Cehlarik sparks the Slovak engine
by Derek O'Brien|30 MAY 2021
Peter Cehlarik (right) congratulates linemate Robert Lantosi after a Slovak victory.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images

Nine days into the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the top scorer is Slovakia’s Peter Cehlarik, with three goals and five assists for eight points in five games. The eighth point – which broke a tie with Denmark’s Nicklas Jensen and Kazakhstan’s Roman Starchenko – broke a scoreless tie in the third period of a key game with Denmark, and held up as the game-winning goal.

“I’m really enjoying the time here,” said Cehlarik. “We’ve done well so far and I think we’re getting better as a team. We need to win the games – that’s the main part of it. The vibe around the team has been good and I think we can be successful, so it’s fun to see the team grow as time goes on.”

This is Cehlarik’s second World Championship. The first was in 2016 in Russia, but things have changed since then.

“Back then I was 20 and I was more of an extra player and jumped into games when I could, so it’s just different,” said Cehlarik. “Obviously, I believe I’m a better player than I was five years ago and I can lead the team to the win. I’m proud to be here and play for my country, but this time I think I’m enjoying myself a little more.”

At that time five years ago, Cehlarik was about to make the jump overseas after playing five seasons in Sweden, where he’d progressed from the U18 level to eventually playing in the SHL with Lulea Hockey.

“I was turning 16 and I had two options: go overseas or to Sweden and I chose Sweden as a good place to grow, not just as a player but as a person as well,” said Cehlarik. “All the players and coaches I’ve worked with have made me the player and person I am now. Those years – 16, 17, 18 – they really count for your development and it’s the best decision I could have made back then.”

And now I’m back in Sweden the year after playing in America. Again, I’m really enjoying myself, I had a good year with Leksand.”

A third-round draft pick by the Boston Bruins in 2013, Cehlarik played in the Bruins organization for four seasons. While he registered 11 points in 40 NHL games over that time, he spent most of that period with the AHL’s Providence Bruins. He reached a crossroads in the summer of 2020, with so much uncertainty in the world.

“We were looking for what my best options were in Europe,” he said. “It was kind of a crazy free-agent market last summer. A lot of teams and leagues obviously struggled with the COVID stuff, so it took a while to figure out where I was gonna play but, I ended up in Leksand and I think it was the right decision for me. I got lots of ice time and I’ve been able to develop into a leader on the team.”

This past season, Cehlarik recorded 40 points (20+20) in 46 regular-season SHL games. That points total ranked him 11th in the league and third on the team. First in both categories was linemate and countryman Marek Hrivik with 51 points. The two are now linemates in the World Championship.

“He’s pretty easy to play with,” centreman Hrivik said of his winger. “He knows how I play so we’ve had chemistry all year long. He’s a shooter so I’m just trying to find some passes for him so he can score. That’s my job. It’s been going pretty well this season in Sweden and obviously we try to bring that over here to the World Championship.”

Four years older than Cehlarik, Hrivik’s career mirrors his somewhat in that he also went overseas chasing the NHL dream and played 24 games with the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames but spent most of his North American tenure in the AHL. He’s now spent three seasons back in Europe – first with Vityaz Podolsk in Russia, then with Leksand in Sweden.

“I wouldn’t say I’m trying to teach him anything,” said Hrivik. “He’s trying to pick up things off me and of course I’m trying to pick up things off him, so I guess we just learn from each other.”

The right winger on the line is also someone Cehlarik is familiar with – Robert Lantosi, his teammate in Providence in 2019/20 – so having linemates he’s familiar with has definitely helped.

“I’ve been playing together the whole season with Marek and Robert as well two years ago,” said Cehlarik. “Marek is such a great player and Robert coming in and playing well with us. This is about the team coming together as a unit and all lines doing their job and I think we did ours and the others did theirs as well.”

The winning goal against Denmark with 12:47 remaining in regulation time, it was the three of them working well together.

“Good transition, I had some speed wide, I tried to shoot and it didn’t turn out being a very good one. Then we tried to spread the zone and threw it around to Robert, and then we went to the net, me and Marek, and good things happen when you go to the net,” Cehlarik described.

Craig Ramsay, head coach of the Slovak national team, is pleased with what he’s seen from Cehlarik this season, and not just because of his offensive abilities.

“He’s really been a leader on our team,” the veteran coach said. “He’s great at trying to play the way we want our whole team to play, and I think it’s wonderful the way the other players have looked to him for leadership.

“He’s blocked shots, he’s battled, he’s scored, he’s done everything that we’ve asked.”

The win over Denmark pulls Slovakia into a tie for first place with Team ROC – a team the Slovaks beat 3-1 thanks to two points each from Cehlarik and Hrivik – with two games remaining in the group stage. Those games are against Sweden, a team with a high number of SHL players that Cehlarik is familiar with, and an always emotional battle with the Czech Republic.

As the Slovak team left the ice after the victory over Denmark on Saturday night, the next game against a dangerous but desperate Swedish squad was set to start in less than 18 hours.

“We’ve gotta get prepared,” said Cehlarik, still on the Olympic Sports Centre ice. “It’s a quick back-to-back tomorrow. Obviously they’ll come out hard, they need points, but we’ll try to play tight as a unit and I believe we can win.”