“From the Slovakia national team…” Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said as he announced the pick of the 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft at the Bell Center Thursday.
Immediately there was a loud mixture of gasps and cheers. Home fans knew the Canadiens chose forward Juraj Slafkovsky, not center Shane Wright, as the most-anticipated player.
Slafkovsky knew it too.
“I didn’t even hear my name,” he said. “I heard ‘Slovak’.”
He saw his face on the big screen and got goosebumps. Shortly after, he emerged from beneath the Canadians’ Stanley Cup banners and eliminated numbers to don the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge – to take the torch from failing hands that was suddenly to hold it high.
When asked if he was surprised, he said: “Shane was projected as No.1 [for years], so yes, of course. I am very happy about it.”
[RELATED: Complete coverage of 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft]
That moment alone would have made this design a memorable event for Montreal. However, less than seven months after being hired on Jan. 19, Hughes had another surprise in store.
The Canadians traded defenders Alexander Romanov and the #98 pick to the New York Islanders for the #13 pick, then turned over the #13 pick and the #66 pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for the center Kirby roofwho was the No. 3 draft in the 2019 NHL draft.
Montreal also picked striker Filip Mesar, another Slovakian and friend of Slafkovsky, at number 26.
Wright, ranked the No. 1 North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, appeared to be the most popular pick for the draft. Some booed Slafkovsky as he walked the red carpet on Thursday. At least one wore a “Wright No. 51” Canadiens jersey in the arena. At least three wore t-shirts that said “WRIGHT CHOICE” and the “C” from the Canadiens logo.
The Canadians didn’t make the Wright choice, but they might have made the right one.
“I just hope so [the fans] will like me too one day and i will do anything [to show] that I’m a good player and I’ll make history with Montreal,” said Slafkovsky.
Slafkovsky, ranked the No. 1 European skater by NHL Central Scouting, is a 6-foot-4, 229-pound power forward. He was the Beijing 2022 Olympics Most Valuable Player despite being the youngest in the tournament at the time at 17, scoring seven goals in seven games to help Slovakia win bronze.
Video: Montreal Canadiens pick LW Juraj Slafkovsky No. 1
The 18-year-old impressed Hughes at the 2022 NHL Scouting Combine when Hughes asked him to leave home at 15 to play in Finland.
“I asked him if he lived in a dorm,” Hughes said. ‘He said no.’ And I said, ‘So one of your parents moved with you?’ He said no.’ Then I said: ‘How did you cook?’ And he said, ‘With an oven.’
“He’s very independent. He is confident without being arrogant and we think this is a kid who not only has the mindset we are looking for but we also evaluate where he is in his game and what he is in terms of natural ability has and where he might be if we help him with that.”
Hughes said the Canadians wanted to take Slafkovsky on Wednesday morning but wanted to meet him again. When they met with him Thursday morning, Hughes was joined by owner Geoff Molson, executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and others. Slafkovsky didn’t read too much into it.
“I didn’t know if Shane also met with the owner, so I thought, ‘Maybe he did [a meeting with Molson] too, and it doesn’t mean anything,'” Slafkovsky said, laughing. “Yes, but actually it meant something.”
Video: Slafkovsky on his pick for the 2022 NHL Draft No. 1
Hughes said the Canadians didn’t want to give up Romanov, a 22-year-old who averaged 20-24 for them in 79 games last season. But they wanted to go bigger and faster in the middle of the ice and added another 6ft 4 player with potential.
Dach has 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 152 games for the Blackhawks over three seasons, but he’s still 21. He can grow with the core of the Canadiens.
“We’re going to invest money in developing hockey players and trying to get the most of their potential, and we believe Kirby has significant potential,” Hughes said. “And we’re hoping that with the Montreal Canadiens we can take him in that environment and get to a point where he’s a very special centerman.”
The expectations will be high, the pressure will be great. But if they reach their potential, they will be loved in Montreal.
Fans began to embrace Slafkovsky about 90 minutes after his selection, as he walked through the stands from the draft area and then sat down in front of the crowd for a television interview. People stood up and gave him a standing ovation, patted him on the back and took pictures. Finally they serenaded him.
“Ole! Ole-ole-ole! Ole! Ole!”
Slafkovsky seemed determined to live up to it.
“First of all, overall is something and you have to prove it,” he said. “So, yeah, I’m just going to remember that I’m getting better every second that I live on this earth.”