When Ottawa Senators defenceman Christian Jaros made his NHL debut, it was a bigger moment for Slovak hockey than it would have been 15 years ago.
The robust 21-year-old from Kosice became the first Slovak NHL rookie of 2017/18 on 10 October versus the Vancouver Canucks. It hardly mattered that he played just 6:22 as coach Guy Boucher’s seventh defenceman – or that he would be returned to the AHL's Belleville Senators after making one more appearance against the Calgary Flames. Lately, newcomers from Slovakia, which sits 11th in the IIHF World Ranking, have been few and far between.
Last season, the only brand-new NHL Slovak was left wing Peter Cehlarik of the Boston Bruins, who chipped in two assists in 11 games at age 22. Centre Marek Hrivik of the New York Rangers also had two assists, in 16 games, but while the 25-year-old still qualified as a rookie, he had already played four games with the Rangers in 2015-16. Only two Slovaks were drafted in 2017 (Adam Ruzicka and Marian Studenic) and none at all in 2016.
So even if Jaros was only recalled from Belleville along with Thomas Chabot, Canada’s 2017 World Junior MVP, due to injuries to captain Erik Karlsson, Johnny Oduya, and Ben Harpur, this was an event worth celebrating.
“I feel great,” Jaros said after the 3-2 shootout win over Vancouver. “It was a really good feeling to be out there with those guys. They told me to just play simple and play my way. I would say all of the guys helped on and off the ice. It’s hard to pick one, but Boro [Mark Borowiecki] helped me a lot.”
To put things in perspective, the only other Slovak NHL defencemen currently are the legendary Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who turned 40 in March; the all-around Edmonton Oilers veteran Andrej Sekera, who is recovering from a torn ACL; and the gifted but inconsistent Toronto Maple Leafs project Martin Marincin, who was demoted to the AHL on 6 October.
“I will say that back home in Slovakia, people are happy to see new faces and new guys in the NHL,” said Jaros, a fifth-round pick of the Senators (139th overall) in 2015. “I hope there will be more this season. We have some good guys in the American Hockey League who are trying to get up.”
One of Jaros’s specialties is knocking opponents down. In his debut, he laid out Vancouver’s Markus Granlund with a big first-period hit. Last season, in his third year with the SHL’s Lulea HF, the 192-cm, 97-kg blueliner gained YouTube fame for crushing Skelleftea’s Sebastian Ohlsson with a Rob Blake-style hip check.
“He’s a rock,” said Boucher. “He’s one of those torpedoes. If he’s seeking you, he’s going to find you. He’s got speed and he’s got some skill. He’s going to be an NHLer. Love him, love his game.”
Jaros said he will always be grateful for his time in Lulea, with whom he won a Champions Hockey League title in 2015: “I started playing against men there, and it was a chance to match up against bigger bodies and faster hockey. There are a lot of good players there and you can compare yourself against them. Lulea helped me a lot in my development. I’m happy that I spent those years there.”
In 2016, Jaros was named the captain of the Slovak World Junior team that came seventh in Helsinki. But his favourite World Junior moment came in 2015, when he claimed bronze in Toronto on a Cinderella team led by the MVP goaltending of Denis Godla and captain Martin Reway’s nine points.
“That was special for Slovakia,” Jaros said. “It was the first time we had won a medal since the bronze in 1999. It felt really good and I have great memories from that tournament. It was a great group of guys. I talk with almost everyone, try to stay in contact. We always meet each other in the summer, the whole team.”
Sometimes, life takes a funny turn. Just ask Jaros about what he remembers from the 2011 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship co-hosted by Bratislava and his hometown of Kosice. He was 15 years old, and because he played for HC Kosice’s junior squad, he got some special privileges – including meeting the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who would become an Ottawa teammate.
“We got free entrance to the games and we could go between the locker rooms. A lot of famous guys were there, including Dion Phaneuf. I remember I took a picture with him. And now we’ve been playing together! I didn’t tell him about it yet, but I will.”
Both the Senators and the Slovak national team will watch this young man’s development with keen interest. Jaros made his World Championship debut in 2016, scoring two goals in five games as Slovakia finished ninth. In 2017, the Slovaks sunk to 14th place and allowed 28 goals in seven games, with only Italy (32) and Slovenia (36) surrendering more. So Slovak fans will be pleased to hear how maturely Jaros is approaching his opportunity with the Senators organization.
“My goal for this season is to get ready to the best of my ability and always try to push myself forward. Hopefully one day I’ll be here in a stable position. I want to improve my game and play in the hard situations.”