A month before joined his Prince George Cougar teammates at training camp at CN Centre last week, defenceman Józef Vilem (Vilo) Kmek had some unfinished business to attend to in his home country of Slovakia.
On Aug. 7, for the first time in the 31-year history of Hlinka Gretzky Cup international under-18 tournament’s, Team Slovakia played in the final, facing the Russians for all the glory in front of a home crowd in Piestany, Slovakia.
The day before, just before Slovakia faced Finland in the semifinal, former Cougar and current Washington Capitals defenceman Zdena Chara dropped by to offer Kmec’s team his encouragement.
“I know Zdeno Chara played in Prince George and he came to the dressing room and he said some words before the game,” said Kmek. “It was a big experience for me to play in that tournament.”
Whatever the Slovakian giant said, it worked. Slovakia won 6-2 and moved on to the final against Russia. Unfortunately for Kmec and the Slovaks, the Russians took a 3-0 lead in the first period and held on to a 7-2 victory.
But those five games of high-intensity hockey and the weeks of preparation that went into the tournament left the 17-year-old Cougar import in primetime condition. Chosen by the Cougars in the second round (104th overall) of the Canadian Hockey League import draft in June, Kmec was a standout among his blueline peers playing for Team Hirsche in the weekend training camp games at CN Centre.
“Villi might be the best defenceman we’ve had in this little camp that we’ve had, he’s really impressed,” said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb.
Kmec is from Kosice, a city of 240,000 in eastern Slovakia. Although the junior league there was shut down due to the pandemic, which limited him to just one game with the Kosice under-20 team, he spent much of the season practicing with his older teammates and he also played 27 games for the national under-18 team, collecting four assists.
“It was a good season, I think, it helped me a lot to play with the bigger guys,” said Kmec.
He showed in the weekend Cougar scrimmages how much he likes to get involved in offensive rushes and scored two goals in four games.
“It’s really fast, the transitions,” he said. “I Iike the small rinks, when I was younger I was playing in small rinks in Kosice until I was 14 or 15. The games with the men were pretty physical too, so I’m used to it.
“I like to move the puck and play an offensive style and go in the second wave of the rush. We have a young squad but I think we’ll have a good team this season. I think we can do some pretty good things. I can learn from the more experienced guys.
Kmec is among several Slovakians the Cougars have acquired through the import draft or trades from other WHL teams. That list includes Chara, who played in Prince George for just the 1996-97 season, as well as forwards Ronald Petrovicky, Vladimir Mihalik, Marek Viedensky, David Soltes, Radovan Bondra, Józef Mrena and defencemen Martin Maricin and Martin Bobos. Soltis, Marincin and Bobos are from Kosice.
“I didn’t think I had a big chance to get drafted by some team,” said the six-foot-three, 198-pound Kmec. “I was really happy (when he was picked by the Cougars) so I can experience some of Canada’s hockey. I think it’s another step in my career going forward. It’s a really good league to play in for my age.
“It’s a different culture but I like the city. I need to learn better English and it will help when I speak it every day. I watch Netflix with Slovak subtitles and it helps me a lot.”
The Cougars’ other new import this season is 18-year-old Swiss winger Lieket Reichle. Drafted in the first round, 23rd overall, Reichle has the tools as a goalscorer, an element that’s been in short supply for the Cougars in recent years. He had five goals in the first three training camp games.
“Reichle is a real smart player, has a real good shot and when he gets a chance he puts it in,” said Lamb. “That’s something we need. This team has never scored easy in the past and he’s one of those opportunistic guys, if he gets a chance it’s going in.
“(Reichle and Kmec) came over here and had no sleep before the first practice and they didn’t miss a beat, it’s been impressive what they’ve done so far.”
The Cougars play their intrasquad game tonight at 7 at CN Centre. All fans aged 12 and older must bring proof they’ve had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine to gain admission as this is the first day the province’s vaccine passport will be enforced.
The preseason starts Friday in Kamloops (rescheduled from Wednesday), where they’ll meet the Kamloops Blazers. The same teams meet again in Prince George on Saturday.
Reichle, a six-foot-one, 183-pound native of Zurich, led the GCK Lions of the Swiss under-20 league in scoring with 20 goals and 75 points in 43 games. He was the third in scoring in the Swiss junior league and played for Switzerland at the World Under-18 Hockey Championship in Texas. He also played five games with the GC Kusnacht Lions in the second-tier Swiss pro league.
“I’m very excited, I’m happy to be here and get things started,” said Reichle, a fluent English-speaker. “The boys are nice, they are welcoming me and it’s fun to be with them.
“I love to play with the puck and put my teammates in position to score. I’m a playmaker and I can also score. The level is pretty high. I think it’s similar to the pro league in Switzerland, maybe a bit more physical with hits and the small ice, it’s a bit quicker.”
The Swiss lost to Finland in the U-18 world quarterfinals in May. Reichle also played in the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup. He started playing hockey when he was three and his first Canadian hockey experience happened several years ago when he played in the Quebec International Peewee Tournament in Quebec City.
The Cougars start the season Oct. 2 and he said his family in Zurich will be tuned into the webcast.
“There’s nine hours difference, so it will be two or three in the morning, but my dad will be watching,” he said. “I hope I will show the fans what I can do.”