MONTREAL — It was around 1:30 a.m. in Slovakia when general manager Kent Hughes stepped up to the microphone to announce the first overall selection in the 2022 NHL Draft.
SHOP: Canadiens Nostalgia Hoodie
Knowing full well that Juraj Slafkovsky was in the running to be the top pick, people in the Central European country were obviously glued to their TVs, laptops and cell phones to see where he was headed.
Among them was former NHLer Marian Gaborik, the highest-drafted player from Slovakia until Slafkovsky earned that title on July 7 at the Bell Centre.
The Trencin native was previously selected third overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2000.
“I had just gotten back from a festival and I was watching on my phone because I didn’t want to wake my family up. I had goosebumps when I saw the pick,” recalled Gaborik, who played 1,035 regular-season games with five teams and won a Stanley Cup before officially retiring last November. “And then when Simon Nemec went second to New Jersey, having two Slovakian guys up there at the top was amazing. It was great for Slovakian hockey and great for the country.”
Video: Juraj Slafkovsky’s first day as a Hab
Gaborik reached out to Slafkovsky via text shortly after the event, which meant the world to the 18-year-old.
He congratulated him on the historic achievement and delivered a special invitation.
“Marian told me that if I’m ever going through Trencin or I need some help, I can text him and we can go for a coffee and we can talk. I can also ask him questions about how things work,” explained Slafkovsky, who has been training in his hometown of Kosice ahead of his return to Canada. “He was really the guy who texted me a lot after the Draft, and he texts me every once in a while to ask how I’m doing.”
Gaborik’s celebratory text message also included a motivational component, too.
That was to be expected from the fourth-leading Slovakian-born scorer in NHL history behind only Peter Stastny, Marian Hossa and Peter Bondra.
“I pretty much told him that it all starts now,” revealed Gaborik, a three-time 40-goal scorer with 407 goals and 815 regular-season points on his resume.
Video: Juraj Slafkovsky answers fan questions
The pair has apparently been exchanging messages and talking for quite a while, though.
To the best of his recollection, Gaborik believes he first contacted Slafkovsky during one of the major IIHF tournaments in 2021.
The high-flying winger has appeared on his Boris a Brambor podcast on a couple of occasions as well.
“I haven’t really called up a whole lot of young players, but I noticed him and just tried to keep up with him and follow him,” said Gaborik. “We exchanged texts throughout last season, especially during the Olympics and the World Championship. I was just trying to encourage him, stay in touch, and maybe give him some pointers. I would just kind of tell him to keep going with what he’s doing.”
Gaborik is convinced that his countryman will thrive in Montreal.
The two-time Olympian speaks glowingly about Slafkovsky’s attributes and desire to succeed.
“Juraj is ready to go. He can be the difference. He can play on any line. He’ll be able to make players around him better wherever he plays, and he’s an all-situation guy,” praised Gaborik. “He’s going to be an all-around player and he’s going to score a lot of goals. He’ll be a powerful force.”
Video: Slafkovsky and Mesar get an Old Montreal caricature
The Finnish Elite League product checked into Development Camp with an imposing 6-foot-3 and 227-pound frame, and he immediately put his athleticism, raw strength, and elite conditioning on display.
Case in point was Slafkovsky’s memorable performance on the Wingate Test that ultimately went viral on the Canadiens’ social media platforms.
It definitely caught Gaborik’s attention.
“I saw there was a little Instagram video where he almost crushed that bike and he stepped off laughing,” mentioned Gaborik. “When I remember my Combine, I wasn’t like that.”
A post shared by Canadiens de Montréal (@canadiensmtl)
Slafkovsky isn’t just strong physically, of course, he’s strong mentally.
Along with his admirable skill set, that’s another reason why Gaborik foresees resounding success in his future.
He’s adamant that the sky really is the limit for the newly-minted No. 20.
“He has a healthy confidence. He believes in what he can do. It’s good confidence. He believes that he’s always the strongest player on the ice,” noted Gaborik. “The way that he protects the puck and skates, he’s got some moves. His two-way play has also developed over the last few years. Between the skating and the shot, he’s got it all. There’s a transition from European hockey to the NHL with the smaller rink and less time to make plays, but he’s ready for that. I think he’s going to make a big impact.”
canadiens.com is the official Web site of the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal Canadiens and canadiens.com are trademarks of the Montreal Canadiens. NHL, the NHL Shield, the word mark and image of the Stanley Cup and NHL Conference logos are registered trademarks of the National Hockey League. All NHL logos and marks and NHL team logos and marks as well as all other proprietary materials depicted herein are the property of the NHL and the respective NHL teams and may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of NHL Enterprises, L.P. Copyright © 1999-2020 Montreal Canadiens and the National Hockey League. All Rights Reserved.