PRAGUE, Czech Republic –
The kids fought over Henrik Lundqvist
's stick as if it was made of gold.
On his way back to the locker room after a short practice Thursday, Lundqvist signed some autographs and then lifted his stick into the crowd. One kid grabbed it and hoisted it over the railing, and then all his friends came rushing over to touch it, feel it, smell it, and, if they fought hard enough, hold it.
The NHL has come to Prague, and the buzz has a Stanley Cup Final feel to it. Those kids, part of the 10,000-plus fans who paid to see the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning
practice at the O2 Arena, represent exactly how this hockey-mad country feels about the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 (Saturday, noon EST; NHLN, CBC, RDS; Sunday, noon EST, VERSUS, RDS).
Finally, it's their opportunity to touch, feel, smell and grab a hold of the NHL.
"You can see it," said Rangers forward Petr Prucha
, one of five Czechs who could play this weekend. "It's just practice and we have 10,000 people here and they even have to buy a ticket for a seat in practice. They're really excited about it."
and Vinny Lecavalier probably are as recognizable as the Czech prime minister these days. Their pictures adorn the posters advertising the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, and they are plastered just about everywhere in the city – street signs, street light polls, billboards, windows, walls, and even inside the O2 Arena.
"Everywhere I walk I see them," Lightning forward Jason Ward
Roughly 170 credentials have been issued to media from all different countries. Their readers want to know about the NHL and what it's like to play in the world's most prestigious league.
And just like everyone else here, the attending media wants to touch, feel, smell and grab a hold of the NHL, even if it's only for a few days.
"I think a lot of people are interested very much in it," said Tomas Horacek, who writes for the Czech Web site, Sport.cz. "It's of course a great opportunity to see big NHL stars like Lecavalier and Gomez and the Czech players. I'm very interested in Saturday's atmosphere. I'm longing for it."
Horacek said his readers especially want to read about native Czechs like Prucha and Michal Rozsival
of the Rangers, and Vaclav Prospal
, Radim Vrbata
and David Koci
of the Lightning.
"They want to know what they feel, the Czech players," he said. "For Czech fans, they are more interesting than Lecavalier and Gomez."
The fans were treated to a concert as well as two practices Thursday. For the players, practicing in front of 10,000 fans was quite an experience.
"A little weird, but fun," Lundqvist said. "It's impressive that so many people show up for a practice. It shows they like the sport. They like hockey and they like the NHL. You try to give back something. We threw out T-shirts and I gave away the stick. Hopefully they had a good time, even though the practice was short."
Added Rangers defenseman Marc Staal
: "It's a little different from what we get at the (Madison Square Garden) Training Center. It's great to see the kind of support we're getting already, just for practice two days before the start of the season. They're very excited to see some NHL hockey. We want to put on a good show."
"Prague is a special place. I get to hear about it all the time from (Vaclav Prospal), and now that we're here, everything he says about it is true. It kind of reminds me a little bit of Montreal with the old city that is very beautiful and has a lot of places to walk around and little cafes. It's just beautiful."
-- Vincent Lecavalier
According to Rangers coach Tom Renney, they tried a little too hard to do that during Thursday's 45-minute workout.
"We did some very unique things in our practice that made you think the guys were trying to put on a bit of a show, but it was good," Renney said. "The enthusiasm is certainly there. I remember back to the '04 World Championships here and it was just an incredible environment. I'm not surprised that there was that much interest in our skates, and Tampa's as well. We're in for a pretty good weekend."
Of course, now that the NHL has come to Europe, the media and fans naturally want to know if the NHL will come back on a more permanent basis by creating a European division.
While that isn't a short-term goal for the League, commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA president Paul Kelly
said there is no reason to rule it out in the long term.
Tampa Bay coach Barry Melrose
said the passion he has seen from the fans in Berlin, Bratislava and now Prague warrants discussion on the matter.
"They're proud of their players that have played in the NHL for so long," Melrose said. "This is a chance for them to show off this beautiful building. It's a chance to show the NHL that the NHL should consider a European division. I would think the games will be very, very well received with great crowds and great exuberance."
For a Czech player like Prospal, having the NHL in his country is wonderful on a professional and a personal level.
"It's a special feeling because I get to play an NHL game in my country, in front of my family and all my friends," he said. "The greatest thing is that my teammates get a chance to see where we are coming from. They get to know the Czech Republic a little bit. I get a chance to live in the United States, and now they get a chance to see where I come from."
"I really enjoy being in Europe and Prague is a special place," added Lecavalier. "I get to hear about it all the time from (Prospal), and now that we're here, everything he says about it is true. It kind of reminds me a little bit of Montreal with the old city that is very beautiful and has a lot of places to walk around and little cafes. It's just beautiful."
Outside the arena, especially at the team hotels, the fans are congregating just to get a glimpse of the stars most of them only have seen on television or the computer.
When the Rangers arrived at their hotel, they were greeted by autograph seekers. Even one of the airport personnel helping them de-plane asked Prucha and Rozsival to sign something.
As for the Lightning, who spent two days in Prague before leaving for Berlin last Sunday, they've also been followed by autograph seekers.
"I don't even think they know who we are, they just think we're hockey players so they just ask us for our autographs," Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone
said. "The seekers have been there since Day 1. Hey, whatever makes them happy."
Malone, who played for the Pittsburgh Penguins
the last four seasons, said he has seen a lot of Penguins fans in Prague. Maybe they got confused because their club is in Stockholm, but they're here nonetheless.
He's also spoken to people from Montreal and, of course, Tampa. The Lightning players attended an event for their fans following their workout at the O2 Arena on Thursday.
"We're bumping into fans in the street from all over that are here to watch the game," Malone said. "It's a privilege to be here to experience this."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.