Ten-year-old Ondrej Palat nearly had his hockey career derailed before it ever really got off the ground.
A young Palat and his family stopped at a supermarket after one of his games, leaving his hockey equipment bag on the back seat of their car. Inside was a pair of Nike skates Palat had begged his parents for and gotten only two weeks earlier.
"I loved those skates," Palat recalled.
When they exited the store, the bag was gone. All of his equipment -- the new skates, sticks, helmet, pads - stolen.
"It was kind of a big deal because my parents didn't have that much money to buy new equipment," Palat said.
Palat grew up in Frydek-Mistek in the Czech Republic, an industrial town of about 70,000 residents. The people there are a blue-collar mix of steel workers and coal miners. The average salary is below that of the rest of the Czech Republic.
Hockey equipment is expensive. For a child, even more so as growth spurts necessitate the purchase of bigger gear fairly often. Not everybody has the opportunity to start playing hockey because of the cost of entry. Others drop out when they can't afford equipment upgrades.
When Palat had his gear stolen, his parents made sure he was able to keep playing.
But it was a struggle.
"We had to rent equipment a lot of the time," Palat said. "Every rink has older equipment that you can rent. It wasn't ideal, but I was able to keep playing.
"My parents found a way."
Not every family in Frydek-Mistek can find a way, however, and it's those children Palat thinks about when he remembers the hardships he endured to play the game he loved.
Palat has another memory from his childhood, this one when he was about 15. Stanley Cup champion Pavel Kubina donated sets of hockey equipment to the youth teams at the local hockey club HC Frydek-Mistek. Kubina, of course, is a Lightning legend having played with Tampa Bay for nine seasons and helping the franchise win its first Stanley Cup in 2004. Kubina was also the only player to make it to the NHL from Frydek-Mistek until Palat came along.
Palat was too old to benefit from Kubina's donation as the sets were given to younger kids.
It left an impact though.
"I remember it was kind of a big deal," he said.
Palat wanted to create his own legacy and help out the next generation of players coming through Frydek-Mistek by donating new hockey equipment. Who knows, maybe he'd aid the next Kubina or Palat? There could be another future Lightning player waiting to break out. If nothing else, he wanted to make sure kids could try out the game of hockey without creating a financial drain on their family. Some parents are reluctant to enter their children in hockey programs for fear they'll shell out for the expensive equipment and a year later the kid's no longer interested in the sport.
He enlisted the help of his friend Jakub Mikulik who is the executive manager of HC Frydek-Mistek. In previous offseasons, Palat would return to his hometown to spend the summer with his family and train. A couple years ago, he asked his trainer if he knew anybody who could help him improve his golf game. He'd never played much before, and most of his teammates on the Lightning were avid golfers.
He didn't want to get left out when he returned to Tampa.
"The guys talk about nothing but golf," Palat said, laughing. "I'm like, 'Alright, I guess I should learn how to play.'"
His trainer was good friends with Mikulik, who used to be a professional golfer but stepped away from the game for three years when his dad had a health scare he's since recovered from. The trainer put the two in touch.
Mikulik has spent the last two summers helping Palat get the golf 'green card' required to play Czech courses, selecting the right equipment for him, giving him tips on how to improve his game, how to enjoy the game.
"His swing is not bad," Mikulik said. "It's a hockey swing, but I try not to change it much, just the basics. It's just about having fun and taking off the pressure and hanging out with his boys from the locker room."
Now Palat needed Mikulik's help again, but for a more important endeavor.
He knew the NHLPA had a Goals & Dreams fund that aided grassroots hockey programs assisting economically-disadvantaged children. But he needed someone who was fluent in both English and Czech who could help with the application and navigate the bureaucratic process.
"Jakub made sure everything was legit," Palat said.
Mikulik has another connection to Palat and the Lightning. After his dream of becoming a touring pro golfer was sidetracked, he set a new goal of getting his master's degree. He applied and was accepted into the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management program at the University of South Florida and spent two seasons working in the Lightning organization. In 2016-17, he was the Bugkeeper for ThunderBug. He assisted the Lightning mascot at different events around town, navigated AMALIE Arena with Bug during games and ran the social media account. During the 2017-18 season, Mikulik worked as a USF resident at the Lightning Made Sales Academy. He helped put together a successful Czech and Slovak Heritage Night for one of the games that season.
He graduated from the program and earned his master's in May of 2018.
"It was absolutely phenomenal," Mikulik said of the program. "(Former program director) Dr. (Bill) Sutton, he is my man. He gave me an opportunity to change my life."
Mikulik is a one-man operation for the professional team at HC Frydek-Mistek - literally, he's the only employee -- and also assists the youth academy.
"I cover everything," Mikulik said. "I get the sponsorship agreements together, make sure they get fulfilled, do all the marketing, financials, make sure that we have some reporters at our games, give them information what to write about, take care of the social media, website and things like that."
He's also a project manager for HC Ocelari Trinec, a partner team of HC Frydek-Mistek that plays in and is the defending champion of the Czech Extraliga, the top tier of Czech pro hockey.
"(Lightning VP of business strategy and analytics) Chris Kamke helped me to design the variable pricing for the Trinec team," Mikulik said. "Now we are doing evaluation of social media and how we can utilize social media to increase revenue with partners and give them the opportunity to advertise on different social media channels."
During a preseason game between HC Frydek-Mistek and HC Ocelari Trinec this September, Palat's gift to the youth academy at Frydek-Mistek, the same academy where Palat started his playing career when he was four years old, will be presented during the first intermission. Palat plans to record a video message to play on the video board - he'd do it in person but hopefully he's still competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Lightning at the time - explaining the donation and why it's important to him. Palat's parents will be on the ice handing out sets of hockey equipment to 25 young players ranging in age from six to eight years old.
"Ondrej is a phenomenal guy," Mikulik said. "He really tries to give back and is super humble. Unbelievable man. His parents are the same."
A couple weeks ago, Trinec hosted a celebration of hockey at its arena with 1,500 attendees throughout the weekend. Mikulik asked Palat if he could help out with a recorded message to show at the event. Palat greeted fans on the video board when they entered and invited them to test their ability on the different skills competitions set up throughout the arena.
"He sent me a video he recorded on his phone, like, 'Hey everybody, hope you are having fun. Try testing your shot and finding your speed. Mine is about 160 kilometers per hour. Let's see what you can do,'" Mikulik said. "This would play like every 30 minutes."
Palat's father Pavel was interviewed in front of the crowd and shared stories about Ondrej growing up.
Pavel helps with recruitment for the youth academy at HC Frydek-Mistek and is a coach for three of the youth teams.
"Never met a better coach that works with so well with the kids," Mikulik said.
Some of the kids on those teams coached by Pavel will benefit from his son's donation. Mikulik remembers when he was a young hockey player, he would use old hockey equipment passed down from older kids that was past its prime and, frankly, unsafe. It was the only way he could keep playing.
Palat's donation will help ensure that the next generation of players coming out of the Frydek-Mistek youth academy will have brand new, state-of-the-art equipment to train and compete in.
"Kubina was the one who started the love for the Tampa Bay Lightning in this town and Ondrej just keeps the following going," Mikulik said. "I never see people in this town wearing any other logo but Tampa Bay Lightning. This is a Tampa Bay Lightning town."