Defenseman Daniil Chayka has made a habit of winning and now he's bringing that experience to the Russian world junior team.
Born and raised in Moscow, Chayka and his family moved to Toronto when he was a teenager so he could play for the U16 Toronto Jr. Canadiens. That squad, which also featured future NHL draft picks such as Zayde Wisdom (PHI) and Ryan Tverberg (TOR), ended up winning the prestigious end-of-year OHL Cup.
"It was very interesting for me," Chayka said. "I wanted to try something new in my career. It was hard the first few months with the language and the new style of game, but I got used to it and I loved it so much. It was amazing that we won the OHL Cup, that will be a great memory for the rest of my life."
From there, Chayka was drafted by the Guelph Storm and the timing could not have been better: Guelph was loaded for a run at the title and ended up winning the 2019 OHL championship thanks to a powerful lineup led by Montreal's Nick Suzuki, who came over from Owen Sound.
"It was a great experience, that playoff run," Chayka said. "We had so many great players on that team, especially after the trades. We had really good 'D' like Dmitri Samorukov (EDM) and Markus Phillips (LA) - I didn't play much in the playoffs but I enjoyed watching those players. Playing against teams like London, Saginaw and Ottawa and watching my teammates and how they prepare really helped me a lot for my next season in the OHL."
Of course, that 2019-20 season ended up getting cut off due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Chayka has continued to develop his game this year back home in Russia while he waits to see when and if the OHL gets started up again (right now Feb. 4 is the date slotted).
Chayka, a big, mobile two-way defenseman who likes to watch Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman, has been with the CSKA Moscow organization this year, thanks in part to Russian world junior coach Igor Larionov.
"Larionov helped me a lot," Chayka said. "It was a really good experience - I started to play with pro guys in the VHL, then got called up to the KHL after the Karjala Cup. Good teams, good organizations and it was fun to play there."
Speaking of the Karjala Cup - that was a whole thing as well. The European tournament holds a decent amount of prestige over there and this year the Russians essentially used it as a training ground for their world junior teens. The Czechs, Swedes and Finns on the other hand sent older pros, as per usual - and they weren't happy about facing kids.
But a funny thing happened at the Karjala Cup - the Russian kids mopped the floor with their competition, winning all three of their games and netting Chayka yet another title. And he was aware of how the other teams viewed him and his boys.
"Yeah, we saw those posts online," he said. "They were saying 'Why did they do that? it's not going to be interesting for us,' but we were concentrating on our game and trying to prove we could play at the pro level and beat those guys. And we did."
This season has clearly been difficult for development purposes and Russia's Karjala Cup gambit is looking like a brilliant move. The Big Red Machine also has a new coach in Larionov and when it comes to hockey clout, you can't beat 'The Professor.'
"It's an honor for every single player on our team," Chayka said. "He's such a nice guy and a great coach. Always has a smile on his face - you want to go out and win games for him. From practice to games to the hotel, he's the nicest guy."
Expectations will be high for the Russians in Edmonton, as they are undoubtedly one of the gold-medal favorites alongside archrival Canada. The tournament will also serve as an important scouting opportunity for Chayka, who is a potential first-round pick in the 2021 NHL draft.
The 6-foot-3 defenseman would still like to get better at many aspects of the game, particularly his strength in battles, but there is a fantastic base to work off. The Russians look to have a nicely-balanced blueline in front of star goalie Yaroslav Askarov (NSH) and Chayka will have a great chance to show scouts how he has continued to develop since going back to Russia. And if he ends up with a title at the end of the tournament - well, that would be pretty standard for him, wouldn't it?