Looking back at Roman Hamrlik’s 20-year career, it feels like just yesterday I was calling this 18-year-old boy’s name at the 1992 National Hockey League Draft as our first selection ever in franchise history.
The boy from Czechoslovakia (when it was still called that), who didn’t speak a lick of English. The boy whose parents, through an interpreter, told me they were not sure they wanted their son to leave home at such a young age. The boy whose whole family joined us in Tampa Bay to tour the area and well, the rest is history….
Our first pick ever and we got him at number one, a feat in itself.
My infatuation with Roman started in the months leading up to the draft when I traveled to Germany for the World Junior Championships to scout a few players who were on my mind. I truly was thinking about selecting Alexei Yashin because he was a center and I played the position too, but when I saw Roman, there was no doubt in my mind he was going to go first overall.
Then came the moment that decided if we would be able to select the young countryman, it was as simple as the flip of a coin, literally.
And I still have that coin that has Tampa Bay and Ottawa’s name on it too – that is how we and the other expansion team, the Senators, determined who was going to pick first and who was going to pick second in the draft.
I flipped that coin in Pittsburgh and I saw the Lightning’s name come up. I wanted to get back to Tampa Bay in a hurry because I was so excited that we were going to pick first, we were going to get Roman Hamrlik.
It was something that I had only seen play out in scenarios the other scouts and I practiced in a type of dress rehearsal; a mock draft if you will. Once I had my brother, Tony, pick for Ottawa and Donnie Murdoch, our head scout at the time, pick for Tampa Bay, then vice versa. We wanted to be prepared for each and every possibility, but we never thought the situation would play out in our favor.
Countless phone calls followed as word spread that the Lightning would be choosing first that year. While in Montreal, teams were bending over backwards offering tremendous amounts of players who would make us good and a competitor right off the bat. But there was a catch, we would have to give them Roman, which I was not willing to do.
Plus I saw it differently - we were an expansion team, we wanted to build around this youngster because he was the type of player and defenseman that you could build a team around.
When all was said and done we had Roman out on the ice at the age of 18 and he was okay, but that is exactly what I expected. It was during the 1995-96 season, four seasons into his tenure, that he truly began to come into his own. He was an All-Star that year, we made the playoffs for the first time and I thought Roman had a lot to do with our success.
The following year was the first time the idea of trading Roman was proposed and I thought, ‘Are you crazy? We’re not going to trade him!’ I fought the constant badgering for two years, but in December of 1997 we let Roman go.
I wanted him to go as far away as possible from Florida because I was upset we were getting rid of him, so we traded him to the Edmonton Oilers and in exchange we received Jason Bonsignore, Steve Kelly and Bryan Marchment. Edmonton definitely got the better end of the deal, Bonsignore was sent down, Kelly was traded, the only positive that came was that Marchment was a reason the franchise later was able to draft Vinny Lecavalier. Yet, without a doubt, I regret having to part ways with him.
There was one last hope that we would see Roman as a Bolt again. Before he went to the Washington Capitals in 2011-12, I thought he just might re-join the Lightning. I had this feeling…I called him and I said, ‘Look you’re a free agent, why don’t you come back to Tampa Bay?’
It didn’t end up working out that way, but Roman had a terrific career, one that the rest of the hockey community will never forget and I will certainly always remember.
NOTE: Hamrlik played in 1,395 NHL games, which is 12th-most by an NHL defenseman. The current active leader trails Hamrlik by 200 games in that department. His fourth season with the Lightning (1995-96) Hamrlik put up his best career numbers, including career-highs for games played (82), assists (49), points (65) and power-play goals (12). He also scored 16 goals, which he matched just one other time in his career.