They came, they practised, they played and then they headed to the big tournament.
The Czech Republic and Slovakian World Junior hockey teams have left Nanaimo after spending more than a week preparing for the IIHF World Junior Championships, which are being held in Vancouver and Victoria.
In addition to holding daily practices in the city, the two countries played a pre-tournament game at a sold-out Frank Crane Arena on Dec. 19, with the Czechs defeating Slovakia 2-1 in a shootout that went seven rounds.
Czech goaltender Lukas Dostal, who was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks this year and got the win Dec. 19, said it was an important game for the team.
“It was a great game and I am so happy. It was an important game for us and the guys played really well and I am so happy we won,” he said.
The Czech Republic held its first practice in Nanaimo on Dec. 13 and left on Dec. 21. Dostal, who plays for SK Horacka Slavia Trebic in the Czech Republic, felt the practices and exhibition game went very well. He also said the biggest adjustment for him has been the smaller ice surface.
“The corners and the angles are a little bit different, but that is why we are here 14 days before the World Juniors,” he said. “I feel really good right now and I hope I can do my best.”
Patrik Elias, assistant coach for the Czech Republic and former New Jersey Devils forward, said the team focused on being mentally and physically prepared for the tournament while they were in Nanaimo.
“We’re here two weeks before the tournament to get ourselves ready, adjust to time zones, adjust to the ice surface, to the different style that is going to be played and we’re doing a good job with that,” Elias said on Dec. 20.
The Czech Republic didn’t have a lot of free time to explore Nanaimo, according to Dostal, who said he and a few of his teammates did manage to go to a sushi bar downtown one day. He also said the team really enjoyed their time in the Harbour City.
“It’s been a great time here because the people involved here have been really great. We have everything that we want and I am happy,” Dostal said. “This camp has been good preparation before the World Juniors.”
Slovakia held its final practice in Nanaimo on Dec. 20. Before leaving Nanaimo, 17-year-old Slovakian forward Maxim Cajkovic told the News Bulletin he felt his team played well against the Czech Republic, despite the loss.
“I think we played pretty good,” he said. “We did some good things. I thought the game was going to be a little faster. The shootout is just a lottery and they were better.”
Cajkovic currently plays for the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and is participating in the World Juniors tournament for the first time. He said the biggest takeaway has been the size and speed of the other players.
“They’re older, bigger, faster,” he said. “So I need to do everything much faster and quicker. My release, everything, has to be faster. That’s the biggest thing I take away from here.”
Slovakia arrived in Nanaimo later than the Czech Republic, holding its first practice on Dec. 16.
“I’ve felt really good here,” Cajkovic said. “We have a really good group of guys here.”
Cajkovic was drafted by the Sea Dogs as the first overall draft pick in the Canadian Hockey League’s import draft this year and is eligible for the NHL entry draft next year. He said before the start of season, there was a lot of media attention around him and that it weighed on him a bit at first, but doesn’t anymore.
“A little bit before the season, everyone was interviewing me and saying how big a prospect I am, so I was a little bit high about that,” he said. “Then the season came and I fell down, if I can say this, and I realized … I have to work hard every day.”
In the five days Slovakia were in the city, Cajkovic said they didn’t really get a chance to explore because they were focused on getting ready for the tournament, adding that he’s just glad to be part of the World Juniors.
“I really appreciate that I can be here,” he said. “It’s a big experience for me.”
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