For most of the players on the ice this week in Cobourg, the 2017 RBC Cup will be the pinnacle of their hockey careers, a rare chance to step onto the national stage.
Not Tom Pajonkowski.
While a few of his opponents have previous international experience – Brooks defenceman Cale Makar at the World Junior A Challenge, and Terrebonne teammate Loïk Léveillé at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, to name two – the Cobras blue-liner is the lone player to have laced up his skates at a World Juniors.
Just over a year ago, Pajonkowski helped France win gold (and promotion) at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, Division I, Group B on home ice in Megève.
“It was really crazy over there,” he remembers. “It’s not every day that you get to play in a tournament like that one, so it was a real thrill for me. Every day we had to play some tough hockey games, and it was nice because we had a shot to play for gold.”
As he embarks on another journey, this time with his sights set on Canada’s National Junior A Championship, the French-born Pajonkowski has plenty of experience to fall back on, and to share with his teammates.
“We definitely need to be ready.” he says. “You can’t show up to short-term tournaments like this without being prepared.
“When I suited up for France, all I had had was one training camp with the team, so I only knew a few of the guys who I had played against in my childhood. It’s different [at the RBC Cup], though; we’ve had plenty of time to prepare as a team.”
Playing in the World Juniors also means Pajonkowski knows a thing or two about performing under pressure.
France entered its final game in Megève not only needing a win over Poland, but needing to do it by at least three goals to ensure promotion to Division I, Group A for 2017. It was a tall task considering the Poles had blanked their last two opponents, and allowed just three goals in three games.
A three-goal second period put the French up 4-1 heading to the third period, and they pulled away in the final frame for a 7-2 win and a return to the 1A World Juniors for the first time since 2013.
But his memories of Megève won’t be the only thing Pajonkowski falls back on when times get tough in Cobourg. He also has the words of wisdom from his famous father, Franck.
Franck Pajonkowski is a legend in French hockey; he played parts of 21 seasons with Megève, Paris and Rouen, winning the Ligue Magnus – the top pro league in France – on eight occasions and leading the league in scoring five times. He finished with 1,213 points in 443 games, an astounding average of 2.74 points per game.
Franck also made his mark internationally, playing for France at seven IIHF World Championships and a pair of Olympic Winter Games, in 1988 and 1994.
So what advice did Franck give Tom? He kept it pretty simple.
“He told me to just believe in myself and that if I did, I could accomplish anything,” Tom says.
But his father has contributed more than words. Franck’s reputation followed Tom through minor hockey in France, and when he eventually made the jump across the Atlantic to Quebec as a teenager.
Instead of shrinking away from the pressure that came with his last name, though, he embraced it.
“Growing up I would always put some extra pressure on myself because everyone knew my dad as an elite scorer and expected me to be the same,” Tom says. “It never bothered me to have to work hard to try and imitate him, and in that way I think he helped me get to where I am now.”
Unlike his dad, Tom considers himself more of a grinder than a finesse player, and the numbers back that up – he had six points in 42 regular-season games with Terrebonne and Chambly this season. But while their styles may clash, their North American hockey paths were similar.
Franck moved from France at 16 to play Midget in Quebec City, and spent two seasons with Shawinigan and Chicoutimi in the QMJHL before returning home to begin his record-setting pro career. Tom came to Canada a year earlier than his father and saw nine games of QMJHL action with Gatineau before spending last season playing CEGEP with Collège Lionel-Groulx.
The younger Pajonkowski, though, has no plans to head back to Europe.
“I moved to Quebec to really give hockey a shot. I wanted to live an experience like no other and I never thought I’d stay for this long,” Tom says. “I’m having so much fun so I decided to stay and try and play hockey here for as long as I can.”