International Ice Hockey Federation

Captain Cernak in 4th U20

Captain Cernak in 4th U20

Slovak defenceman NHL bound, World Juniors committed

Published 25.04.2017 09:17 GMT-4 | Author Andrew Podnieks
Captain Cernak in 4th U20
TORONTO, CANADA - DECEMBER 27: Slovakia's Erik Cernak #14 attempts a wrap around during the second period while Canada's Kale Clague #10 and Connor Ingram #1 defend their net in the preliminary round of the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Erik Cernak is only 19 years old, but he already has five years of IIHF experience under his belt.

He has played in two U18 tournaments and this year a record-tying fourth World Juniors.

Drafted 43rd overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2015, he is in his second year with the Erie Otters of the OHL, learning the North American game in preparation for what he hopes will be a lengthy NHL career.

“The Kings suggested I play in the OHL because I need to learn English,” Cernak began. “This year, I’m a better player, for sure. They told me that I need to be more aggressive in the defensive zone, but if I have a chance to rush the puck, I should take it.”

No doubt. Cernak has size and strength but needs to work on his agility and footwork, but he is ambitious, skilled, and patient. It will come. In the meantime, he is here trying to help an underdog Slovak team stay in the top group for 2018, a tough task, to be sure, given the competition among the five teams here in Toronto.

“This is my last tournament at the World Juniors, so I want to help my teammates and help the team win. We have a lot of big guys, so we have to play hard in the defensive zone. We have to be strong on the puck.”

The team got off to a poor start last night, losing to Canada, 5-0, and garnering only six shots all game. Cernak knows this won’t be good enough.

“You can’t win with six shots, and you can’t win giving up five goals,” he stated. “This was our first game, against the best team in the tournament. It was pretty hard. Canada plays offensive all the time which was too powerful for us.”

Cernak’s progression has been steady and impressive. He was young and nervous in his first U20 in 2014 as a 16-year-old, was a contributor to the team’s amazing bronze medal in Toronto two years ago, and from there has evolved as a leader and veteran.

“My first year was amazing because there were so many good players, but every year I feel a bit more comfortable," he said. "Last year I was assistant captain, and this year I’m the captain, so I have more responsibility and more confidence. We have a good team here now, I think.”

Cernak’s English is now conversational, and although he has a tough time conveying certain thoughts, he’s on the right track. Playing in Erie, one of the best teams in the CHL, is a bonus.

“Last year, everything was new for me,” he explained. “New language, new teammates, small rink. But every month I learned a bit more English, got to know my teammates better, the coaches. I feel more comfortable now. I think we have the best coach in the OHL [Kris Knoblauch], and that’s helped improve the team. Every game we play together.”

Last night’s game against Canada was special for Cernak because two of his Otters teammates were on the other side of the puck, Taylor Raddysh and Dylan Strome. 

“I’m happy to see two of my teammates playing for Canada,” he enthused. “They are great players, and it’s the best atmosphere when the tournament is in Canada. You play better, and it’s more fun.”

Slovakia’s hockey program has gone downhill slowly from the great team of 2002 that won World Championship gold. Although many Slovaks come to the CHL to “develop,” not many get drafted, and this exodus can’t help the hockey program. Cernak, though, isn’t so sure there’s a connection.

“A lot of Slovak players go to other countries, not just Canada,” he opined. “Finland, Sweden, CHL. I’m not sure which is better for everyone, but we definitely don’t get a lot of players drafted to the NHL from Slovakia.”

“I haven’t played in Slovakia for two years,” he continued, “so I’m not sure how the developing is going now. When I was in Kosice, I played in the senior league, which really helped me because some guys had played in the NHL.”

It’s early in his career and no one knows how Cernak will develop, but in the back of his mind there is one additional goal, one important reason to pursue his dreams. In 2019, the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship will return to his hometown of Kosice (along with Bratislava), and Cernak would love to be a part of that team.

“That would be nice,” he said with a smile. “It’s fantastic when you’re home country hosts. I want to play in 2019, for sure!”


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