International Ice Hockey Federation

Hajek making big strides

Hajek making big strides

Top D-man talks Tampa, heroes, farming

Published 31.12.2017 09:12 GMT-5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Hajek making big strides
BUFFALO, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 30: Czech Republic vs Belarus preliminary round 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Libor Hajek lived through the golden era of Czech hockey. Unfortunately, like the rest of his 2018 World Junior teammates, he’s too young to remember it.

The strapping 19-year-old defenceman was just 18 days old when Dominik Hasek backstopped his nation to the historic 1998 gold medal at the first “NHL Olympics” in Nagano. And he was two years old when the Czech Republic won its last World Juniors in 2001 in Moscow with Pavel Brendl leading the way with 10 points.

So it would be huge if Hajek could help the Czechs return to the World Junior podium for gold, silver or bronze this year. It’s a long shot for a country that’s finished fifth or sixth at the last six tournaments. But this 186-cm, 84-kg prospect doesn’t shy away from challenges at home or abroad.

Coming out of HC Kometa Brno’s system, he’s spent the last three seasons with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades. With 24 points in 32 games this season, he’s targeting new career highs. Back in March, his agent Patrik Stefan – the former number one overall pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999 – secured him a three-year entry-level deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who drafted him in the second round (37th overall in 2016). He’s already had a taste of North America pro with eight games for the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch under coach Benoit Groulx, who led Canada to World Junior gold in 2015.

It looks like Hajek’s development is right on track. Averaging a team-high 21:03 in ice time through three games here in Buffalo, he’s also tied for the Czech scoring lead with forwards Martin Necas, Filip Chytil and Martin Kaut (four points apiece). We caught up with the Smrcek native after the Czech Republic’s loosey-goosey 6-5 victory over Belarus on Saturday.

With your team taking 41 minutes in penalties today, are you concerned about your discipline?

The referees are sometimes like really mean on the ice. They call everything. A little slash is a penalty. So we have to look out for that and be careful. We have to stop doing that.

How happy are you personally to be part of this team after coming to the World Junior camp last year and not making it?

I’m really, really happy. I was excited to make the World Juniors finally. Last year I was mad, but now it’s different. It’s better, I think – a better group, way better coaches. I’m happy to be here, but this game was kind of [bad], so we have to start playing well. We did it against Sweden, we did it against Russia, but I don’t know why we didn’t do it against Belarus.

Vojtech Budik is your Saskatchewan rival when he plays for the WHL's Prince Albert Raiders. Do you enjoy being his defence partner instead of playing against him?

Yeah, it’s pretty funny. We are also roommates. We talk about the game on the bench and in our room sometimes. It’s really good. I am really good buddies with him, and he’s a really good player. He’s at “home” here [as a 2016 fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres], so hopefully he will do well.

How would you describe yourself as a player?

I’m a two-way defenceman. I play simple and make good passes. Lots of good skating, sometimes shoot and score. But I’m more of a passer. I try to be good defensively.

What’s it like to be drafted by an organization like Tampa Bay, which has so many great defencemen like Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev?

It will be really hard to make the team over there, but I love the idea of fighting for a spot. It’s the best organization and they took me, so I’m really happy.

Have you gotten advice from the Czech Lightning players?

I played with Andrej Sustr in my first exhibition game this year. It was a really good, nice experience. He helped me a lot. So I just want to say thank you now. Same with Ondrej Palat. He talked to me after the game over there. So, also, thank you, Ondrej! That was great.

Who were your favourite players growing up?

Probably Jaromir Jagr. He’s a hero from the Czech Republic. But now after seeing Hedman in camp, I’d say it’s him for sure. He’s amazing.

You were 12 years old the last time the Czechs won a top-level IIHF championship: the 2010 Worlds in Germany. Where were you and what were you doing?

Probably I was working on our family farm. I don’t remember that win, really. I just heard about it. We have horses and 200 sheep. So I worked around them and fed them. It’s also possible I was in Brno playing hockey there. It’s a very good organization.

Switzerland is your last group opponent on New Year’s Eve. What kind of a game do you expect?

Hopefully we’ll play better. It will probably be a better team. We must play better. It’s that simple.

 

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