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Living life to the fullest

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Roman Hamrlik can’t stop smiling these days, and there’s a very good reason why.

Last Thursday afternoon, the 42-year-old former defenseman and his girlfriend, Cynthia Michaud, welcomed a baby girl named Billie Rose in Montreal, the city Hamrlik and his family have proudly called home on a full-time basis for the past two years.

Roman Hamrlik and his girlfriend, Cynthia, welcomed Billie Rose to the world at 3:39 p.m. EST on June 9 in Montreal.

The couple - who reside in Carignan - also have a four-year-old son, James. He's just beginning his foray into athletics under the watchful eye of his father, a man who knows a thing or two about making it – and sticking around – in the pros. After all, Hamrlik played 1,395 NHL games during a stellar 20-year career at hockey’s highest level.

“It’s been nice to be able to take care of him, take him to school and play street hockey outside with him over the past couple of years. It’s huge. When I was playing hockey, I didn’t have much time to do that with my older daughter, Natalie, who lives in the Czech Republic with her mom,” said Hamrlik, who hung up his skates for good in October 2013 after plying his trade for seven different NHL teams, including the Canadiens between 2007 and 2011. "I'm also happy that when I wake up and start my day now, I'm not sore anymore. It's been nice to not really have a schedule and just go with the flow."

Hamrlik couldn’t be happier to be raising his family in Quebec, which really was where his NHL story began nearly 25 years ago. The first-ever selection in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 1992, the Zlin, Czech Republic native heard his name called by team founder and Hockey-Hall-of-Famer Phil Esposito at the Montreal Forum. In that moment, Hamrlik became just the second European ever to be selected first overall in the NHL Draft after Mats Sundin in 1989.

“I guess I was being sent to this place as a kind of fate. I don’t really know. I always liked this city. It’s always been in my heart. I was really lucky that [former Canadiens general manager] Bob Gainey decided to sign me for four years so I could spend some time in Montreal. I couldn't wait to come here and put that jersey on for the first time. Now, it looks like we’re going to be staying here,” said Hamrlik, who surpassed the 300-game mark with three NHL teams – Tampa, Long Island and Montreal. “When you think about it, it’s interesting that things happened that way. I was drafted in Montreal, I played here, and now I ended up here with my family. This is home now.”

Even though his playing days are behind him, Hamrlik still pays close attention to the NHL, in general. He even makes it to the Bell Centre a few times a year to watch Michel Therrien’s troops in action. And, when he’s in the stands, it doesn’t take long for memories of his days with the Canadiens to come flooding back. Some, obviously, stand out from the rest.

“I just have good memories of being a member of the Canadiens, especially in the playoffs. It’s crazy that time of year. I wish anybody could experience what I experienced and have the feeling I had. The best place for me to play hockey was here. I wish I could have signed a 10-year deal and stayed even longer. For those four years, though, I had some of the best years of my career, hockey-wise,” said Hamrlik, before recalling taking part in the team’s outstanding postseason run in 2010.

Hamrlik enjoyed everything about being a member of the Canadiens, especially the atmosphere at the Bell Centre come playoff time.

“We were a bunch of guys that always stuck together, stuck to the system. We were a good group. I think we wanted it more than other teams. Even though we were the underdog [by virtue of finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference standings], we wanted it more than Washington and Pittsburgh, too. When that happens, you’re going to win. Going to the Conference Finals, I don’t think you can buy experiences like that. I still get goose bumps when I go to games, thinking back to playing in the Bell Centre in the playoffs,” added Hamrlik, who chipped in with nine assists in 19 postseason games that year, in addition to blocking 50 shots and dishing out 28 hits.

Likewise, Hamrlik will never forget suiting up against the rival Boston Bruins during the NHL’s second season. Wars like that aren’t generally waged between October and early April.

“Against them, you feel the locker room is rocking and the guys are rocking, too. The level of hockey is just somewhere else, and as Canadiens you love to play playoff hockey against Boston. You’re crushing guys, which is something I always liked to do. I took the hits and I gave the hits. It’s a different intensity,” shared Hamrlik, who, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at over 200 pounds, wasn’t at all afraid to throw his frame around. “We hated each other. When they came here, our fans hated them. When we went there, they hated us. Playing against Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic brought that out. It was fun hockey, special intensity.”

Hamrlik waged many of those postseason battles in Montreal with some of his countrymen by his side. Among them were Tomas Plekanec, Radek Bonk, Robert Lang and childhood friend Jaroslav Spacek, whom Hamrlik has known for over 25 years.

“We just tried to do what we had to do, work hard and play the game the way it was supposed to be played. Playing with guys like Plekanec and Spacek was special. I’ve known Spacek since I was 16 years old. We played together on a few Czech national teams, and we won gold at the Olympics in Nagano in 1998. Lang was also on that team. He was one hell of a hockey player. Great guy. Good teammate,” mentioned Spacek, who singled out a few other former Canadiens teammates as well. “Brian Gionta was a great leader and a great captain. I also spent a lot of time with Andrei Markov. When we were both hurt at one point, we worked out together every day. It’s great to see him still playing such good hockey.”

In retrospect, Hamrlik still can’t believe just how fortunate he really was to have had the privilege to play in the NHL for two decades. That certainly isn’t commonplace today. Growing up overseas wasn’t easy by any means, which makes his ultimately reaching the NHL ranks and the accomplishments that followed all the more special.

Hamrlik spending quality time with his new bundle of joy at home in Montreal.

“I still think of it as a dream come true. Back then, we didn’t have much. We grew up in a communist country. We didn’t get any games from North America on TV. Back in the early 90’s, some people had satellites and we’d sometimes get tapes of games. I’d watch them with my older brother, Martin. I remember the newspapers showing pictures of players who went over, guys like Petr Klima, Petr Svoboda and Frank Musil. Our dream was to come to North America and play in the best league in the world,” explained Hamrlik, who ranks 37th on the NHL’s all-time games played list. “I came to the league when I was 18. I dreamt of playing five or 10 years, to be honest, so you have to be really lucky. It’s really tough to make it with so many players out there. But, if someone likes you, they’ll open the door. Then, it’s up to you play well.”

Now, Hamrlik is eager to share his experience with youngsters keen on improving their game. In addition to working with Hockey Quebec and participating in clinics over the summer, he’ll also be appearing at the Montreal Canadiens Hockey School later on this month and on into July. It will be the perfect opportunity for him to give back to the game which gave him so much already.

“When I quit playing, I took some time off the ice. I’d probably been out there every day since I was six years old. I didn’t go on the ice for something like a year, but now I feel like I want to go back and help make kids wiser and better hockey players,” concluded Hamrlik. “I think I can give something back. Teaching has become a passion. I had chances to work with the best coaches and the best people in the hockey world. I have lots of good drills and lessons in mind to make kids better on defense.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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