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Prucha, Vrbata enjoying return trip to Czech Republic

by Shawn P. Roarke
PRAGUE -- While playing an NHL game in their home country now is old hat, Petr Prucha and Radim Vrbata of the Phoenix Coyotes are over the moon to be getting a second crack at that honor.
"This is my second time going to Prague and I feel real lucky that this is the second time that the NHL has played in Prague and I have been in both of them," Vrbata told "I am really excited."
Vrbata was a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning when they went to Prague two seasons ago to play the New York Rangers, a team that featured Prucha.
So Vrbata and Prucha know what awaits them upon arrival Monday morning in their country's capital city. Phoenix plays Boston on Saturday (Noon ET, VERSUS, TSN) and Sunday (10 a.m. ET, NHL-CA) in the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere Challenge.
Vrbata still remembers the uncertainty he experienced when he arrived with the Lightning, unsure what lay ahead in one of the biggest hockey adventures of a lifetime full of such adventures.
"The first time, I did not know what to expect at all," he said. "I did not know how many people would show up, how the crowd was going to be -- anything."
Vrbata partially was unsure of how the games would be received because of the Jaromir Jagr factor. Jagr, who had been a member of the Rangers when the game was announced, no longer was with that team -- having left via free agency -- when it left for Europe.
"It was kind of a let down a little for fans because he is kind of a hero in Czech Republic," Vrbata said. "Everybody was looking for him to play an NHL game at home."
But the disappointment did not linger. The teams played two memorable games, much to the delight of a Czech population that loves the game.
"Overall, it was a good experience for everybody, I think," Vrbata said.
It certainly was for Prucha, who lives in downtown Prague in the offseason.
"It was really exciting," Prucha told "My family got to see me play back home, and my friends, too. It was a good experience."
Now, he is ready to pass on the things he learned from that first trip to his Phoenix Coyotes teammates.
First, he has cautioned them not to expect to enjoy Prague too much. First and foremost, this is a business trip for the Coyotes, who much more are under the microscope after last season's success. They do not want to return home without any points in the bank.
"I thought we would have lots of free time in Prague and I would be able to hang out with family and friends, but we got there and we didn't get a lot of free time at all," Prucha said. "We had lots of team events and all of a sudden the games came and we just played and disappeared."
While there wasn't as much free time as Prucha wanted, there was time to explore one of the jewels of European cities. That time is worked into Phoenix's schedule this week.
And the team's three Czechs -- Vrbata, Prucha and Martin Hanzal -- promise to play tour guides.
"We'll show them anything they want," Prucha said. "There is lots of stuff to see. Even old town, it is just so beautiful. They can spend lots of time there and have a great time."
Unlike Vrbata and Prucha, Hanzal is going to Prague for the first time as an NHL player.
Because of that, the fourth-year pro has the enthusiasm of a rookie as the opening of the regular season -- Saturday here against Boston -- comes closer.
For him, it will be a chance to see a ton of family and friends as he is from Pisek, a town just 90 minutes south of Prague. In fact, he already has had to scrounge up 25 tickets for the Prague games.
But he also is excited to see how this trip affects his team. The Coyotes want to build on last season and have added a few new pieces that have to be fit into the system. Hanzal believes a week in Europe will be just the trick to make that happen.
After all, the Stanley Cup champion from each of the past two seasons -- Pittsburgh and Chicago -- opened their championship campaigns in Europe.
"It's early in the season and it will be a good situation for the team to get together and spend some time together on a road trip," Hanzal told "For us, it's going home. But for the other guys, it might be a different experience.
"You know, you play 82 games in the same cities pretty much and this will be something new for them. It will be a chance to bond."

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