Had Radoslav Illo not left Slovakia to play hockey in North America, it's possible he might have tired of the politics back home and quit the game altogether. However, not only is Illo still in the game, he's a draft pick of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and one of the top goal-scoring threats in the USHL. Illo, in his second season with the Tri-City Storm, plays the game at a pace as high as anyone in the USHL and can lay down incredibly quick stickhandling maneuvers and score with his powerful arsenal of shots, as well as a willing to shoot first and ask questions later. The young Slovak has also translated his three seasons in North America to a spot on his country's 2010 World Junior Championship team (where he tied for third in team scoring) and a commitment to Bemidji State University as the Beavers move from College Hockey America to the vaulted Western Collegiate Hockey Association. After nearly three years after the move, it's safe to say the change of scenery has served Illo well.
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey had the opportunity to talk to Radoslav Illo after a late-February game. Illo discussed playing at the World Junior Championships, his development in North American with the Tri-City Storm and the Hampton Roads Whalers, his selection by the Ducks, his commitment to Bemidji State, his hockey back in Slovakia, and the NHLers he looks up to today.
McKeen's: To start off, we'll go to a positive note, not about tonight's game. About a month and a half ago you were finishing up things with Slovakia at the World Junior Championships, where you tied for third on your team in scoring, which isn't too bad. When you came to North American in 2007-08, did you ever believe that all of this would be possible?
Illo: I tried to believe. I tried to believe in myself. I tried to play the best so I could get to the USHL and make it to the next levels up. I actually could have played with the Green Bay Gamblers, the coach from the Green Bay Gamblers picked me up in Slovakia three years ago, but they changed coaches or something, so I just played a league under. So, I believed in getting to play in the USHL.
McKeen's: At what point did it become apparent to you that you really did have a legitimate chance at playing for Slovakia at the World Junior Championships?
Illo: I was talking to coach a couple of times, and he was just reminding me "Keep scoring goals." "If you play hard like you're playing in the USHL, you'll get to World Juniors." So, just keep working hard all the time. Now, I'm kind of, a little bit, I have bad luck with scoring, but I'm trying hard and I think it'll come.
McKeen's: With Slovakia, who told you you'd been named to the team and what was your reaction?
Illo: I was really happy. Our coach told me that, because they sent the roster. I was really happy I could go play for my country. I tried my best so I could play.
McKeen's: How did you feel you played up in Saskatoon and how did the play there compare to what you play every night in the USHL?
Illo: I mean, especially our team, Slovakia, here the hockey's a little different. The guys are dumping the puck more to the back boards. Over there, guys try to carry the puck a little bit more. I think in most of the games, I played well. I could have scored a little more, like the game we played against Switzerland, when we lost 4-1.
McKeen's: Who were some of your teammates at the World Junior Championships who impressed you the most and why?
Illo: Mmm, we had a few good guys over there. We had four drafted guys, me, Tomas Tatar, Richard Panik, and Marek Viedensky. I mean, a lot of them are really talented and they weren't lucky like they were supposed to be, I don't know. Maybe some days they could play better and I could play better and it would be a little bit different. All of those guys are really good. So, they're probably just the best three guys to play with.
McKeen's: To you personally, what were your expectations with the Storm this year and how do you feel the season's gone for you?
Illo: I'm feeling really good. We had a five-game winning streak. Tonight, we lost, we took too many penalties. It sometimes happens, so we just try to keep it up and play our best and make the playoffs.
McKeen's: In what areas of your game do you feel you've improved the most with Tri-City and in what areas are you focusing on improving to take your game to the next level?
Illo: I think I'm getting better on the backcheck and playing a little bit better in the d-zone, and how I'm supposed to play in the offensive zone. I'm trying to shoot the puck, get to the net. The things I improve on most, I think, are d-zone and neutral zone.
McKeen's: I'd agree. I took some notes on you tonight about you using your speed on the backcheck.
Illo: Yep. That's one of those things that coach reminds me on, backchecking and playing hard in the d-zone, to take your guy and stay with him.
McKeen's: On the flipside, what would you say are the strengths of your game and, for someone who's never seen you play, the style that you play?
Illo: I'm trying to play fast hockey. Like, guys are trying to chip me the puck on the boards or just pass it to me, to make it a little stronger. In the offensive zone, I'm just trying to shoot every single puck and try to get it to the net. So, that's my biggest strengths, speed and the shot.
McKeen's: Going back to 2007, tell me about, you kind of touched on this a little bit, but the decision to come play in North America and, also, more on how it was you came to play with the Hampton Roads Whalers.
