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The Sports Page

Balej - Dancing on ice
By John Vessoyan

When Jozef Balej was sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs back in September, the coaching staff in Montreal told him to become one of the leaders on the Bulldogs for the new season.

Balej hasn't disappointed his bosses. The young Slovakian has emerged as one of the most feared finishers in the American Hockey League. He posted 23 goals in 44 games into his second season as a professional. In 56 games last season, Balej only tallied five goals. So what's the reason for his scoring outburst?

"Last year was difficult because I didn't play much, I was sitting on the bench and watching," he said.

"This year the coach (Doug Jarvis) is giving me opportunities on the power play and the penalty kill. So when I get the ice time I get the tempo and I know I can score."

The right-winger has played with a few different centres such as Chris Higgins and Jimmie Olvestad this season. But the chemistry he's had with one teammate in particular has been second to none.

"I like to play with Tomas (Plekanec)," says Balej.

"We always play together, including last season. I'm used to him and I know where he is on the ice. But when he got called up to Montreal I was playing with Higgins and Olvestad and that was working too."

Balej, who wears jersey number 57 is full of talent and blazing speed from the right wing. He isn't afraid to shoot the puck; forwarding 135 shots on goals this season, which is tops on the Bulldogs and one of the reasons he was recently called up by the Canadiens.

The 21-year-old forward had scored 23 goals and added 23 assists for 46 points in 44 games this season and was leading the team in scoring. He was also third overall in AHL scoring and had been voted to the PlanetUSA Allstar Team starting lineup for the 2004 Pepsi AHL Allstar Classic.

Plekanec and Ron Hainsey are two of Balej's teammates who were recalled by the Habs earlier in the season.

"I'm trying not to think about it (getting called up to Montreal)," Jozef had admitted earlier.

"I'm here right now and I'm playing for this team. I obviously want to get up there, but I'm scoring here in Hamilton and when my chance comes I'm going to be ready."

Would Balej rather stay in Hamilton where he's receiving tons of playing time and leadingthe team in scoring, or would he like to get a crack at the big show in Montreal, and play from time to time?

"I'm happy down here; I'm playing a lot. But it would be nice to go to Montreal to see the difference between the AHL and the NHL," he said.

"Tomas (Plekanec) told me even if you don't play you learn a lot from the guys who are there."

The Canadiens drafted Balej in the third round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (78th overall). It was a day full of surprises for the future pro hockey player. He didn't expect to be taken so late in the draft and he didn't envision he would be selected by the Habs.

"I was really happy that Montreal chose me, but I was disappointed in myself for not doing as well as I would have liked in the Draft. I expected to go higher."

"But it doesn't matter. What counts is what you show on the ice." Balej mentioned that the Phoenix Coyotes and the Florida Panthers showed interest in him during the pre-draft meetings.

Portland, Oregon was Balej's home for three years, from 1999 to 2002. He played his Major Junior hockey for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winter Hawks. His final season was his best, scoring 51 goals in 65 games, on his way to being selected as a Canadian Hockey League Second Team Allstar.

Balej was three years old when he skated for the first time. His dad, Jozef Sr. coached him from the age of three to age nine. Like many other European children, Balej was an avid soccer player.

At the tender age of nine, young Balej had to choose which sport he would pursue. He decided hockey was his best sport. Balej was born in Myjava, a population of 20,000 in Slovakia, but relocated to Senica to play hockey.

His father is a truck driver in their homeland, while his mother Zita, who is now unable to work, was once a nurse. He has one sister who is a professional musician and music teacher.