Nicholas Boka said he knows what it’s going to take for him to be one of the defenseman selected for the United States 2017 World Junior Championship team.
The Minnesota Wild’s 2015 sixth round-pick is the second-to-latest player to be drafted remaining at the United States National Junior Evaluation Camp in Plymouth, Michigan. Jack Sadek, his Wild teammate, is the only drafted prospect to have been selected in a later round.
There are 11 defensemen left at the camp, trimmed down on Tuesday from 14 that entered the camp last week.
For Boka, it’s a simple assignment: Be a shutdown defenseman and make life difficult for the opposing team’s top forwards.
“I have to be in that shutdown role,” he said. “We have a lot of talented defensemen here who can run a power play, and things like that, and my role is going to be shutting down other teams, and playing well defensively. Moving forward that’s what I have to do: really bear down and take in my role.”
The paces Boka has been put through over the past month or so have provided him the repetitions to prove he can fill that niche.
At Minnesota Wild Development Camp, he was matched up against the likes of Alex Tuch, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Alex Petan.
“All of those guys are really good forwards,” Boka said. “Having to shut them down not just every practice, but in the games, it was difficult. It prepared me well for camp here.”
In Plymouth, there’s no shortage of American talent: Of the 17 remaining forwards, and of the 16 that have been drafted, 12 were taken in the first two rounds of NHL drafts, and seven in round one.
Even at the University of Michigan, where Boka completed his freshman season in March, he was lining up across from skilled players, many of them older and bigger than the 6-foot-1, right-shot defenseman. In practice, he went up against one of the most dynamic college freshman in recent memory in Kyle Connor.
“I got stronger defensively,” Boka said. “Whether it’s in the corners or out in front of the net, playing in front of older guys in college, they’re bigger, stronger, it’s definitely helped me on the defensive end of things.”
All of this for Boka adds up to an environment that, for a player who prides himself on being a “defensive defenseman,” affords plenty of chances to match up against elite talent.
“You definitely have to work a little bit harder than the other guys do,” Boka said. “You definitely have to prove yourself, and it’s something that I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Though Boka did not join the United States for the 2016 World Junior Championship, his ties with USA Hockey run deep.
He played for the United States National Under-17 team in 2014, and a year later, the Under-18’s. During that time, Boka spent two years in Ann Arbor as a member of the National Team Development Program. It was there where he met someone who he now considers a best friend: Luke Kunin.
“He’s been my best friend ever since we got to the program,” Boka said. “Our relationship hasn’t changed at all. It’s always nice getting to see him, getting to play against him, and he’s a great player.”
Things did change for the friends this year, though. After completing their time in Ann Arbor, the pair went their separate ways to different Big Ten Schools: Boka stayed in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, and Kunin chose the University of Wisconsin.
Year one of the matchup went to Boka, with Michigan winning once and tying against his best friend’s program. Kunin did leave his mark though, scoring twice in the game played at Wisconsin, including the equalizing goal of a 4-4 tie with 27 seconds remaining in regulation.
“You know the saying: We’re friends off the ice, and not too much on the ice,” Boka said. “We’ll smile at each other, but he won’t hesitate to take my head off, and vice versa. It’s always been like that between us. We make each other better on the ice.”