Portland Winterhawks forward Simon Knak is back with the team after missing a month living a dream representing his country at the World Juniors.
The 17-year-old winger from Switzerland made the final 23-man roster as a double underage player. In a tournament dominated by 19-year-olds, the 2002-born forward never looked out of place. In five games Knak registered two goals and a plus-two rating.
He shined brightly on junior hockey’s biggest stage.
“The whole experience was pretty cool,” Simon recalled. “On my team, I was the youngest player, and it was an honor to play at the World Juniors. I got to play for my country, something very special. It was cool that it went so well.”
Before making the final roster Knak joined the team at their selection camp where several forwards had to be trimmed down before the tournament began.
Knak said the experience was not easy, “It was a hard process. We had three exhibition games – two against Germany, we lost both. We then played against Canada and there we lost 3-0 but played a really good game, we thought we were ready. It was hard to see the players you were practicing with have to go home. That was pretty hard to see, you never knew if the next day if you would have to go home. You always had to show your best.”
On December 20 he received the good news he was looking for from head coach Thierry Paterlini, Knak made the team and was going to go to the Czech Republic.
“I knew we had a Christmas dinner that night,” Knak shared. “I knew the players were getting sent home before and I was making it. It was pretty cool to have that dinner afterward, so we got closer together as a team. It was pretty cool making the team.”
The celebration continued at home. “My dad was excited, my whole family and friends too. The World Juniors you can watch on TV. I called them when I got back to the hotel and they were pretty excited for the phone call.”
In their first game against Kazakhstan, Knak played 25 shifts for 14:22 of ice time. The Swiss won the game 5-3 ensuring a place in the medal round.
Switzerland fell to Sweden two days later, but Knak played another 12:55, an impressive stat line for one of the youngest players in the tournament.
The World Juniors boasts many of the top players in the world under the age of 20, but Knak quickly showed humility when asked about being included in that category, “I don’t want to say I’m one of the best players in the world, but it was pretty cool. I gained so much confidence there and awesome that I could make the team (as a 17-year-old). It is the World Juniors so you have to perform.”
Perform he did. Against the Slovaks, Knak picked up his first goal of the tournament, fired four shots on net, and again logged an important 16 minutes of ice time.
Winterhawks vice president, general manager, and head coach Mike Johnston said, “Any ice time (Simon) got, in the games I watched thought he played a significant role for Switzerland, was really good for him.”
In their final game of round-robin play, Knak and his Switzerland teammates defeated the defending gold-medalist Finland team 5-2. Simon scored in back-to-back games and proved why he is one of the top prospects for the 2020 NHL draft. The six-foot-one, 191 pound forward led all Swiss forwards in ice time with 18:29.
In the latest NHL Central Scouting Midterm Rankings Knak sits 61st on the North American skater’s list; however, the draft is something he is not too focused on right now. “I think (World Juniors) helped me a lot, but I don’t want to think about the draft. First I have to show the world that I can play hockey out there. Then, at the end of the season, we all want to win a Memorial Cup. When we are going to win the Memorial Cup my chances are even better. I want to focus on this team and play some good games out there.”
The World Juniors ended for Switzerland after a 3-1 loss to the Russians in the medal round. Overall though, Knak was pleased with his performance. “I was happy that I could score at the tournament. It was pretty awesome, they were two good goals. It gave me a lot of self-confidence and hope I can show it in Portland on the ice that I can score.”
After the tournament concluded, Simon got some much needed time back home with friends and family.
Knak explained how he “got to be home for three days, I enjoyed that a lot. Breathing the Swiss air in and out was pretty cool. The food wasn’t very good in the Czech Republic, so I was lucky I could go home and get some good food there. Also got to see all my friends and family, it was awesome!”
Simon rejoined his teammates prior to their trip to Victoria last weekend. Many first-year import players start to really showcase their talents in the second half of the season.
Mike Johnston is proud of what Knak accomplished and is excited to have him back with the team. “I think playing in the World (Juniors) championships was really good for him. He was probably one of the youngest guys in the tournament, double underage, it doesn’t happen very often. Now, coming back into our team after being away for a month, just starting to settle in.”
Johnston explained how “it always takes guys who were at the World Juniors a little while to get back in sync. You come off the high of a tournament like that, then you get into the regular grind of our league, it is an adjustment. Simon is a good hockey player, a key part of our team. I think you will see him adapting and adjusting a little bit easier in the second half.”
Knak is aware of the second half jump, “I’ve heard a lot about the second half. I hope I can take off. In the first game in Victoria, I got a couple of chances. (Tuesday) we have a big game and I want to continue to show what I can do.”
Needless to say, with 18 points in 27 WHL games as a rookie, and his World Juniors experience at 17-years-old, Knak is well on his way to an impressive career.