CHLers not just suit­ing up for Canada

IM­PORT PLAY­ERS GET SENSE OF CANA­DIAN OB­SES­SION WITH WORLD JU­NIORS

National Post (National Edition) - - POST SPORTS - kyle cicerella

Maxim Ca­jkovic didn’t know a thing about the Que­bec Ma­jor Junior Hockey League when he left Europe for the 201819 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 who 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.

Kaza­khstan is the only coun­try among the 10 par­tic­i­pat­ing teams that will not have a CHL player.

“It would mean al­most ev­ery­thing to me,” said Ca­jkovic. “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 Ukko-Pekka 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. “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.

“A cou­ple real good years and host­ing in Fin­land, it’s a big thing,” said Luukko­nen. “Of course, it’s hard for a lot to watch the games when we are in Van­cou­ver but as hockey it’s a big thing.”

Ca­jkovic has never played for Slo­vakia’s un­der-20 squad but was dom­i­nant at the un­der-18 show­down, where he fin­ished sec­ond in tour­na­ment scor­ing be­hind Amer­i­can Jack Hughes, who is ex­pected to be one of the stars at the world ju­niors.

Ca­jkovic, a five-foot-11, 179-pound right-handed winger, has had a long road to the CHL, and is closing in on ful­fill­ing his dream of play­ing in the world ju­niors af­ter years of trav­el­ling around the world look­ing for the best com­pe­ti­tion.

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 be­fore join­ing the Sea Dogs. He has spent most of his young ca­reer play­ing with play­ers much older than him.

“Hockey (is) pretty much ev­ery­thing for me,” Ca­jkovic said. “It was the only thing I ever played com­pet­i­tively. Started at five, play­ing with the un­der-11 guys when I was five. I al­ways played with older kids, only sea­son with my age group was the first year in Swe­den.”

Play­ers like Luukko­nen have used the in­ter­na­tional spot­light in the past to gain the at­ten­tion of NHL teams, lead­ing to the Fin­nish net­min­der be­ing taken 54th over­all by the Buf­falo Sabres in 2017.

Ca­jkovic is hop­ing to do some­thing sim­i­lar in 2019.

“You see the rank­ings and peo­ple talk­ing about it ... it’s pretty tough for my head to think about all that stuff. I try to stop and just fo­cus on what I do with Saint John,” Ca­jkovic said. “A lot of pres­sure, most pres­sure I’ve ever had on me. It’s un­be­liev­able how much pres­sure there is.”

The main rea­son he came to the CHL was be­cause he was told it would help his chances of mak­ing it to the NHL.

“I didn’t know much, just that it was the junior NHL, best junior league in the world and I would com­pete with the best play­ers for this age. That was pretty much it. I didn’t know any teams,” Ca­jkovic said.

Just like Canada, which finds an ex­tra gear when it plays the ri­val Amer­i­cans, Ca­jkovic says rep­re­sent­ing Slo­vakia is al­ways ex­tra spe­cial when he lines up across from the Czech Repub­lic.

“Czechs are re­ally good and they think they are bet­ter than us and not nice to us, so we just want to beat them,” Ca­jkovic said. “Ba­si­cally a ri­valry. I don’t think we have any­one else like that.”

Slo­vakia opens its tour­na­ment Dec. 26 against the U.S. in Vic­to­ria, where all Group B games are be­ing held. Canada starts against Den­mark in Van­cou­ver, the site of all Group A games.

BRIAN KELLY / POST­MEDIA NEWS FILES

Sud­bury Wolves goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukko­nen will suit up for Team Fin­land at this year’s world ju­niors.

DAVID BLOOM / POST­MEDIA NEWS

Saint John Sea Dogs’ Maxim Ca­jkovic, right, suited up for Slo­vakia at the 2018 Hlinka Gret­zky Cup in Ed­mon­ton.

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