The 2019 IIHF World Championship has been circled on Marian Studenic's calendar ever since it was announced that his home country of Slovakia would be hosting it four years ago.
He was just 16 at the time and playing in Slovakia's U18 league, but he had big dreams of playing for the national team one day and maybe even this tournament. Soon after the announcement he represented his country at the U17 world hockey challenge. Then, the U18 world championship and twice at the world junior championship.
In that time, he also played two years with Hamilton of the Ontario Hockey League, was drafted in the 5th round of the 2017 NHL Draft, signed his first professional contract with the New Jersey Devils and developed into one of Slovakia's brightest young stars. While he was playing with the Binghamton Devils in the AHL this season, he couldn't help but wonder if he could actually make this team and play for his home country in his home country.
"During the season, I tried to just focus on what I was doing there, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about the possibility of being on this team," he said with his trademark grin. "I was hoping to be invited, for sure. I knew it would be a special opportunity and maybe the only time I'll have the chance to play in the world championship here in Slovakia."
In early April, his hope grew when he saw an article online in which Miroslav Satan, the general manager of the Slovak team, said Studenic was one of the players he was thinking about inviting to their selection camp.
"I got a little excited, but you know…it's the internet," Studenic said with a shrug. "It wasn't official. So, I was really happy when he finally called me and invited me, but I didn't have a spot for sure. I had to fight for it and earn it, but I played well in the exhibition games and made the roster. It was a really special feeling."
After a season in Binghamton that was a mental roller coaster as he adjusted to the pro game, Studenic was excited to put his new found skills to use.
"The first half of the season was really good for me. I scored a lot of goals and the team was playing well, but then the second half was a little bit harder and I that's when I really learned a lot," the 20-year-old from Holic said. "I was more on the third and fourth lines and I didn't play power play. It was definitely something new for me. I wasn't scoring and I needed to learn how to be a better player and play harder and be better defensively.
"It was really hard on me mentally, but it allowed me to get to know myself better," Studenic continued. "Now I know what it takes to be a pro and I think I'm a better player now and understand the game better and I'm trying to show that here and earn my opportunities that way."
Slovakia's head coach Craig Ramsey has been impressed with him, highlighting his speed, hands, compete level and his improved defensive game.
"He's not a big man, but he really puts it all out there," he said of the 6-foot-1, 175 pound forward. "He's a really courageous kid and I see a really bright future for him because he's not shy and doesn't mind going to the corners or battling in front of the net. He backchecks extremely hard. His angles through the neutral zone are very good and he plays committed without the puck too. Sometimes, it takes years for offensive players to pay attention to those defensive details of the game and he's been playing very well in that respect."
In Slovakia's first game of the tournament, they defeated USA 4-1 in front of 7430 fans at Steel Arena in Kosice and Studenic earned the primary assist for the first goal of the game.
"That was something I'll never forget," he stated with a big smile. "The whole crowd went crazy when we scored that goal. It's a dream. I haven't played at home in three years and I love playing in front of my family and friends. It's unreal.
"It doesn't happen every day that you can beat USA in your home country and in front of your fans," he continued. "When they played the anthem and everyone is singing…It was really special. I'll remember that forever."
After that win, visions of playing for a medal might have danced in their heads, but two heartbreaking losses in the final seconds of their games against Canada and Germany have their quarterfinal hopes hinging on an epic collapse by Team USA.
"It's hard," Studenic said with a heavy sigh. "We played some really good hockey. Really good. We just needed to play 60 minutes and not panic. Play the same game the whole time. We panicked a little at the end there and it cost us the whole game. We owe the fans our best these next three games. They're awesome and have been supporting us so much. We want to win these next three games for them and send them home happy.
"Maybe we'll get lucky and we will still make the quarterfinals," he continued with a shrug. "There's still a chance and we have to try."
Slovakia will look to bounce back against France on Friday.