Despite having been born and raised in the nearby Czech Republic, Marek Hrbas has never been to Russia.
That is something he hopes to change over Christmas.
Hrbas, a 19-year-old defenceman with the WHL's Kamloops Blazers, will attend training camp with the Czech national junior team. Should he be selected to the team - and all signs certainly point in that direction - he will play for his country in the World Junior Championship that opens in Ufa, Russia, on Dec. 26.
"I'm excited," Hrbas said Thursday after practice at Interior Savings Centre. "It's a big deal."
The Blazers were preparing for home games tonight against the Saskatoon Blades and Saturday against the Vancouver Giants.
Hrbas, who was acquired by the Blazers from the Edmonton Oil Kings prior to last season, expects to leave his teammates on Dec. 13 and fly to Rokycany, a town in the Plzen region of the Czech Republic, where the team will hold its selection camp.
"It's about 10 minutes from my home," said Hrbas, who is from Plzen. "I should be able to see my family."
Hrbas, who has 11 points in 26 games with the Blazers, expects countrymate David Musil, a defenceman with the Oil Kings, to be the only other WHLer in the Czech camp, although there will be a few there from the QMJHL as well as centre Radek Faksa of the OHL's Kitchener Rangers. Faksa was the OHL's highest-scoring freshman last season, with 67 points.
Hrbas is especially looking forward to having a travelling partner from Edmonton.
"It would be nice," he said. "It's a long trip, like 20 hours."
The Czechs will play out of the Sports Palace in Ufa, in a pool with Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Latvia.
Before leaving for Russia, Hrbas said the Czechs will play an exhibition game against Slovakia on Dec. 17. After arriving in Russia, they will play Germany on Dec. 22.
Their first tournament game is scheduled for Dec. 26 against Sweden.
Last season, with the tournament playing out in Calgary and Edmonton, Hrbas had one assist and two penalty minutes in six games. The Czechs went 2-2 in their pool, including a 5-0 loss to Canada and a 5-2 victory over the United States. Russia then beat the Czechs 2-1 in the playoff round. Hrbas and his teammates won a fifth-place game, beating Slovakia, 5-2.
"We just want to make it through the preliminary round and then anything can happen in the quarterfinals and semifinals," Hrbas said.
The Blazers are scheduled to meet the Hitmen in Calgary on Dec. 11 and play in Edmonton on Dec. 12.
Hrbas would play in those games before leaving. He then would miss six games before returning to face the visiting Tri-City Americans on Jan. 9.
Meanwhile, Blazers defenceman Jordan Thomson also will miss a few games over the New Year as he plays for Team West at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Drummondville and Victoriaville, Que., Dec. 29 through Jan. 4.
Thomson, a 16-year-old freshman from Wawanesa, Man., is expected to miss four WHL games. He has six points in 19 games this season.
At the same time, right-winger JC Lipon and centre Colin Smith, who are one-two in the WHL scoring race, are waiting to hear if they will be invited to the Canadian junior team's training camp. It opens in Calgary on Dec. 10.
The Blazers are coming off a 2-1 overtime loss to the Regina Pats on Wednesday night at ISC.
The Blazers held a 40-13 edge in shots and outchanced the Pats, 28-9, but still came up short.
On Thursday, they spent time working on the power play - it was 1-for-5 against Regina - and also watched a video prepared by associate coach Dave Hunchak.
Hunchak and head coach Guy Charron have been working hard to get the forwards to stop passing up shooting opportunities.
Hunchak put together a video showing the number of shots from the slot area that were passed up.
Like the Pats, who were missing half a dozen regulars on Wednesday, the Blades (11-10-1) have their own M*A*S*H ward going.
Shane McColgan, their first-line centre, went home earlier in the week after suffering a suspected concussion during a 5-2 loss to the Royals in Victoria on Tuesday. McColgan, 19, has 23 points, including six goals.
Winger Nick Zajac, 17, is questionable after taking a hit from Victoria defenceman Tyler Stahl, who drew a two-game suspension for the play.
The Blades also are likely to be without defenceman Matthew Pufahl for a third straight game. He came out of a 4-0 victory over the Cougars in Prince George a week ago with a suspected concussion from a hit by forward Caleb Belter, who is serving a three-game suspension.
As well, Saskatoon headed west without defenceman Dalton Thrower, another player with a suspected concussion, and forwards Brett Stovin (shoulder) and Jessey Astles (wrist).
"We'll move people around at different positions," said Lorne Molleken, the Blades' general manager and head coach. "We're going to have to really dig down here and play a real strong team game."
After playing Tuesday in Victoria, the Blades enjoyed two days off so they should be relatively fresh tonight. They are expected to start Russian Andrey Makarov in goal. After starring against Team WHL in the Super Series last week, he beat Prince George and Vancouver (5-2) before getting the hook after giving up four goals in two periods against Victoria.
JUST NOTES:Both games are to start at 7 p.m. . . . The Blazers are expected to start G Cole Cheveldave (14-4-0) after Taran Kozun played against Regina. . . . The Blazers will be without F Dylan Willick (broken ankle) and F Aspen Sterzer (undisclosed).
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