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“I feel like I’m a different player right now,”
- Egor Sokolov
Standing near the ice at Centre 200 as his teammates practised in the background, Egor Sokolov didn’t need to look far for answers when asked about motivation.
Holding the silver medal he won with Team Russia at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic earlier this month, Sokolov raised the medal as though the question did not have to be asked.
“I always try to tell myself, we’re second in the world and it’s not a bad thing,” said Sokolov. “It gives you extra motivation to be at your best and to play hard to accomplish your goals and I’m more motivated than ever.”
The six-foot-four, 231-pound left-winger spent close to a month with the Russian national junior team before rejoining the Cape Breton Eagles for the second half of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season on Jan. 8.
Since his return to the lineup, Sokolov has recorded seven goals and four assists to go along along with a plus-5 rating in five games. His return also included a hat trick against the Saint John Sea Dogs.
“I feel like I’m a different player right now,” said the 19-year-old Russian, who along with playing his regular shift for Russia also received time on the club’s power play.
“I’m making all the plays quicker because the hockey was a lot faster at the world juniors, but at the end of the day, I just want to help this team have a good playoff run.”
Sokolov travelled to Moscow to attend the national junior team training camp in early December. His play caught the eye of the Russian coaching staff and, after two exhibition games, Sokolov cracked the roster for the tournament.
“When I went on the ice for the training camp and I saw the guys, I thought it would be amazing to play with and compete against them for a spot on the team,” said Sokolov, who’s currently undrafted by an NHL team.
“As soon as the team was picked and all the cuts were finished, it was really hard to say goodbye to the guys who were cut because we all became close together and wanted the best for each other.”
The Russians opened the World Juniors with a 4-3 loss to the host Czech Republic on Dec. 26, which was followed by criticism back in Russia about the team’s play.
“I’m not really big on social media, but I knew the coaches were under pressure after the loss,” said Sokolov. “Our group was really hard because the next two games were against Canada and the United States — back-to-back — so we knew we had to improve our game.”
The Russians put the criticisms to bed in their second game when they dominated Canada, defeating the team 6-0 and forcing the Canadians to rethink their goaltending plans.
The road to a Canadian showdown
Sokolov scored his first career world junior goal during the game, but at the time he wasn’t thinking much about the personal achievement.
“I didn’t really think about scoring goals, I just wanted to make every play in a positive way for the team — if I scored, I scored, but if I didn’t and helped the team win, I was happy too,” said Sokolov.
“It was a good opportunity, I was in front of the net and the guy shot the puck and I tipped it in front and it went in — It was a great feeling.”
Having emptied the tank against Canada, the Russians would lose to the United States 3-1 before beating Germany 6-1 to secure a matchup with Switzerland in the quarter-final.
Russia would defeat Switzerland 3-1 and advance to the semifinals against powerhouse Sweden, a team having won 52 straight preliminary round games at the tournament.
In the semifinal, Russia took a 3-1 lead in the first period, with Sokolov netting his second goal of the tournament. Sweden would come back to tie the game and eventually took a 4-3 lead, but Sokolov tied the game at 8:35 of the third period, sending the contest to overtime.
“It was crazy tying the game in the semifinals and then our team scoring in overtime — it was the best feeling of my life, words can’t describe,” said Sokolov, noting Russian head coach Valeri Bragin is one of the best coaches he’s ever played for.
In the gold medal game, Russia would face Canada.
Russia led 3-1 in the third period, but Canada answered making the score 3-2, before scoring on the power play to tie the game with a goal by captain Barrett Hayton. Akil Thomas had the game-winner shortly after to lead the Canadians to victory.
“Playing in the tournament, it’s an experience I’ll never forget,” said Sokolov, who finished the event with three goals and an assist in seven games.
“We played against good players who are drafted high in the NHL draft, so it’s crazy to think about.”
Following the tournament, Sokolov travelled to Moscow with his parents. He later flew to Poland and then on to Toronto before joining the Eagles in New Brunswick, three days after winning the silver medal.
“I called Jake (Grimes) and told him I didn’t want any rest after the tournament and I wanted to play,” said Sokolov. “He asked me if I was sure because most of the guys take a week off after the tournament, but I wanted to play right away.”
Sokolov will turn 20 years old in June and doesn’t know what the future will hold for him, but as of now his goal is to play in North America next year and not return to Russia.
“It’s not my goal to go back to Russia because I came here three years ago to play in North America,” said Sokolov. “If I have no options, I’m going back to the KHL ,obviously, but If I have something going on next year in North America, that’s where I want to be.”
Sokolov and the Eagles (26-14-2-1) will return to action tonight when they host the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (25-16-2-1) at 7 p.m. at Centre 200 in Sydney.
The Eagles are currently 9-1 in their last 10 games and are coming off an 8-2 win over the Charlottetown Islanders in Prince Edward Island on Saturday. As for the Armada, they’re 8-2 in their last 10 contests.