PIESTANY, Slovakia – The rise of Sweden as a strong hockey nation not only has Tre Kronor as a beneficiary. The country is also becoming a strong magnet for talented junior players across Scandinavia and more and more Europeans are looking to develop their skill set in Sweden as well. One of them, 16-year-old Slovak forward Filip Lestan, decided to leave home to set sail for an adventure with Sweden’s most northern-based team, Lulea.
Although a complete distant world compared to his home town of Zilina, Lestan did not feel completely alienated. Lulea has built up a good track record of bringing in young talented Slovak players since 2011. One of the players that came in the first wave was Peter Cehlarik, who also hails from Zilina.
Within three years Cehlarik claimed a starting spot in the Swedish Hockey League was drafted by the Boston Bruins last year. It was the same player who played a vital role in convincing one of Slovakia’s most talented U16 players at the time to leave home and join Lulea.
Faced with the prospect of joining a quality junior program, Lestan did not hesitate and despite being just 15 years old he left for an adventure in a different country.
“Peter (Cehlarik) advised me to come and join him in Sweden,” Lestan recalls. “The conditions in Lulea would be far better than in Zilina. Better schools, better training methodologies, more ice time etc.”
Naturally it took a few months to adapt to a new life abroad away from parents and friends but sharing an apartment with fellow countrymen Peter Cehlarik and Christian Jaros certainly made life easier.
“In the beginning it was really hard. This was my first experience of living abroad and I had to learn how to cook and clean and all that. After a year of adjusting I’m ready to do better this upcoming season,” Lestan said in near fluent English during the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup with the Slovak U18 national team.
The region of Lulea is one of the coolest in all of Sweden and due to its geographic location, Lestan had no choice to blend in with the locals. “When I first arrived here everything was completely different than back home, especially the weather. Winters here are extremely cold with temperatures going down to minus 30°C,” he said.
“Back home in Zilina the worst you’d possibly get is -10°C, so this really felt extreme. Also in winter time it’s pretty much dark outside all day which makes a strange atmosphere as well. But luckily I’m able to understand Swedish almost fluently now and that really has helped my adjustment.”
Despite his age, Lestan does not get overlooked easily. Yet to turn 17, opposing players will have to look up to see the towering 193 cm tall forward in the eyes. It’s a characteristic NHL scouts look at.
This week many of those scouts are present at the prestigious Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup held in Breclav, Czech Republic, and Piestany, Slovakia. The U18 tournament is the first opportunity this season to see the best junior players of the top-eight nations in action.
One of the players that will surely be getting a good look at is Filip Lestan. Having already made his debut in the Slovak U18 league at the age of 14, he can look back at a good first season in Sweden. Three goals and 14 points in 15 games in the Swedish U18 league have certainly not harmed his chances of getting selected in the 2016 NHL draft.
“For me, moving to Sweden means one step closer to realizing my dream of getting drafted,” Lestan admitted. “Everything is much more intense and faster here. On the ice there’s a lot more competition and you are really pushed to the maximum every day. This is totally different than in Slovakia where there’s only a few players who really want to come to play whereas some others are just happy to be on the team.”
While playing with his childhood hero Marian Hossa in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey remains the ultimate dream, Lestan has got no plans yet to move overseas to play junior hockey in North America like fellow countrymen used to do with mixed success.
“I haven’t really thought about that, but for now I’d prefer to stay in Sweden as I really like it here and still can improve and work on my skills here,” he said.
For the upcoming season the young Slovak will aim for becoming a force at the U18 level while also getting some games at the U20 level under his belt. Furthermore he looks a lock to make his debut on the international level for the Slovak U18 team at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Zug and Lucerne, Switzerland. For that the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup is a good place to start.
Slovakia has traditionally been struggling to perform well at the tournament in which they haven’t won a game since 2009.
Lestan and his teammates are destined to bring change to the Slovak misfortune. “Everyone on the team is very much aware of the historic statistics but we are destined to break the streak and aim for a semi-final spot this tournament.”
However, drawn into a group with Canada, Sweden and Switzerland means opposition is strong. “This is a really good tournament, a sort of small World Cup in which all the players want to shine and play their best game,” Lestan said. “It’s difficult to prepare after the summer break and the players’ skill set is not yet at its best but we know that if we keep the game easy and stick to the game plan we should be able to surprise in front of our home crowd.”
Slovakia’s tournament opening game was a repeat match up of their final game last year. Back then Sweden completely overpowered a lacklustre home side that didn’t come to play for a consolation seventh place and lost 11-0.
This time the game was not as lopsided but nevertheless Sweden proved much too strong for Slovakia. The blue-and-yellow team took the lead midway through the first period but Slovakia rebounded admirably late on to tie the score via a Marek Hecl goal.
Although goaltender Vladimir Cibulka kept Sweden at bay for much of the first 30 minutes, he couldn’t prevent Sweden from making the dominance count as they ran up the score to a 6-1 victory.
It was not the start Slovakia and Lestan were hoping for but with Switzerland coming up as the next opponent, focus has to be shifted quickly to make sure a semi-final spot is still within reach.
Lestan: “The fact that there’s a lot of attention from coaches and scouts here in Piestany really brings out extra motivation in me. I know I need to do well in every game in order to get drafted. Not just this tournament but all season long.”
Having travelled the distance to go on an Arctic adventure at the age of 15 shows Lestan is serious about his cause.
“All aspects of my game can improve and I need to work hard for that. To realize my dream I will make sure to do that.”
Group A in Breclav (CZE): Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, USA
Group B in Piestany (SVK): Slovakia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland
Schedule & Scores:
Monday, 11 August 2014
In Piestany (14:00): Switzerland vs. Canada 1-5
In Breclav (15:30): Finland vs. Russia 5-2
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Sweden 1-6
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. USA 4-2
Tuesday, 12 August 2014
In Piestany (14:00): Canada vs. Sweden
In Breclav (15:30): Russia vs. USA
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Switzerland
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Finland
Wednesday, 13 August 2014
In Piestany (14:00): Sweden vs. Switzerland
In Breclav (15:30): USA vs. Finland
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Canada
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Russia
Friday, 15 August 2014
7th-place game in Piestany (14:00): TBD
5th-place game in Breclav (15:30): TBD
Semi-final in Piestany (17:30): TBD
Semi-final in Breclav (19:00): TBD
Saturday, 16 August 2014
Bronze medal game
Gold medal game