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Canadiens' newly-signed defenceman Roman Hamrlik loves to play in Canada

The Czech defenceman signed a US$22-million, four-year contract as an unrestricted free agent on Monday with the Montreal Canadiens - his third team in the Great White North after stints in Edmonton and, most recently, Calgary.

The Canadiens also inked two-way centre Bryan Smolinski to a one-year deal for $2 million, with a no-trade clause. Smolinski had 18 goals and 26 assists for Chicago and Vancouver last season.

Hamrlik said his desire to remain in Canada made the Canadiens a logical choice.

"I got a few offers from teams in the U.S., but I told my agent I'd love to play in Canada," the 33-year-old Hamrlik said from Zlin, Czech Republic on a conference call, comparing hockey in Canada to playing soccer in England. "It's great hockey.

"Players should appreciate it - the fans, the organizations, the media. Everything is there."

The signing is one more indication that defenceman Sheldon Souray will be leaving the Canadiens as a free agent, just as the Flames' signing on the weekend of blue-liner Cory Sarich was likely done in anticipation of losing Hamrlik.

Smolinski, 35, may fill the gap left by checking centre Radek Bonk.

"I wish I could say there were a lot of teams interested, but Montreal showed a lot of interest," said Smolinski. "Being in Ottawa a a few years and seeing that rivalry with Montreal, it'll be interesting to see it from the other side.

"It's a beautiful city and it's an Original Six team. It'll be an honour to wear that jersey."

Hamrlik said Calgary offered a two-year contract, but he wanted a longer deal because he is getting older and wants security. He will earn $5.5 million per season.

"Unfortunately I wasn't able to sign with the Calgary Flames - too bad," he added.

In August, 2005, he signed a $7-million, two-year deal as a free agent with a Flames team that had reached the Stanley Cup final in 2004, just prior to the lockout. Now he has signed with a team that didn't make the playoffs last season.

But he said he has had an attachment to the city since he was drafted first overall in Montreal in 1992 by Tampa Bay and heard good things about playing there from Czech friends, notably former Canadien Martin Rucinsky.

"Rucinsky told me there's nothing better than playing in Montreal," he said, before adding with a laugh: "But he said just watch out for the media, they're everywhere and there's too many of them."

Hamrlik had 38 points (7-31) and was plus-22 in 75 regular-season games with the Flames last season. The six-foot-two, 210-pounder is a three-time all-star who has 505 career points (131-374) in 999 games.

After failed bids for star forwards Daniel Briere and Ryan Smyth, Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey was glad to land him.

"Roman Hamrlik established himself as a solid NHL veteran," Gainey said in a statement. "The acquisition of Roman fills a very important need in our organization.

"He is a strong defenceman with a powerful shot and excellent hockey skills. He brings to our club solid experience and an excellent reputation."

The Hamrlik that Montreal is getting is not the free-wheeling defenceman he was early in his career, when his offensive numbers were good but his plus-minus was deplorable.

That's a switch from Souray, who had 64 points last season, including 26 goals, and was a formidable force on the power play, but was minus-28. Hamrlik's last season in the red was minus-20 in 2000-01 with the New York Islanders.

"I have to say I changed my style," he said. "I'm not rushing too much up front with the forwards.

"I'm reading the game better and I learned to play defence better. And as you get older, you don't have as much speed as when you're 20. In Calgary, they taught me a lot of good things about playing defence."

He also got used to working with young defencemen like Dion Phaneuf, which he will most likely also do with the Canadiens, who have selected defencemen in the first round of the last two drafts.

"We'll see how many goals I score, but I'm just looking forward to playing in Montreal," he added. "I don't know much about them, but I'm sure I'll fit in.

"I've never had any problem with any team. I hope I can bring experience and help the team."

The six-foot-one, 205-pound Smolinski is a 14-year NHL veteran who had 31 goals for Boston in 1993-94 but has since become a more balanced player. It's his eighth NHL stop after stints in Boston, Pittsburgh, the New York Islanders, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Chicago and Vancouver.

The Canucks picked him up for a conditional draft pick.

"Bryan Smolinski is an experienced centreman with good size who brings excellent two-way ability and face-off skills that will add versatility and depth to our club" said Gainey.


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