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Like idol, Frolik hopes to add his name to Stanley Cup

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks
Michael Frolik (right) and Boston's Jaromir Jagr won bronze medals with the Czech Republic at the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. Tomorrow evening, the two will face off in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Michael Frolik’s jersey number might conjure up certain connotations in the hockey world, and there were times throughout his junior career that the comparisons seemed both inevitable and endless, but these days there’s no mistaking Frolik for something he’s not: Jaromir Jagr, the iconic, all-world No. 68. Now the player once dubbed “Baby Jagr” is a checking specialist whose tireless efforts on the penalty kill have helped Chicago advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in four seasons.

The No. 67 jersey is just a coincidence, Frolik says: “When I was playing in the Czech Republic, I was wearing a smaller number, but when I got here, in juniors, they didn’t have my number, so I had to choose something bigger. I just chose 67 because I liked the number.”

It’s certainly unique in franchise history, as Frolik became the first Blackhawk to wear it after he was traded to Chicago from Florida in February 2011. As for the other thing—the Jagr question was at the top of everyone’s checklist during media day Tuesday, but Frolik readily expressed his admiration of the Czech great, whose career has spanned decades, continents, politico-geographical changes and iconic hairstyles.

“When I was growing up, he was my idol and from the same hometown [Kladno] as me, and I always looked up to him. It’s an honor to play against him, and it’s unbelievable that he’s still playing at this level at his age. I’m excited to play against him, and hopefully there’ll be some fun games.”

Jagr's age being 41, second-oldest in the league behind the ageless Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks, and so seasoned that his first-ever NHL regular-season game saw him skate against Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville, who was then in his last season with the Washington Capitals.

Their paths have crossed over the years, as they undoubtedly do when one shares a city and a team with the Czech Republic’s most famous hockey export. Frolik was promoted to HC Rabat Kladno in 2004-05, collecting four points (3G, 1A) in 27 games as a 16-year-old, while Jagr—twice Frolik’s age and already a 10-year NHL veteran—racked up 11 goals and 17 assists in just 17 lockout appearances for Kladno before moving on to Avangard Omsk of the Russian league.

Jagr was also just 16 when he broke into Kladno’s first team, but that’s where their career paths begin to diverge.

“I never really got into [the comparisons],” Frolik said. “It’s not true, I know how he was—one of a kind. What he’s done in his career is unbelievable, and no one can really do that in the future. He was amazing.”

Frolik and Jagr were teammates again at the 2011 World Championship, but it’s another Czech native that poses the biggest threat to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final: David Krejci, the NHL’s most prolific goalscorer (9) in the postseason and Boston’s top offensive threat, with a league-leading 21 points through 16 games. Krejci, too, came through Kladno, though just for one season.

“I played with him back home in juniors, one full year on the same line, so we’re good friends,” Frolik said. “He’s having a great playoffs. That whole line [with Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton] has been pretty good, and we have to be careful of them and make sure we play good defense on them, don’t give them any time. He’s a very smart player, and patient, so we have to play his body.”

Frolik is certainly familiar with his countrymen, but he may very well be the only Chicago player with any recent experience facing Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask, who spent the lockout in the Czech league and currently leads the NHL with a stratospheric .943 save percentage.

“He’s unbelievable right now,” Frolik said. “When he was in the Czech Republic, he was pretty good too, and made some huge saves. I actually scored on him during the lockout. It’s kind of the same story as before: We have to get in front of him and put pucks on net, go for the rebounds and score those ugly goals.”

Frolik’s role in the Stanley Cup Final isn’t necessarily to score goals, nor does it have to be, with Chicago’s top forwards contributing regularly through the first three rounds. And he certainly isn’t the offensive threat that Jagr was, and continues to be. There are a few exceptions, of course, namely Frolik’s growing collection of memorable playoff penalty shots—the first a nasty deke that hobbled Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider in a pivotal Game 6 during the 2011 playoffs, the second a snipe that froze Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard in another pivotal Game 6, this one much fresher in Blackhawks fans’ memories.

Something Frolik has done that Jagr has yet to accomplish: convert not one, but two penalty shots in the playoffs. Something Jagr has done that Frolik hopes to accomplish, beginning tomorrow evening in Game 1: getting his name on the Stanley Cup.

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