BEIJING (Reuters) – Every Olympics produces a handful breakout stars and at the Beijing Winter Games those have been Big Air gold medallist Eileen Gu and doping scandal-hit figure skating teen Kamila Valieva.
You can now add 17-year-old Slovakian ice hockey player Juraj Slafkovsky to that short list. The baby-faced teenager built like a tank is the leading goalscorer in the Olympic tournament after Slovakia’s 5-2 win over Latvia on Sunday.
Slovakia have scored eight goals through three preliminary round games and Slafkovsky, the youngest ice hockey player in the Games, has accounted for half of them.
“Before the tournament if someone would tell (me) I would score even one or two goals I would laugh but it is actually happening,” said Slafkovsky. “I am pretty surprised. I was coming here for some other role.”
Even before the Olympics Slafkovsky was already playing against grown men in Finland’s elite league and on the scouting radar of every National Hockey League team.
Talk around the rink in Beijing is that he is almost certain to be a top five selection in this year’s NHL draft.
At 6-foot-4 (1.95m) and 225 pounds (102 kg) the teen is already an imposing presence who relishes the rough going.
“I can play physical and win some battles along the boards,” said Slafkovsky, with a hint of menace. “That’s how I present myself.”
With the NHL opting out of its Beijing commitment after a COVID-19 surge forced the postponement of more than 100 games, it is the next generation of potential all-stars grabbing the Olympic spotlight.
The top three picks in last year’s NHL draft are all here; Owen Power, the number one overall selection taken by the Buffalo Sabres and number three pick Mason McTavish are on Team Canada while number two Matty Beniers is skating for the United States.
But it has been Slafkovsky, described as the best hockey talent to come out of Slovakia since Marian Gaborik, who has stolen the show.
Gaborik, the highest drafted Slovakian in NHL history when he was taken third overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2000, was a dynamic playmaker who played 1,035-games over 17 season scoring 407 goals and 815 points.
But Slovakia’s Canadian-born head coach Craig Ramsay says that Slafkovsky reminds him of a far different style of player — New York Islanders Hall of Famer Clark Gilles, a hard-as-nails goal-coring power forward who died last month at the age of 67.
“I watched him play a junior game and I was inordinately impressed with what he brought to the table,” gushed Ramsay. “Not only is he big, but he has good feet and he has good pretty good hands as well.
“I like his style of playing. He is not just a slug that is big.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Beijing. Editing by Christian Radnedge)