Illo: That was (pauses), that was really hard back in Slovakia, because (pauses)? I don't know, it's hard to say, but a lot of people, a lot of guys are playing for money. I don't know if I can say that, but that was really how it was, how it was back home. I couldn't handle that. Like when I saw the guys, not even better than me, and they were playing and I wasn't. So, I decided to leave from Slovakia and try to play hockey here. Maybe I wouldn't play anymore if I was still there, because I was getting really sick of the hockey over there.
McKeen's: How did the hockey that you played with the Whalers compare to what you'd previously played in Slovakia?
Illo: I could see over there, the hockey, the style is so much faster. The rink is smaller, obviously, so the hockey looked a little bit faster, and the guys were playing the body. So, it gave me a lot. Like some of these things, that wasn't a good league, but I think that was a good decision for me, to go play hockey over there. That wasn't the best league, but I think it helped me a lot, to improve for the next level.
McKeen's: It's definitely a stepping stone. I've read that while you were with the Whalers that you had opportunities to move up to higher leagues but you decided to continue to play with them. Is that true and, if so, tell me about that.
Illo: Yeah, yeah. I had the option in November to go play for Tri-City. But, personally, I didn't want to just leave that coach, because he helped me a lot. So, I just stayed there and finished the season and told Tri-City "probably next season," I will try to play for them.
McKeen's: With Tri-City, the difference between this year and last year, in terms of results, is significant. What have been the keys for you guys being so much better than last year?
Illo: You know? We have really hard-working guys, blocking shots, playing hard in the d-zone. We have guys each game that can actually score. We have four really, really good lines. That's the difference between last season, maybe. We didn't put that much effort on the d-zone and everybody just tried to score and stuff. Now, we have two lines who can play penalty kill, blocking shots. Those are the little things that actually help in a game. Nobody probably sees it, but it helps a lot.
McKeen's: Last summer, you were selected in the fifth round of the draft by the Ducks. Did you have any idea that you might be drafted? Had anyone told you there was a chance? Then, how did you find out and what was your reaction?
Illo: I was talking to them a little bit. I was taking some tests, on the phone. A few guys told me, so I was kind of, "I'm going to be drafted." I talked to another couple teams, so I didn't know if I was going to be drafted by the Ducks or somebody else, but I was really excited. I was actually on a vacation in Turkey, and my buddy let me know. So, I was really happy.
McKeen's: I don't get a lot of USHLers who say, "I was on vacation in Turkey during the draft." Obviously, for you it's a little different, being from Slovakia. What have you done with the Ducks since the draft, and to what degree do they stay in contact with you during the season?
Illo: Yeah, I'm in contact with them, most of the time texting, or they come to watch me. They help me with stuff where they think I could do a little bit better. So, texting, calling, we're keeping in touch.
McKeen's: Did you attend any sort of development camp with the Ducks at all?
Illo: I don't think the Ducks had any rookie camp last season.
McKeen's: That's good. I couldn't find the existence of one. That explains it. A drafted player like yourself oftentimes has representation - on the NCAA track, a family advisor. So, do you have an agent/family advisor?
Illo: Yeah, yeah. My family advisor is Neil Sheehy and Tim Sheehy. So, those guys are helping me with all of that stuff.
McKeen's: You're committed to Bemidji State, who will be joining the WCHA, which is a good thing. If I might ask, what other schools were recruiting you and made you decide on Bemidji?
Illo: I had a few opportunities to go to school, I don't want to say their names. But, the reason I decided to go to Bemidji is it's not a big school. It's not the biggest school, but they want to help me a lot with my degree and school stuff. I decided to go there because I know the hockey is pretty good over there, they're going to play in the WCHA, and I'm a really good friend with the coaches, too. So, I look forward to it, and I think it was a good decision.
McKeen's: What made you decide to go the college route?
Illo: I had a lot of doubts around me, because I could play the Canadian league, that's actually where the Ducks wanted me to go. But, I kind of decided with my family advisors and my parents, and I thought about it. You never know if you get injured or something happens, you don't get to play hockey anymore, so I decided to go to college. I mean, I'm thinking all the time that I'll make pro. I want to play pro.
McKeen's: When did colleges start recruiting you?
Illo: That was last season that they started talking, but they actually wanted me to commit for this season, but I had to finish my high school back home. I wouldn't be here if I finished high school a little bit early, but it's a little different back in Slovakia.
