For No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, his dream of playing in the NHL was realized Saturday night at the O2 Arena. For Czech native Michal Jadrnicek, his dream of seeing an NHL game in person was realized.
"I drove four hours to see the game," said Jadrnicek, who lives in a village on the eastern border of the Czech Republic. "This is a big night."
It was for everybody.
The front end of the Bridgestone NHL Premiere Prague belongs to the New York Rangers, who got a power-play goal from Brandon Dubinsky late in the third period to take the first two available points of the 2008-09 season with a 2-1 victory over the Lightning. The teams meet again on Sunday.
The two points obviously matter to the players on the ice, the coaches on the bench, the executives in the suites and a smattering of fans in the stands. But many of the rest of the folks who came from varying distances to see the NHL in Prague could have cared less about who won and who lost. That the NHL is in Prague is a victory in itself. As soon as these fans here sat in their seats, they won in a blowout.
That there were three Czech natives (Petr Prucha, Michal Rozsival, Vaclav Prospal) and two Slovaks (Andrej Meszaros, Vladimir Mihalik) among the 12 starters only made the celebration that much more special to the 17,085 in attendance.
"For us it's not cheap to drive here and the ticket is expensive," said Jadrnicek, a self-proclaimed Detroit Red Wings fan who was wearing a Lightning jersey signed by ex-Bolt Pavel Kubina, "but for me it's always been my dream to see an NHL match."
Outside the O2 Arena 45 minutes before the lights went dim for the opening ceremony, thousands of fans were gearing up for their first taste of NHL hockey in person.
The 8- and 9-year-old boys from the HC Moeller Pardubice hockey club, all wearing their jerseys, were chanting "Let's Go Rangers" — perhaps the only three English words they know.
Not far from the boys, Pelle Karlsson was walking around with his camera trying to soak in the atmosphere. Karlsson is from a small village in southern Sweden. Stockholm is a seven-hour drive from his home, but he didn't want to see the Penguins and Senators this weekend.
Karlsson was wearing a Henrik Lundqvist jersey signed in the front by Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander — and in the back by "of course, the best goalie."
"It's more miles to Prague and it's more money, but I paid it," said Karlsson, who has been lucky enough to see the Rangers play in Madison Square Garden five times in his three visits to New York City.
"It's pretty amazing," said Bronx, N.Y. native Mike Tracey, who was wearing a Jagr jersey. "It seems like the excitement is buzzing everywhere. It says something special about the state of hockey in the U.S. and the NHL."
Inside the arena, the fans blew their foghorns and cheered for just about every play. There were some "Let's Go Rangers" chants throughout the game. The fans whistled when the ice crew came on the ice, hinting they weren't too fond of the TV timeouts.
"They don't like that," said Lightning forward Radim Vrbata, who is from Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Republic. "If they are whistling, it's like they're booing."
Vrbata said some of the Czech reporters were saying the atmosphere could have been a little better, a little louder. He had to remind them that the fans weren't cheering for one team, but instead were cheering for the National Hockey League.
"The Czech reporters were saying during the Czech League it's a lot louder, but there everybody is cheering for the home team," Vrbata said. "Here they didn't know who to cheer for, so they cheered for everybody. They just came to watch hockey."
The ice, though, appeared tilted in the Rangers' favor for most of the night, save for the first 10 minutes when the Lightning had seven of their 21 shots and were perilously close to striking the first blow of the NHL season.
"We were right there," forward Martin St. Louis said. "We couldn't burst the bubble right away. That would have been nice."
Having staved off the first Lightning rush, the Rangers finished the first period with a 14-8 shot advantage and the game with a 41-21 advantage. However, they had nothing to show for their constant attacking until the game was 38:08 old.
But Tampa Bay struck back 3:57 into the third period when St. Louis roofed a backhand from just below the right circle over Lundqvist's left shoulder. He skated around Dmitri Kalinin to get into position for the difficult shot.
"Right in the roof and it's just a terrific shot," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "Maybe it's one Hank would want back, but I don't know how you stop that shot."
The game stayed tied for another 10-plus minutes, but Gary Roberts' high-sticking penalty on Dubinsky gave the Rangers their seventh power play of the night. The Rangers were generating chances with the man advantage all game, and this time they finally burned the Bolts.
Dubinsky used the extra room to his advantage by walking the puck into the right circle before writing a low shot that barely missed hitting Mihalik's skates. It missed and Smith didn't see it in time, so the Rangers took a 2-1 lead with 5:44 to play.
"Seven penalties against a very good power play," Lightning coach Barry Melrose said. "You don't have to be a math major to figure out that's 14 minutes out of 60 that you're shorthanded, that's 14 minutes that some of your best players aren't on the ice and it's an extra 14 minutes of hard work for a young defense. We killed penalties great, but finally they just snuck one through. It's just a matter of time against a power play like that."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com