Gajan’s great adventure
by Lucas Aykroyd|02 JAN 2023
Slovak goalie Adam Gajan (#30) dazzled with 33 saves in a 6-3 shocker versus the U.S. in the group stage. Can this previously unheralded hero foil Canada in the quarter-finals?
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF
Adam Gajan has come a long way. At age 10, he watched on TV as Slovak goalie Denis Godla backstopped his nation to the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship bronze medal in Toronto. This year, the 18-year-old is Slovakia's starter at the World Juniors. And it wasn’t expected.

“Even a year ago, I always set my alarm in the night to watch the games,” confessed Gajan. “So for me to be here, it's crazy!”

He’s expected to make his fourth tournament start against defending champion Canada in Monday’s last World Junior quarter-final in Halifax.

Gajan entered this tournament as the third-stringer behind Patrik Andrisik and Matej Marinov. The 190-cm, 80-kg goalie started the season with the NAHL’s Chippewa Steel, playing 16 games, and then was loaned to the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, where he played an additional two games. 

“[Slovakia] called me later, so I didn't expect that I will be playing,” Gajan said. “I'm happy that they gave me the chance. I played, like, two games in the USHL. And my second game I had a shutout. Then the goalie coach just texted me and then I flew out the next morning. It all happened in like 24 hours.”

He got his first shot in Group B after Slovakia’s tough 5-2 opening loss to Finland, for which he did not dress. Gajan stood tall with 33 saves in a 6-3 upset over the United States, which has won three of the last 10 World Junior gold medals. It was the first time he had ever represented Slovakia in IIHF competition.

Asked if that was the biggest win of his career, he responded: “I think of course! We played against big favourites, and we won, so it was my biggest win.”

“I knew that he's a really good goaltender, but he didn't make the team when he was like 17, 18,” said Slovak assistant captain Filip Mesar after Gajan added a 3-0 shutout with 28 saves against Latvia. “But right now, everything is very good from him. That's how his career can start now.”

Even in the 4-3 shootout loss to Switzerland, Gajan impressed with 33 saves and battled throughout the 10-round shootout. 

Gajan, who owns a sparkling 1.95 GAA and 93.9 save percentage at this tournament, appreciates Mesar’s support. It’s fun to succeed alongside your friends, and the young goalie is tight with the nifty forward who was drafted 26th overall in 2022 by the Montreal Canadiens.

“We are from Poprad,” Gajan explained. “It's a small town in Slovakia. We've known each other since we were five years old. So we are great friends.”

2022 was a banner year for Slovak hockey. From the Olympic bronze medal in Beijing to Montreal’s selection of Juraj Slafkovsky as the number one overall pick, highlights abounded. But Gajan was well off the radar for a long time.

“A year ago, nobody believed in me that I can play, even in the NAHL, to be the first goalie there,” he admitted. “And then after a few games, I think about six USHL teams talked to my coach. So yeah, it was pretty crazy. Everything happened so fast.”

The 2023-24 University of Minnesota-Duluth commit is continuing to refine his game. He has a lot of work to do to emulate his idol Andrei Vasilevski, who led the Tampa Bay Lightning to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021. Facing Canada’s World Junior team will be a huge chance for him to test his physical and mental skills.

Gajan described his style: “I think I'm an athletic and fast goalie. So sometimes I just have to be calmer in the net. And I like to handle the puck.”

What inspired him to go the college route rather than, say, playing Canadian major junior hockey or trying his luck in Sweden?

“Oh, it was maybe two years ago. The United States won the World Juniors and I saw that every player is playing college hockey. So I was thinking about it and I decided that I want to go play college hockey!”

According to Gajan, several NHL teams have already been in touch. Only two Slovak goalies have forged multi-season NHL careers: Jaroslav Halak of the New York Rangers (566 NHL games) and the now-retired Peter Budaj (367 NHL games). And only time will tell if Gajan can follow in their footsteps.

For now, making a name for himself at the World Juniors has sent Adam Gajan into the New Year on a high note. Every day is a new adventure.