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Teammates Gudas, Palat hope to shine in Sochi

by Michael Langr

Despite being almost the same age and hailing from the same country, Radko Gudas and Ondrej Palat do not have much in common.

"Just beer," they both said, laughing.

Despite their differences, they've become very close friends since first meeting while playing for the Czech Under-17 national team. It is a bond that has carried them both to North America and eventually together to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now that bond carries them to Russia where they will both represent the Czech Republic in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"We've had an opportunity to play quite important roles in Tampa, that's why I think we can fit into different roles in our [Czech] team, too. I think we are ready both physically and mentally," Gudas told before he and Palat boarded a plane heading for Sochi

The fans in the Czech Republic are eager to see both Lighting teammates on international ice. They call the duo "Terence Hill" and "Bud Spencer", a reference to a popular European comedy and spaghetti western duo from the 80's.

The correlation to the actors is actually quite accurate.

Palat, playing at left wing, is fast. Gudas, meanwhile, is a tough defenseman. Palat comes from the eastern part of the Czech Republic with its specific dialect, which makes Gudas laugh.

"He says it's Poland where I was born, but I am proud of my hometown [Frydek-Mistek]," Palat said. "At least I know how to play Xbox. He does not even know how to hold the gamepad."

Gudas, 23, was picked by Tampa Bay in the third round of the 2010 NHL Draft, one year before Palat, 22, became the Lighting's seventh-round pick. Today, each has more than 70 NHL games on his resume. In 53 games this season, Gudas has two goals and 16 points. Palat has 14 goals and 34 points in 58 appearances in 2013-14.

But the friendship between the Czech players did not blossom in Tampa. It took root a couple of years earlier as both played for Tampa Bay's affiliates in the American Hockey League, Norfolk and Syracuse. It was there that each player really began chasing his major-league dreams.

"Two Czechs and two Slovaks [Jaroslav Janus and Richard Panik] living together. We rented a house right on Virginia Beach. We enjoyed the sea very much, spent a lot of time together with the Slovak guys," Palat said. "We went to the AHL finals with Norfolk, so we were successful on the ice. And off the ice we did a lot of surfing. We had great times."

Thanks to their Virginia experience, the two fellows from the country with no sea learned how to surf and enjoyed life at the beach.

"The practice came to an end and we hit the boards. We've been taught by a surf pro, we had great times," Gudas said.

"It was good fitness training, too," Palat added. "Sometimes it took us two hours just to get behind the waves. Sweat like pigs, the next day there was so much pain in our hands."

The hard work on and off the ice has certainly paid dividends as each player will compete in their first Olympics.

"It's a dream of every hockey player. Growing up, we were watching [Jaromir] Jagr and dreamed about playing here, too," Gudas said.

The toughness and defensive responsibility Gudas brings to the equations is an asset for the Lightning this year, as is Palat's speed and scoring ability. A couple of days before the Olympic break, Palat was named Rookie of the Month in the NHL. He led all rookies in scoring with 16 points in 15 games and registered points in the first five games of the month, extending his point streak to eight games, the longest ever by a Lightning rookie. He also tallied points in five consecutive games at the end of the month.

"I am glad to have a lot of ice time and to play with guys like Martin St. Louis," Palat said. "He's been in the League for some years. He helped us young kids a lot, gave us confidence. I think we play well."

The other key factor in the development of these two players is Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who spent three years coaching Gudas and two years coaching Palat in the AHL.

"He has been working with us since the beginning, we know him very well," Gudas said. "He is a great coach and a great person. He treats hockey players with respect and he is very clever. He knows what to do with the players and when to do it."

"It's an advantage for us. He knows what to expect from us, we know his system and it's easier to stick with the game plan," said Palat, whose scoring helped lift the Lightning after star center Steven Stamkos suffered a broken leg in November. "We have a young team. After the [Stamkos injury], we were down for a couple of games, but young guys stepped up and the vets joined in. I think it works pretty well."

Things have gone really well in Tampa for these Czech teammates. Now they're hoping to have the same success in the Olympics.

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