McKeen's: With the academics, what area of study do you plan on going into?
Illo: It's hard to say right now. I think that first year, it doesn't matter, and then the guys decide. I think something about marketing, management, something in that area.
McKeen's: You're pretty much right. That first year of college, you don't get a lot major-specific classes. Hopefully this doesn't happen to you, but unfortunately NCAA Clearinghouse stuff happens with European players. Would you consider going the major junior route if you had to, since you do have a year of major juniors you could play if you had to?
Illo: Well, I already passed the Clearinghouse?
McKeen's: That's good.
Illo: ? so, that's a good thing. If not (pauses), I never think about it.
McKeen's: If you pass, then there's no reason to.
Illo: Yeah, yeah. So, I haven't thought about it.
McKeen's: That's good. Going back to the beginning of your hockey career, when did you first start playing, and how did you get that start?
Illo: I started playing when I was about four. I saw my dad playing hockey, and then also saw the Olympics in Lillehammer, like the guys playing for Slovakia, and I was like, "I want to play in the NHL." I was real young, small and young. But, it was my dream. I was thinking always about getting to the NHL or getting to play pro hockey and somehow get to the NHL.
McKeen's: What level did your father play at?
Illo: He never played, really, like pro hockey. He'd just play, like, sometimes play hockey because he had problems with his, I don't know how you say? (but gestures around the hip and glute area).
McKeen's: Ah, the hip or glutes, that area. With the youth hockey in Slovakia, or Europe in general, you have the hockey clubs and the kids in that area play up through that one club. Did you always play for your hometown club, Bystrica?
Illo: I played there until I was like 14 years old, and then I went and played for Slovan Bratislava. That was my next step. I had no reason to change my club, because, Bystrica, we played at the highest level, and then we fell down, so I had to go play something better. So, I went and played for Slovan. That was my next step.
McKeen's: Slovan's a pretty club in Slovakia, no doubt about it.
Illo: Yeah, yeah. It's a pretty good club. A lot of guys from there are drafted, too. They have guys that actually played in the NHL before, or playing in Swedish or Russian leagues. It's a very good club, has a lot of money and stuff.
McKeen's: You touched on the Olympics in Lillehammer. To what degree did you follow the Olympics this year, and did you get to watch the Slovakia-Russia game at all?
Illo: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I fell asleep during the game. But, I woke up, there was five minutes left until the end of the game, so I watched a little bit. I watched the shootout. I was pretty impressed. I was happy for those guys, because I know those guys, like Marian Hossa, [Marian] Gaborik, and these guys, because I'm skating with them in the summer. So, I was really happy for them. They're a really good team.
McKeen's: With Slovakia, The Hockey News recently had an article where it talked about how "the hockey world is shrinking" and how there's no longer really a big seven, that it's coming down to four or five. Where do you feel Slovakian hockey is at? On the slide? Doing okay?
Illo: It depends. Sometimes they're doing pretty good. If you take the guys we have over there, like [Zdeno] Chara, [Lubomir] Visnovksy, Hossa, Gaborik, big names in the NHL, some of the top scorers in the whole league. So, there's no reason why we shouldn't be good. It's just, maybe, sometimes bad luck, and sometimes they're pretty lucky. I think we can battle with these big countries, like U.S., Canada, because those guys are pretty good.
McKeen's: Do you think the young players for Slovakia will be able to live up to some of the stars you mentioned?
Illo: You never know. I mean, we have young guys Tatar, Panik, and those guys, who try. Those guys are some of the superstars, so it's pretty hard to be like them, but you never know if you can catch them.
McKeen's: If all else fails, you have Jaroslav Halak for a while, and Switzerland just about knocked off Canada. So, it's possible. Lastly, who were some of your favorite players growing up and why, and who are some players today who you feel you're similar to or that you'd like to equate to?
Illo: Like, guys from the NHL?
Illo: I mean, I love how Alexander Ovechkin and [Pavel] Datsyuk play. Those are my two favorite players. There are a lot of guys who I'd love to be like them, like Marian Gaborik's speed, [Pavol] Demitra is a really smart guy on the ice. Like, if I take Datsyuk, he's real good offensively and defensively, he's a pretty good stickhandler, he knows how to make a play. Ovechkin, he's a guy I would say yeah, which maybe offensively, I look like him. I try to shoot the puck from every position. So, those guys.
McKeen's: I would agree with you on that. Tonight, my notes on you mentioned your shot-to-pass ratio. Like, "Will shoot, shoot, shoot the puck."