The Kootenay Ice could be a little shorthanded this holiday season, but it will only be due to a pair of players chasing their dreams.
Although none of the team’s Canadian or American players will have a chance to represent their country internationally this winter, both European imports have been invited to 2018 selection camps for the U-20 World Junior.
On Tuesday afternoon, 17-year-old forward Gilian Kohler left for Buffalo, New York to join Switzerland at their training camp for the tournament.
— Kootenay ICE (@WHLKootenayICE) December 13, 2017
Kohler is one of seven Swiss World Junior hopefuls currently playing in North America and has put up a respectable 8 points in 29 games for the Ice in his rookie WHL season.
Although a pre-tournament injury prevented him from participating in the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament over the summer, Kohler has represented Switzerland many times in the past. He has played in U-18 and U-17 international competitions and in 2015-16 was the captain of the country’s U-16 team.
According to an article in his hometown newspaper ‘Le Journal du Jura’, playing at the U-20 tournament is one of his “biggest goals of the season” and he is also excited to reunite with former EHC Biel teammate Valentin Nussbaumer.
A duo the paper compares to “Starsky and Hutch”, the two were separated when Kohler joined the WHL this fall. Nussbaumer has played the majority of the year in the National League, the top Swiss professional league, and has put up five goals in 19 games.
— Swiss Ice Hockey (@SwissIceHockey) December 13, 2017
Ideally for the Swiss team they would also be joined by Nico Hischier, the top pick in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, but he is playing with the New Jersey Devils.
The training camp will have a total of 31 players in attendance and be cut down to 23 after exhibition games against Denmark, Finland and Canada, taking place from Sunday to Friday, December 22.
Kootenay Ice defenceman Martin Bodak, meanwhile, will soon be at camp with team Slovakia. A veteran of last year’s World Juniors, in which he played five games and had a goal, it will be the 19-year-old’s final shot at the tournament.
“I’m so excited, I can’t wait to see my friends and coaches again,” Bodak said on Wednesday. “I think [Slovakia] is a better team [this year].”
With 12 points in 30 games as a rookie with Kootenay, Bodak is one of 10 Slovak players going to the camp who are currently playing in the CHL. He will have a chance to prove his worth in two pre-tournament games against Belarus and Russia.
Bodak played at the tournament last year and had a goal in five appearances, while playing a key role on the blueline.
According to Ice head coach James Patrick, who played at the tournament himself back in 1982 and 1983, the event is a huge opportunity for their development.
“In the hockey world, it is a huge deal… you’ve got the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Olympics and the World Juniors, those are the three biggest events,” Patrick said. “You’re playing against your peers, the best players in the world [and] it’s incredible hockey.
“I think for a guy like Martin Bodak, he’s going to go and play a big role on the Slovakian team against world class talent [and for] Gilian, he’s going to go to the camp with the Swiss team [and] we’ll see how he fares with that. It’d be incredible if he sticks with it and gets to play. It would be the same thing, you’ll just see so much improvement from him.”
Patrick said that there is no chance that the players don’t improve from the experience.
“As a coach, you’re [just] super excited for them to have the opportunity, but you also know they’re just going to get better,” he said. “[With] the different coaching that they’re going to get for that three week period [and from] playing with some of the best players from their country and then the guys they’re playing against… you can’t help but get better from that.”
Bodak agreed, also saying that his time with Patrick and the Ice will help him heading in as well.
“It will be so fast there [and] a pretty good level there [so] I think it’s going to help me for the rest of the season after,” he said. “I think I’ve started playing more simply here [with the Ice though]. I don’t like doing a lot of complicated stuff on the ice because the ice is so small.”
At last year’s World Junior Championships in Montreal and Toronto, both Slovakia and Switzerland avoided relegation, but were eliminated in the tournament quarterfinals.
This year’s tournament kicks off on December 26 with a game between the Czech Republic and Russia at KeyBank Center, the home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Slovakia open their tournament the next day against Canada and Switzerland also play their first game on the 27th against Belarus.