Looking back at Roman Hamrlik’s 20-year career, it feels like just yesterday the Tampa Bay Lightning were calling the 18-year-old’s name at the 1992 National Hockey League Draft as their first selection ever in franchise history.
The young boy from Zlin, Czechoslovakia, who did not speak a lick of English. The boy whose parents, through an interpeter, told the Bolts they were not sure they wanted their son to leave home at such a young age. The boy whose whole family joined the Lightning in Tampa Bay to tour the area and well, the rest is history.
The Bolts’ inaugural pick of Hamrlik was selected first overall, a feat in itself.
According to Lightning founder Phil Esposito, his infatuation with Hamrlik started in the months leading up to the draft when he traveled to Germany for the World Junior Championships to scout a few players who were on his mind. At first glance, Esposito was thinking about selecting Alexei Yashin, but when he saw Hamrlik play, there was no doubt in his mind he was going to go first overall.
Then came the moment that decided if the Lightning would be able to select the young countryman, it was as simple as a flip of a coin, literally. That is how the Bolts and the other expansion team, the Ottawa Senators, determined who was going to pick first and second in the draft.
“I still have that coin that has Tampa Bay and Ottawa’s name on it too,” Esposito said. “I flipped that coin in Pittsburgh and I saw the Lightning’s name come up. I wanted to get back to headquarters in a hurry because I was so excited that we were going to pick first, we were going to get Roman Hamrlik.”
The feeling at the other end of the spectrum was mutual. Hamrlik called being drafted by the Bolts one of his “most cherished memories” in a career that had many unbelievable moments.
“It was an unbelievable honor to me,” Hamrlik said. “I never thought I would be picked first overall, or that I would be playing in such a great city, with such a great organization. I was really thrilled that Phil and the Lightning had believed in me so strongly and that I could be a part of the team’s history.”
Prior to being picked, Esposito recalled countless phone calls following the announcement that his organization had first dibs, as clubs bent over backwards offering tremendous players who would make the Lightning right off the bat. But there was a catch; Tampa Bay would have to give up Hamrlik and that was something it was not willing to do.
“We were an expansion team,” Esposito said. “We wanted to build around this youngster because he was the type of player and defenseman that you could build a team around.”
From there Hamrlik helped establish hockey in the Bay-area.
“I can’t believe that after all these years of playing hockey I can look back and say that I was part of their team’s history,” Hamrlik said. “I’m just happy that they gave me the opportunity to play and hopefully I performed up to their expectations while I was there.”
Still a wide-eyed teen, who had made a cross-country venture a few months before, Hamrlik appeared in his first NHL contest against the Chicago Blackhawks on October 7, 1992, the home opener of the 1992-93 campaign. The Bolts won 7-3.
“I knew at that point I had come full-circle in my lifelong dream, to play in the NHL,” Hamrlik said. “I was honored to be wearing a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey.”
And though it took him five more games, which Hamrlik “vividly remembers,” to score his first career goal against the Edmonton Oilers, Esposito was not hindered by his rookie season where he amassed just 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 67 games. It was exactly what he expected from an 18-year-old breaking into the league.
“It was during the 1995-96 season, four seasons into his tenure, that he truly began to come into his own,” Esposito said. “He was an All-Star that year, we made the playoffs and I thought Roman had a lot to do with our success.”
In his first of three All-Star games (1996, 1999, 2003), Hamrlik had the opportunity to play alongside his NHL idol Ray Bourque.
“I followed his career, along with Paul Coffey, as a kid and hoped to one day be like them,” Hamrlik said. “It was an unforgettable experience.”
Becoming the perennial player the Lightning had expected that year, the now-40-year-old went on to play in 1,395 NHL games, the 12th-most by an NHL defenseman. During the 1995-96 campaign Hamrlik put up his best career numbers, including career-highs for games played (82), assists (49), points (65) and power-play goals (12). His 16 tallies were matched just one other time in his career (2000-01).
Esposito fought hard for the blueliner to stay on the Bolts amidst his sixth season, and while the inevitable happened, their first overall pick was traded, Hamrlik still holds a special place for the city where it all began.
“As a kid coming from the Czech Republic and not speaking much English, Tampa was an entirely new world to me,” he said. “I remember seeing myself on a bunch of billboards throughout Tampa. I felt like a movie star.”
Meeting his favorite band, Metallica, and buying his first home in Cheval, Florida for his parents and himself were also “fond memories” not to be forgotten.
Now Hamrlik still keeps a watchful eye over the region, as the organization has progressed from an expansion team to a Stanley Cup-winning club in 2003-04, with a continuously growing fan base.
“I’ve witnessed the growing devotion and appreciation of the fans for the sport and their home team,” Hamrlik said. “Tampa Bay has made a strong appearance in the hockey world too, I’ve seen the rapid evolution of this organization since having left and I believe that they will continue to play a key role in the NHL.”
Only appearing in 16 combined games with the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers during the 2012-13 season, Hamrlik officially announced his retirement from his home in Montreal on October 21, 2013 after 20 seasons in the league.
“It’s funny how things work out, my career began in Montreal when I was drafted and it ended in Montreal with my resignation,” Hamrlik said. “I just plan to enjoy my free time with my friends and family. I want to see parts of the world I haven’t yet seen.”
There is one part of the world Hamrlik will never forget though, and that is the city tucked on the Gulf-side of the Sunshine State – Tampa Bay.
“I feel lucky and honored to be a part of the team, the organization and the NHL,” Hamrlik said. “I look back on my career and think that my time in Tampa was special.”