Young Slovak dreams of medal
by Juraj Hudak|01 FEB 2022
Slovak forward Juraj Slafkovsky protects the puck from Sweden’s Isak Rosen during the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Juraj Slafkovsky is on his path to potentially becoming a pillar for the Slovak national team. The just 17-year-old Kosice native has earned a spot on the roster for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, which is the third consecutive senior national team nomination after the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and the Final Olympic Qualification last summer.

The young winger is working to boost his career in the Finnish Liiga where he made the step to the senior team of TPS Turku this season. The big and skilful player is predicted to become a top-10 NHL draft pick next summer.

But his thoughts are clearly with the Olympic Winter Games right now where he’s one of three up-and-rising teenage players on the roster of the Slovak men’s national team.

How does it feel, to be a part of the Slovak roster for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing as a 17-year-old?

It’s an amazing opportunity for me to represent my country in Beijing. It’s a great honour because there are not many players who have made it during their entire career. I’m happy that the coaches picked me again, even at this young age. I’m glad it works that way. I’m truly thankful and very excited.

Have you ever been in China?

Well, only with my finger on the map. And that’s it, I must admit.

It looks like you really like to have a fun. Yet, it is a different country on another continent. What do you expect in Beijing?

It’s hard to say. In my opinion everything will be very precise. I mean the Olympic Village and other things around the organization. As I saw it from past venues in videos, everything will be perfectly organized and I can’t wait to see how it will be in real.

Your nomination is the third consecutive one for the senior team. First you got the invitation before the last World Championship in Riga, then the coaches called you up for the Olympic Qualification. Would you say that you’ve been expecting this?

To be honest, I really wanted to go to Beijing and I have done everything for that during the season. I always believed I could get there. At the same time, I knew that many Slovak players have a good season in our Extraliga, in Europe, the KHL. What really helped me was the fact that the NHL didn’t allow their players to join the Olympics. But personally, I have always believed that there’s a chance even though I was not sure whether I would get the invitation. It’s rare that young players like me will get a chance to play this kind of event.

But you could have gone to the Beijing even if there were NHL players. Don’t you regret that the tournament will be without them?

Well, if I would have made the team even if NHL players were allowed to participate that would be an even bigger experience for me. But the reality is that the event is going to be without them. In my opinion the Olympics should always be with NHL players but I’m not the person who can change it. At the same time, there will be many elite guys playing.

Beside you there are other two other teenage players who made it into the Slovak Olympic roster – Samuel Knazko and Simon Nemec. Are you glad about that?

For sure. I think it’s better if there are more young players on the team. We can spend time together and we are close to each other because we have known each other from previous events. I’m very happy for all of us who are going to travel to Beijing.

You are one of the biggest prospects in Slovakia. You even didn’t play any senior competition before jumping straight to the senior national team before the World Championship. How was this step?

I had mixed feelings because I neither had any practice with the senior national team before nor did I play any game. So, it was special for me. I went there with a mindset that I had nothing to lose, and I could only show my best. I just enjoyed everything from the first day with the team.

After you earned the nomination to the World Championship, you showed up at the Olympic Qualification. But your last big tournament was the Word Junior Championship, which unfortunately had to be cancelled due to Covid-19.

I was a little frustrated. I worked towards that tournament but it ended sooner than we all expected. As much as this goal didn’t work out for me, I started to focus on the Olympic Games in Beijing. So, I did everything I could to get a chance to appear at the next international tournament.

Despite all circumstances you played two games. Unfortunately, you lost both of them, 3-2 to the U.S. and 3-2 to Sweden. Did these games show you where you have to develop the most?

For me, I felt very good on the ice. But what I was missing and the whole team was struggling with, was scoring goals and points. And that´s what I have to work on every day, whether it’s shooting or all other little things. I have to be more precise in finishing in front of the net during my shifts.

Now you have been developing your skills in the Finnish Liiga where you play for the TPS Turku senior team. When you first time left the Slovakia, you were just 15 years old. Was it hard for you to leave family at such a young age?

To be honest, it was. Especially when I was in Czechia and before that I had been playing in Salzburg. It wasn’t easy for me and my parents too. Now it’s natural when I’m most of the year without my family. If they want to see me, they come over by plane or I travel home during the international breaks.

What was the hardest thing in that period of your career?

My dream has always been to play hockey abroad. On one side, I wanted to play in other countries, but I knew that it can bring some negative aspects of life. I quickly realized I will be without my family and all my friends, who were still at home at that age. But I knew I have an ambition, which I want to achieve. I’d rather sacrifice something in the beginning and then I can enjoy later.

Who introduced ice hockey to you for the first time?

When I was 5 years old, I went ice skating with my parents. But my friend’s father, who is a coach in Kosice still until now, was the one who introduced me to hockey. One day I came to the rink in a ski helmet, which I have been using until today.

Many hockey scouts speak greatly about you. They keep giving you good predictions for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft with a potential top-10 pick. That must be nice to hear.

There are many pre-draft rankings at the moment. Media is talking about it a lot, but not only about me. There are two more guys from Slovakia who can make it in the first round. Many scouts have contacted us, so we can feel the draft is coming closer. For me, as soon as I come to the rink, I try not to think about that because the draft is just the beginning. It is not that important from which position the team will draft you. What is important is how much confidence they give you. That is why I rather focus on those little things and try to do always something additional in my performance and then we’ll see.

Could the medal from the Olympics bring your NHL dream a bit closer?

Of course. If we won an Olympic medal that would help me so much. I probably wouldn’t sleep the next two weeks after that.