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HOMETOWN HERO

By Ryan Dittrick - CalgaryFlames.com

There was a time, many years ago, when the NHL wasn't even a blip on his radar.

His dream was to follow in the footsteps of his childhood heroes and, like them, become a homegrown icon.

Because, you see, there was nothing more important to Michael Frolik than doing right by the community that made his life in small-town Kladno so memorable.

"For me, and I think most kids around my age, it was all about the hometown team," Frolik reminisces. "Those are the games I would go to - the ones I grew up watching and dreamt of one day playing in."

It's not that there was no interest in keeping up with the world's best league - it was, quite simply, a matter of geography and logistics. There was no Twitter, no YouTube, no 24/7 exposure fans crave and have ultimately become accustomed to over the past decade.

In a town of 100,000, and with the thrilling local club competing in one of the highest ranks in all of Europe, Kladno residents had other priorities.

And supporting their own was right near the top.

Still is.

"I remember undressing out of my gear as fast as I could and racing back from my own games to make it in time for puck drop of the men's league games," Frolik says. "I would do that every chance I had.

"At the time, I never thought - not in a million years - that I would end up here in the NHL, and be lucky enough to play in both. I played my first men's league game when I was only 16. It was during the (2004-05) NHL lockout, so there were a lot of great players on that team. Pavel Patera - one of the best players to ever come out of Kladno - led our team in scoring. He played there pretty much his whole career. (Jaromir) Jagr, obviously. (Tomas) Kaberle, (Martin) Prochazka, and even my brother, Martin, all played on that team, too.

"For someone that grew up dreaming of playing on that team, and to get my introduction alongside those guys, it was incredible. I think it helped me become the player I am today."

 

Indeed, hockey was the bond that brought that community together.

After all, a surprisingly high number of Czech stars were born there, and began their ascent to stardom in the hills of the metro suburbs.

There, the old Zimni Stadion - a quaint, 5,000-seat facility, snuggled on the outskirts off the city's lush and unassuming, tree-lined roads - was home to Kladno's pro club.

Or, as Frolik put it: "The House that Jagr Built."

The former Flame and longtime NHL legend is an unsullied image of the nation, like Sidney Crosby is to young Canadians, or Auston Matthews to the growing number of Arizona children developing an interest in the game.

But on a far, far grander scale.

"He's a God in Kladno," Frolik says. "He always has been and always will be.

"Every building we went to on the road, it was packed; sold out, every time. Everyone wanted to see him. Heck, I wanted to see him, too. To be that young and to be able to share the same room as him, to learn from him and see what he does on and off the ice, you couldn't ask for anything more.

"He was my idol.

"For him to be from Kladno, to represent our town in the NHL, the Olympics, World Championships …

"It's amazing.

"It's impossible not to be proud of my hometown when a guy like that is from there and represents everything that's good and famous about our city."

While Jagr and the men's team were the centerpiece, the quiet, classic bedroom community of the populous Czech capital was more than a hockey haven.

It was home.

And countless memories were made there.

 

Frolik, a chatty youngster, had a group of three friends that were inseparable growing up, including current Philadelphia Flyers forward Jake Voracek, and former NHLers Jiri Tlusty and Ondrej Pavelec.

"We were like brothers," Tlusty says. "Whatever we did, we did together.

"I love those guys.

"The funny thing is, we fought like brothers, too. Stupid stuff. For whatever reason, Michael had trouble reading (analog) clocks when he was younger. No lie. He insisted that everything - his watch, clocks around the house - be digital. Everything digital.

"It would drive everyone nuts because he was always asking what time it was. We were like, 'Come on, there's a clock right there!'

"But that's the way it was. We were kids

"We all had a great childhood filled with fun and laughter."

From strapping on the pads together when they first met as seven years old, to sampling the many bites and pastry shops on the cobblestone Poděbradova, there was nothing these three didn't experience as one in their formative years back home.

Together, Frolik and Tlusty played together on the same teams until the NHL beckoned, more than 10 years after a flourishing friendship initially took flight.

It was the summer of 2006. Frolik was drafted in the first round by the Florida Panthers; Tlusty, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Pavelec, a 2005 draftee, was already playing with Cape Breton of the QMJHL while Voracek, the youngest of the four, had previously debuted in the Q ahead of his 2007 selection.

Before long, all were pro bound.

"I think it was the '06-07 season," recalls Tlusty, who played for the OHL's Soo Greyhounds that season. "That was the first year I remember us not being together on the same team.

"But somehow, we all came together, anyway."

 

In 2015, after almost a decade with the Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes organizations, Tlusty was traded to the Winnipeg Jets, joining Frolik and Pavelec on the same team once again.

During their first practice together in NHL silks, the trio gathered together and recreated a stunning, symbolic image of their affable upbringing.

"It's crazy to think that four guys, four friends from a small town, could grow up together and end up playing in the best league in the world together later in our lives," Tlusty says.

"And then, on top of that, for three of us to play on the same team at one point?

"Incredible.

"Who would have thought?

"We're proud of where we're from. Being so close to Prague, we had all the big-city (amenities) with a small-town feel. I think that's why we loved it, and still do to this day. You love the vibe, you feel safe, and the people are amazing. To this day, I think Kladno is one, if not the best cities in the world to play hockey.

"The group that we had and grew up together with, it's unreal.

"It shouldn't have happened, but it did."

Frolik, his wife, Diana, and daughters Ella and Lily, now reside in Prague - about a 30-minute drive from Kladno - in the off-season.

He makes the short jaunt several times a week to visit his parents and, at times, reconnect with his buddies over a friendly round of golf.

"Every time the boys come back for the summer, we're always hanging out and spending time together, just like we used to when we were younger," Frolik says.

"It's home for me.

"Always will be.

"All of my childhood memories are tied to that city, to that rink. It's where my heroes played, and where I got to chance to really start my career. I don't visit (the rink) as much as I'd like to nowadays, but I always make a point to whenever I'm back home.

"Everything's as I remembered it. The lobby, the halls, the dressing rooms, the bleachers, the unbelievable ice …

"Oh, the ice. It was like glass."

 

While Frolik, like many European players, returns home each off-season, one visit in particular stands among the rest in his usual summertime ritual.

After winning the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, the now 30-year-old dropped in - Cup in hand - and celebrated what was once a distant dream on home soil with the people that mattered most.

Within minutes of his arrival, he came to realize the sheer enormity of the event.

His life had truly come full circle.

Now he was the hero the next generation of Kladno's youth aspired to be.

"It was crazy," Frolik says, pausing.

"I never imagined how special that moment would be. Even now, just talking about it, I'm getting goose bumps.

"To bring it home, to celebrate that accomplishment with all the people that supported me in my hometown, it was one of those things that I'll remember for the rest of my life. We had a signing section; we took pictures, had a stage - everything. At that point, I lived in a small village outside the city, so I brought it there, too, and made sure all of my neighbours got the chance to participate in all the festivities, as well.

"Winning the Cup at all was incredibly special, but to be able to bring it back to my hometown - where it all began - that was the best.

"I want nothing more than to be able to do it again someday.

"Going back for a second time, as a Flame, maybe…

"I'm getting goose bumps again just thinking about it."

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