Continuing the family business
by Andy Potts|29 APR 2023
Slovakia's Maxim Strbak takes the puck away from Sweden's David Edstrom during the teams' 2023 U18 World Championship meeting in Ajoie, Switzerland.
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF
Not many kids can rock up at their first ever hockey practice, secure in the knowledge that their dad is a world champion. Fewer still can make that claim, knowing that dad was part of his country’s first ever golden team. Slovakia’s Maxim Strbak, son of title-winning defender Martin, is part of that rare group.

“It’s nice to have something like that in your family, although I don’t remember so much from back when I was a kid,” Maxim said. “But it can come with a little bit of pressure as well.”
That pressure is a reflection of the legendary status Slovakia’s class of 2002 still holds back home. Sharing a famous surname and playing a similar defensive role means that Maxim will inevitably face comparisons with his father, who collected a full complement of gold, silver and bronze medals at the World Championships, as well as playing on the fourth-placed team at the Vancouver Olympics and winning titles in Slovakia, Czechia and Russia.

However, high expectations are a small price to pay for having such a reservoir of hockey know-how available 24/7.

“He’s been one of the biggest influences on my career,” Maxim added. “He’s been around in hockey for so long, he knows all the situations, good and bad. 

“There’s always something that he picks up in my game and I’m really trying to take that to heart.”

Strbak Sr played one season in the NHL, making 49 appearances with Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. It’s something Maxim would love to overtake. That persuaded him to swap Finland, where he played three seasons in Jokerit’s system, for Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. After a solid first season across the Atlantic, Strbak is now looking forward to suiting up for Michigan State in next year’s NCAA.

“It’s all good experience,” he said. “It’s different, both from a hockey point of view and also lifestyle wise. There’s some things I have to get used to, but overall it’s been great. I can only talk positively.

“I got to meet some great people this season, and I got used to North American hockey because I want to be there in the future.”

Slovak hockey is on an upswing at the moment. Last season saw the country win its first Olympic medal in Beijing. That was Slovakia’s first hardware at a senior level since World Championship silver in 2012. Moreover, the country is producing top prospects once again – Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec need no introduction, while at U18 level Strbak captains a team making a splash on its return to the elite division.

The newly-promoted team looks entirely at home at a higher level. The opening game brought a shoot-out win over Czechia, then Slovakia pushed defending champion Sweden all the way before falling 3-5 to a couple of late goals. 

Strbak spoke before the tournament of the need to show that Slovakia deserved its place. And there’s real pride in stepping into the spotlight and representing his country on the big stage.

“This tournament is the biggest one in this category, it’s a good chance to show what we can do,” he said. “Plus it’s always great to wear this jersey. I think it’s the best jersey that I can wear.”