LULEÅ, Sweden — Oswego State women’s hockey head coach Mark Digby received a call from first-year Laker Simone Bednarik the Monday night after the two exhibition games.
Digby was at his daughter’s soccer practice and Bednarik told him that Slovakia was bringing her over to finalize its Olympic Qualifier roster.
And she was flying out the following Sunday, less than 24 hours after Oswego State finished its game against Trine University.
“I said, ‘Great. When do you leave?’ She goes, ‘Sunday,’ and I just thought, ‘Holy moly. You’ve got a lot of things to do to get ready,” Digby said.
Bednarik found out on Friday morning that she made the final roster, and would be traveling to Sweden with the Slovakia National Team to compete in the Olympic Qualifier tournament.
But the opportunity came with a pretty big sacrifice a little more than a year ago. Bednarik, who hails from Illinois, had to make a tough decision: did she want to leave home during her senior year of high school and live in Slovakia for the year to keep playing?
Going from her hometown of Elmhurst, Illinois, to Slovakia is over 4,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean — plus she would be eight hours away home, and that’s just the time difference, “let alone a flight or whatever it would take for somebody else to actually get to you,” Digby mentioned.
At 17 years old, Bednarik took the opportunity and played for SKP Bratislava, recording 10 points in 16 games. All the while, she was still enrolled in high school back in Illinois, since it was all virtual learning.
While she was on Slovakia’s radar prior to going over last year, making the move “solidified” Bednarik’s chances to make the national team, Digby said. When talking about all the new players earlier this season, Digby added it was “one of the more fun and entertaining recruits” he’s dealt with as a coach,
“I was always setting up Zoom calls or a Facetime call with her, and her being on a subway or a bus in Slovakia. Hearing all the different languages being spoken, because there you’re not just listening to one, you’ve got all sorts of action going on,” Digby said. “During a pandemic, getting a chance to see what life was like where she was vs. here, it was really cool to see. Watching her as a 17-year-iold, when she was still playing out in Chicago, we were really comfortable with her then.”
Digby knew it was a possibility that Bednarik would have to leave early in the season. But Bednarik said her first few weeks with Oswego State helped her get ready for the national team.
“I believe that my hard work during the preseason is playing a big part in my athletic ability at the moment because I am in such good shape from that,” she said. “I also have gotten to play with older and more experienced girls on our team (at Oswego State) and learn from them as well.”
Bednarik also mentioned she is one of three players born in 2003 on the Slovakia roster — which is the youngest age group on the roster.
“Being able to play on the Slovakia National team is very important to me because I get to represent my home country which makes my family very proud,” she said. “I also enjoy playing with my very skilled teammates because it pushes me to be better and I learn a lot from them while playing.”
Slovakia is in Group E of the qualifying tournament in Luleå, Sweden, along with Sweden, South Korea and France. Slovakia has its first game of the pool against Sweden today, before taking on the other two teams over the weekend.
Digby said the team will be watching in the locker room on the live stream.
“I am very excited to finally play since we have been practicing every day for two weeks for this moment,” Bednarik said. “Our first opponent is our toughest opponent, Sweden, so the practices have been aimed at how to defend them well, but also being able to get good scoring chances and capitalize on their mistakes.”
Digby and Bednarik both said playing at this level of hockey will help both on and off the ice when it comes down to crunch time for Oswego State in the latter stages of the season.
“We recruited this group of players, not just Simone but all of them, so that hopefully when we get to the end of the year, we’re better prepared. The opportunity to have a player who’s competing for a spot in the Olympics, you’re playing under that (playoff) type of environment and that type of pressure,” Digby said. “It’s why it makes it that much more fun to be able to watch Simone in the qualifiers. Not only is she competing for her family and for her country, but she’s also gaining a lot of valuable experience that can help the program, too.”
In what is traditionally a different style of hockey, Digby added that Bednarik continues to play her game and excel. “She’s a hard-nosed player. … She’s willing to drive pucks to the net, and she wasn’t outmatched at all,” he said. Bednarik is hoping that she can bring back some new ideas to the Lakers.
“I don’t think the realization will ever settle in for me knowing this is such an amazing opportunity, which I don’t take lightly,” Bednarik said. “I am very grateful for getting this opportunity and making my family and friends proud. I am also very proud of myself knowing all my hard work has paid off.”