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Grizzlies look to Slovak connection in 2023-24 BCHL season

Defenceman Richard Baran and forward Tobias Pitka, both 17, were with South Kent School in Connecticut last season

Junior hockey recruiting relies on connections. Those have led to the Victoria Grizzlies landing two Slovakian players – both who have represented their nation in the prestigious Under-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup — for the 2023-24 B.C. Hockey League season.

Defenceman Richard Baran and forward Tobias Pitka, both 17, were with South Kent School in Connecticut last season, which has produced the likes of veteran NHL defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere, Ottawa Senators forward Shane Pinto, New York Rangers defenceman Zachary Jones and Philadelphia Flyers forward Joel Farabee.

Grizzlies head coach and GM Rylan Ferster is friends with the South Kent coach and one thing led to another.

“These are very good players with international experience,” said Ferster.

That includes also playing for Slovakia in the IIHF world U-18 championships.

Both have size. Baran is a six-foot-one, 182-pound blueliner from Bratislava and has also played in Sweden with the U-18 Lidingo Vikings.

Pitka is a six-foot-four, 202 pound centre from Poprad who has played some junior already with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.

“They are both big guys with skills,” said Ferster.

“Baran is a puck-moving defenceman and Pitka can really shoot the puck. Both have worked hard in training camp and are doing well.”

They are from an up-and-coming hockey country that won bronze at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics with Juraj Slafkovsky from that Slovakian national side selected first overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2022 NHL draft.

Shaking off what it felt were restrictive rules under Hockey Canada, the now-independent BCHL left the national governing organization June 1 and is now free to recruit players from across the country and world. That includes the allowance of two European players plus unrestricted access to Canadian players from across the country of any age from 16 to 20.

Both Grizzlies’ Slovakian players are committed to NCAA Division 1 schools with Baran to Arizona State and Pitka to Boston College.

There were 411 BCHL alumni on U.S. collegiate NCAA rosters last season, which accounted for nearly one-quarter of all the players in Division 1. A total of 104 former BCHL players skated in the 2023 NCAA Div. 1 tournament, including 14 on the champion Quinnipiac team.

The Grizzlies continue their BCHL pre-season campaign tonight at 7 p.m. at the Q Centre against the Cowichan Valley Capitals.

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