The Canadiens selected Juraj Slafkowski with the first pick in the NHL draft

The Montreal Canadiens Winger Juraj Slafkowski was selected with the first pick in the NHL draft on Thursday night, becoming the first player from Slovakia to be taken No. 1 overall.

Slafkowski, who starred in the Beijing Olympics without NHL players and was the tournament MVP, was the choice of Canadian center Shane Wright, who had long been considered the frontrunner for the spot even before Montreal won the draft lottery.

Instead, the Canadiens took the 6-foot-4 Slafkowski, who surpassed Marian Gabric as the highest drafted player from Slovakia. Gaborik went third in 2000 in Ottawa.

Slafkowski, who has been compared to the late Hockey Hall of Famer Clark Gillies and played somewhat like a young Jaromir Jagr, said he told the Canadiens Thursday morning to take him.

The Canadiens are choosing between Slafkowski, Wright and American forward Logan Cooley at the top of the draft for the first time since 1980.

Slafkowski, who turned 18 in March, is among the most NHL-ready players in the draft after impressing at the Olympics this past season playing against adult men in Finland and scoring seven goals in seven games. One of the biggest reasons Slovakia won its first ever Olympic bronze medal was the fact that it was the youngest player in the tournament.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman opened the draft by saying “Bon Soir, Montreal” in French. When fans greeted him as tradition, he said: “Thank you for this welcome. It's back to normal.” This is the first private draft for the league since 2019 in Vancouver.

The home team made the first pick since the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1985 when they got Wendell Clark. The Leafs got the loudest boos during roll call, with some in the crowd chanting “'67!” Referring to Toronto winning the Stanley Cup last year.

Recent deaths in hockey were also recognized before the Canadians went on the clock. Bettman asked those on the draft floor and in the stands to observe a moment of silence for retired defenseman Brian Marchment, who died Wednesday at age 53 in Montreal where he was attending the draft as a scout for the San Jose Sharks.

The children of late Hall of Famers Guy LaFleur and Mike Bossy also addressed the crowd, along with Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis, who chanted “Ole! Ole! Ole!” He was impressed by the slogan. Famously undrafted before a Hall of Fame career, St. Louis joked: “It took me 45 years to finally be in my first draft. It was worth the wait.”

The reverse pressure now belongs to Slafkowski, who could soon be playing alongside top Canadian forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

Reporting by the Associated Press.

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