PRAGUE – The Phoenix Coyotes’ trip to the Czech capital to open the NHL regular season against the Boston Bruins is a homecoming for Petr Prucha and Radim Vrbata.
The two Czech right-wingers played each other in Prague two years ago, when Prucha was with the New York Rangers and they swept a two-game series from Vrbata and his Tampa Bay Lightning. Now they’re on the same team and eager to play in front of their home crowd.
“The NHL was in Prague for the first time, it was something new for the fellow Czechs,” Vrbata said Wednesday. “We were lucky to be here and we’re lucky to be here again.”
A record six teams are in Europe this week to open the NHL regular season, giving fans in Europe a taste of the league. The Carolina Hurricanes play the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki on Thursday and Friday, the Columbus Blue Jackets face the San Jose Sharks in Stockholm on Friday and Saturday, and the Bruins and Coyotes face off in Prague over the weekend.
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, the 33-year-old defenceman who comes from neighbouring Slovakia which was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993, has a rather different memory of Prague.
He played the for Sparta Prague youth team before joining the Prince George Cougars in Canada’s WHL in 1996, after he failed to make the Sparta first-team roster.
“His determination has made him a really great player,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said Wednesday. “He’s risen above anybody’s expectation. This doesn’t happen by accident.
“Obviously, when you’re back it brings the memory back,” Chara said about his return. “I’m so used to the NHL that I wouldn’t rather play anywhere else. I just want to play at the NHL.”
Vrbata returned to the Coyotes last season after an unsuccessful season with the Lightning, the highlight of which came with his trip to Prague. The winger’s 24 goals and 19 assists last season helped surprising Phoenix reach the playoffs.
“Overall, it was an absolutely positive experience,” Vrbata said of playing in Europe the first time. “I’ve always felt well in Phoenix. The last season was excellent and I hope we could go even further in the playoffs.”
The Coyotes were eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in the in a Western Conference seven-game playoff series, and the quest to get back starts in Prague.
“I hope we’ll take some points from here,” Vrbata said.
For the Rangers, the two wins in Prague two years ago didn’t ensure a perfect season and Prucha, who was struggling to make the starting lineup after New York signed star forwards Scott Gomez and Markus Naslund, was traded to Phoenix in March 2009.
“Boston may be a Stanley Cup contender but we’re significantly better than last season,” Prucha said. “We played well in the pre-season and the series is wide open.”
The Coyotes won four of their seven pre-season exhibition games and were leaving Prague Wednesday for Riga, Latvia, for their final pre-season game against the local team Dinamo.
“That’s the schedule and we’re professionals, we have to get ready for 100 per cent for the game,” Prucha said. “To be here and play in front of our Czech fans is something extraordinary. Our families and friends and others have a chance to see the NHL.”
He said the Coyotes shared his excitement, even those who have never been to Prague.
“Prague’s a beautiful city and everybody’s excited to be here.”