COLOGNE – The youngest player on Team Slovakia has been tapped on the shoulder a lot at the IIHF World Championship.
Richard Panik plays a regular shift. He is on the power play and kills penalties. And when Slovakia either needs a goal or wants to protect a lead late in the game, guess who is on the ice nine times out of 10.
That’s a lot to ask of a 19-year-old who is making his World Championship debut, and Panik appreciates the confidence coach Glen Hanlon has shown in him.
“I feel great because the coach gives me so many chances to play,’’ says Panik. “I am a young guy and I am playing a big part of the game. The coach is giving me a chance.”
As reluctant as he is to admit it, general manager Petr Bondra concedes there is a good reason why Panik is playing as much as he is.
The Slovakia National team, says Bondra, is in transition.
The country’s golden generation of hockey stars – Zigmund Palffy, Pavol Demitra, Miroslav Satan and Richard Zhednik to mention a few – are in the autumns of their careers, while stars like Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Jaroslav Halak need support if Slovakia wants to remain competitive for years to come.
Panik is one of 10 Slovaks playing in their first World Championship as Bondra begins the renewal process.
“If this was a club (team), I could say yes we are bringing in new faces. But as GM of the national team you do not want to say that. It is the national team and you always want to have your best players,” said Bondra. “But I have to admit we are going through tough times.”
“We want to build a new relationship for new players and the coach (Glen Hanlon), looking to the 2014 Olympics. It was not our goal here just to play the old players. We also want to build relationships with the coach and new players.”
Bondra has liked the way Panik has responded to how Hanlon has used him.
“He is like a kid but at the same time he plays against men. He is not a Pavel Bure, zoom and there he goes, but this guy is fast. He is fast, trust me, but he is smooth fast. He can protect the puck and he sees the ice well and he can make the right play.”
The World Championship tournament is the final event on a whirlwind tour of the hockey map by Panik.
It has been two years since Panik went to Canada to play major junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League and improve his chances of getting picked in the NHL Draft.
The Tampa Bay Lightning liked what they say and made Panik their second round pick, 52nd, overall in the 2009 draft. Coincidentally Tomas Tatar, the second-youngest player on Slovakia, was taken 60th overall in the same draft by the Detroit Red Wings.
Panik finished the 2009-10 major junior seasons with the Belleville Bulls and the Lightning then assigned him to their minor league team, the Norfolk Admirals, when their season ended. And when Norfolk’s season was over, Panik went back in Slovakia and won a roster spot for the 2010 Worlds.
“It is amazing. When I played against Russia, I was amazed by everything, There was 18,000 people, a great atmosphere,” said Panik.
There is absolutely no doubt that Panik and Tatar represent the future for Slovakia’s National team.
Tatar showed he could handle the spotlight when he scored a goal on a penalty shot against Kazakhstan on Thursday night.
And like Panik, Tatar appreciates the chance to test his wares at the World Championship.
“We (he and Panik) are young guys and we are getting lots of chance to show we can play,’’ he said.
Hanlon has no problem going with his young guns.
“They are my best players,” said Hanlon. “I have not given or promised these players anything. We had an evaluation camp and these two players beat everybody out. If these players keep their heads about them, they are our future.”
“There are many other players we have but they looks like they are in the right place for us,’’ he said.
That’s music to Panik’s ears. He has no problem representing the future of Slovak hockey.
“I want to be a player like that but I have to learn as much as I can and play hard.”
Somehow you get the feeling that won’t be difficult.