On Top of Their Games
Like Mariusz Czerkawski, here are three other NHL players who are
enjoying bounce-back seasons (stats through last Saturday).
POS. PLAYER, TEAM
D Chris Pronger, Blues
After playing in only five games because of various injuries in
'02-03, he's been his dominant, hard-edged self.
LW Luc Robitaille, Kings
The 37-year-old had 13 points in 13 games this season after a
career-low 31 points in 81 matches with the Red Wings in '02-03.
C Steve Yzerman, Red Wings
Knee surgery limited him to 16 games and two goals last season,
but at 38, Detroit's captain is leading the team with six goals
and 11 points.