Slovakia arrives across the border
by Juraj Hudak|25 DEC 2019
Oliver Okuliar (left, against France’s Baptiste Bruche) was among Slovakia’s top 2000-born players at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
One year ago Oliver Okuliar missed his spot in the Slovak U20 national team in the final cut before the IIHF World Junior Championship. His performance has improved ever since and now the 19-year-old forward has all the chances to be on Slovakia’s opening-day roster.
Okuliar was the leading goal scorer in late November within the Western Hockey League and caught attention of new Slovak U20 national team coach Robert Petrovicky. He left the Lethbridge Hurricanes with 23 goals and 19 assists in 32 games before heading over for the pre-World Juniors camp. sat down with the player who grew up in Trencin, not far away across the border from Trinec in the Czech Republic where Slovakia will play the preliminary round of the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.

You didn’t make the final roster for the World Juniors last year. Do you feel that there is a bigger chance to play in this year’s tournament?
Yeah, there is a larger opportunity this year, but no one has a guaranteed place. I will try to fight for it the best I can hopefully it’ll go better than last year.

In late November you became the leading goal scorer of the WHL. What is behind of your sniper qualities?

I was able to play more. The coaches are giving me more ice time and to be honest I am playing with better players right now. No insult to anybody but you can’t compare my linemates from last year with a guy who was the 5th draft pick.

Were they open to let you to the pre-tournament camp?

They might miss me. But they lost a couple of more players for the last three games before the break. On the other hand, they are very happy that we are going to play for our country on this prestigious tournament.

Before the World Juniors you faced the Czech Republic in two exhibition games. Is it a special game for Slovakia even though it’s only a pre-tournament preparation?

It’s still an exhibition game before the World Junior Championship, but every game is important. Everyone had to fight for a roster spot.

The Czech Republic will host the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championship and the Slovak national team is going to play in Trinec, which is very close to Czech-Slovak border. How does it feel to be this close to your hometown of Trencin?

Great. It’s still an hour and half away from home so I am glad. Basically, it’s a World Championship like any other. We might have a larger fan support. We will try to play our best so people can see our ambitions and performance. We don’t have any influence on other factors. We’ll see how it all works.

Aren’t you afraid of that big focus on your team this year?

There is going to be a lot of attention since the tournament is so close to Slovakia. All games start at good times so everyone can watch it on TV. But I don’t think it should affect our performance in a bad way, rather it might motivate us for better results.

Robert Petrovicky took over the Slovak junior team this year after the departure of Ernest Bokros. Do you feel the difference between them?

There is a really big change in the system. The new coach wants us to attack more unlike Mr. Bokros, who was mainly focusing on the most important game to make us reach the quarter-finals. We had a couple of meeting during the summer with Robert Petrovicky, where he explained what he wants from us so I think he will push us to win every game.

Robert Petrovicky was known as a very high-class and explosive player during his active player career. Does he require this kind of game performance too?

Yeah. We know that we don’t have any big stars in our team and we can be successful only with this kind of play. We need to show die hard plays which could bring us good results.

What would be main goal for Slovakia?

We want to win every game. We will be really happy when we make the quarter-finals so we keep ourselves out of the relegation round.

Do you think about medals?

Everyone knows we don’t have that kind of players to achieve that. We have to be modest and careful compared to other teams. We can’t have high expectations, only go one step at a time and try to win every game. Everything depends on how the tournament will start for us. We’ll see how it goes and after that we can set our next goals.