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After some delays due to über-strict baggage screening in Berlin, the Lightning touched down in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava after 11 p.m. last night. As the team exited the airport terminal for the bus, a crush of about 50 Slovakian media greeted them. Slovaks Andrej Meszaros and Vladimir Mihalik took their turns in the spotlight, answering as many questions as they could before hopping on the bus. It’s funny how the spotlight keeps shifting on this trip, from Prospal-Vrbata-Koci, to Kolzig, and now to Meszaros and Mihalik.
Though we had police escorts to and from the airport in Prague, they had nothing on the Slovakian “Policia” who created a moving roadblock, nearly running unwitting drivers off the highway. We arrived at the Carlton Hotel, in the old city center along the Danube River, just before midnight. The Lightning's two-day Slovakian tour is being organized by an expatriate American businessman who, we're told, owns our hotel (and another), the airport and the local hockey team, HC Slovan. Needless to say, everyone in the traveling party is being treated like royalty and the Lightning's visit seems to be a much bigger deal here than it is in Prague. It seems like Lightning travel guru Ryan Belec has 3-4 people hovering near him at all times waiting on any special requests.
Kicking off the day today was an autograph session in the hotel restaurant for Vincent Lecavalier
, Martin St. Louis
, Meszaros and Kolzig. They were joined by four players from HC Slovan, and the crowd was very excited about the first visit to Slovakia by an NHL team. After a lunch at a neighboring hotel (next to the U.S. Embassy) with the entire HC Slovan team, the Bolts headed to Samsung Arena for practice. The arena is small and old, as Scott Audette's photo blog will hopefully show, but has a lot of character. It should be a great atmosphere for tomorrow night’s game.
After the regular practice the team held an open practice for the fans, followed by some autographs for the kids. Once again, it was made clear how excited everyone is to have the Lightning in town. It’s 2 p.m. ET now (8 p.m. here) and we’re off to a gala red carpet dinner with Slovak government officials, Russian hockey legend Igor Larionov and whoever else they spring on us. One of the tables has a “Stastny” namecard on it, so maybe we’ll be dining with Slovakian hockey royalty as well.