Stu Cowan: Surprise from Juraj Slafkovsky as Canadiens make him No. 1 pick

“I was shaking and I had goosebumps,” 6-foot-4, 229-pound left-winger says. “Unbelievable moment for me.”

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GM Kent Hughes kept Canadiens fans in suspense for four days about who he would take with the No. 1 overall pick during Thursday night’s NHL Draft at a packed Bell Centre.

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On Monday, Hughes said he hadn’t decided if he would pick Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky or Logan Cooley. He also didn’t rule out the possibility of trading the No. 1 pick.

It set the stage for some great drama once the draft got started.

Wright certainly seemed like the most popular player with Canadiens fans. When Wright made his entrance to the Bell Centre on the red carpet Thursday night he was greeted with loud cheers. When Slafkovsky arrived there was a smattering of boos.

The suspense ended when Hughes took to the stage and announced Slafkovsky was his choice.

The 18-year-old is 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds and looks like he could play boxer Ivan Drago if there is ever a remake of the Rocky movie series. Or maybe even Superman beside Lois Lane.

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The Canadiens are hoping he can turn into something like Superman on Skates.

If some Canadiens fans were surprised by the pick, so was the left-winger from Slovakia.

“I think I didn’t even hear my name called,” Slafkovsky said shortly after being drafted. “I just heard Slovakian and I was like shocked and I didn’t even listen anymore. I was shaking and I had goosebumps. Unbelievable moment for me.

“It’s a great feeling and it’s really important to me,” he added. “But, as well, I know that it’s just first step and it’s just beginning of my career. I hope it will go good and I just can’t wait to go back to work and just play for Montreal.”

Cooley ended up being picked third overall by the Arizona Coyotes, while Wright went fourth to the Seattle Kraken. Cooley and Wright are both centres.

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Wright seemed like the safe pick for Hughes since he had been considered the top prospect for this year’s NHL Draft since joining the Kingston Frontenacs three years ago as a 15-year-old, entering the OHL a year early with exceptional-player status. The 6-foot, 199-pounder was ranked No. 1 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, while Slafkovsky was ranked No. 1 among international players.

While Wright could have provided depth down the middle with the Canadiens for years to come, along with centre Nick Suzuki, Slafkovsky could now become a perfect fit on the No. 1 line with Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

As with all draft picks — even the first overall — time will tell. But this was a gutsy pick by Hughes.

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Canadiens management met with Slafkovsky Thursday morning and team owner/president Geoff Molson sat in on the meeting.

“I was shocked,” Slafkovsky said about seeing Molson. “They said that he wants to be a part of the meeting, so I was also happy for it that he was there. We didn’t talk, but I think it was good that he was part of it.”

Slafkovsky said he was “pretty surprised” how much Hughes and his management team knew about him.

“They knew me very well,” he said. “They knew almost everything. How I play, what I do where on the ice. I think it’s a really good organization and the important thing is that they know what they want and I know what I want. So it’s just good for me that they picked me.”

Slafkovsky said the meeting lasted 20-30 minutes, but he left not knowing if the Canadiens would pick him.

“They said: ‘Good luck, we like you,’” he said.

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Another Slovakian, defenceman Simon Nemec, was selected second overall by the New Jersey Devils.

“I think out of 5 million people (in Slovakia) at least 4 (million) are up and they are cheering for us,” Slafkovsky said. “At the end of the day, that’s important. We’re from Slovakia and we represent the country. I’m just happy that this happened to us.

“It’s just an unbelievable moment for me, for my family, for everyone who supports me and for the whole Slovak country,” he added. “We needed something like this. It’s also a special night for me because Simon Nemec was second. Well, I didn’t expect it.”

Neither did Wright, who was vocal about how much he wanted to be picked No. 1 by the Canadiens.

“I just focused on myself more,” Slafkovsky said when asked about being drafted ahead of Wright. “Of course, I’ve seen all the rankings and he was No. 1. I just tried to do my job as best as I can and I’m happy that I got this for it.”

As for the boos he heard from fans on the red carpet while entering the Bell Centre Thursday night, Slafkovsky said: “Hockey’s their passion as well as mine. Maybe some of them didn’t like me, but I will do everything that I will play good for this team and that they will actually maybe like me one day.”

That’s what Hughes is banking on.

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