Lots of CHL import players heading to WJC
Maxim Cajkovic didn’t know a thing about the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when he left Europe for the 2018-19 season, never mind how the world junior championship is embraced in Canada.
The annual tournament isn’t viewed quite the same back home in Slovakia.
“I hear people in Canada watch it more than the actual men’s championship,” said Cajkovic, a Saint John Sea Dogs forward from Bratislava.
“I talked to my billet family and they told me they watch it every year, every game. And I see all the commercials here so I guess it’s really, really big.”
Canada has invited 29 Canadian Hockey League skaters to selection camp next week, but it isn’t the only country with CHL players at the event.
The 17-year-old Cajkovic is one of many CHL import players that will be leaving his team and heading to camp in an effort to crack his national team’s roster for the tournament that begins Boxing Day in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.
Kazakhstan is the only country among the 10 participating teams that won’t have a CHL player.
“It would mean almost everything to me,” said Cajkovic, who went No. 1 to Saint John in the 2018 CHL Import Draft. “I watched world juniors last five years and it’s pretty much my dream to go there.”
The Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves will be losing a big part of their early-season success with Finnish goaltender UkkoPekka Luukkonen heading to the tournament for the second year in a row.
He was Finland’s starter in the 2018 edition in Buffalo and is looking for some redemption after his country was bounced in the quarterfinals by the Czech Republic and placed sixth.
“Last year was a hard year for us but there’s a lot of things to learn from,” said the 19-year-old, who was taken No. 3 in the CHL import draft. “There’s no easy team in the tournament. You have to be ready for everyone.”
Luukkonen plans to have his parents and girlfriend make the flight over from Finland for the tournament, which is a big deal back home.
Cajkovic has never played for Slovakia’s under-20 squad but was dominant at the past U18s, where he finished second in tournament scoring behind American and top NHL prospect Jack Hughes, who’s expected to be one of the stars at the world juniors.
He moved away from home with his mom when he was 12 to the Czech Republic to pursue hockey at a higher level, and went on to play two years in Sweden prior to joining the Sea Dogs. He has spent the majority of his young career playing with players much older than him.
Slovakia opens its tournament Dec. 26 against the U.S. in Victoria.