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Heart of a Panther

by Mike Lewis / Florida Panthers

It was almost two decades ago that a young Radek Dvorak made his way to North America for the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. A new culture, new language and a world of possibilities surrounded the 18-year old as he journeyed from Eastern Europe to Edmonton for the Draft.

Growing up in Tabor, Czech Republic during the 70’s and 80’s, Dvorak’s situation was much different than that of the players who break into the NHL today from overseas, Eastern Europe during these days had very limited exposure to the NHL.

“When I was growing up, obviously we were growing up under the Communist regime so we didn’t have the chance to watch the NHL,” said Dvorak. “There was nothing on TV or newspapers. So growing up you looked up to the players who played for your home team. After the 1989 revolution, everything opened up and all of a sudden we were able to watch the NHL and get more information about the NHL. We always knew it was better, but just from very small sources.”

It was after the revolution that the dream of playing in the NHL was now in reach. Dvorak waited patiently at the ’95 Draft, but didn’t have to wait all too long as the Florida Panthers selected the young winger tenth overall in the first round.

“Being drafted was something special,” said Dvorak. “It’s every kid’s dream to be able to experience the draft. Being drafted by Florida was great, I was going to a new team, just in the league for a couple years and the biggest thing [for me] was being drafted by an NHL team. It was a dream come true. I remember that day like it was yesterday. It’s been 19 or 20 years, but that experience is with me still. I was very fortunate to be drafted by the Florida Panthers.”

Dvorak had to adjust rather quickly to life in South Florida as he made the team right out of training camp. The young rookie knew it would be a tough transition to the NHL, not just on the ice, but off the ice as well. The veteran leadership on the 1995-96 Panthers roster was instrumental in Dvorak’s stay in South Florida.

“Coming down here in 1995 and for a team like the Panthers with all these veteran guys and all the guys who went through a lot, I looked up to everybody on that team,” Dvorak recalled. “It was tough. All the guys on the team helped me a lot through my first couple of seasons. I was just enjoying my time. For me overall, I was looking up to everybody.”

It was long-time Panthers defenseman Robert Svehla, who helped ease the move to a new country for Dvorak.

“I was lucky I had Bobby Svehla on the team who took me under his wing.,” said Dvorak. “He was from Slovakia, but I was coming here without speaking any English.”

“Bobby is an amazing person and player. He was a really well respected guy around the world, [especially] back in Europe. Most importantly he and his family are amazing people. They knew how tough it was for a young guy to come to a new team in a new country and succeed. They helped me a lot. You go through ups and downs. He was more experienced than me and to be able to spend a lot of time with him, it was great. That’s why I got through all those years, my first couple of years.

Dvorak’s rookie season was a memorable one. Notching 27 points (13-14—27) in 77 games for his rookie campaign, Dvorak got to experience what few first-year players rarely do, a run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better. To be 18-years old, go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and be in the playoffs…that whole season was incredible.”

“Playing against the best players in the world and to be a part of a team like the Panthers was special for me. Going through the playoffs like we did, beating Boston in the first round, then Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh in the Conference Finals and ending up against Colorado. It was just great for everybody, not just for me. Looking back, I still appreciate what we did back then. Nobody was expecting us to go that far and we proved to everybody that we had a good team and could play against anybody. We proved it through the season and the playoffs, that’s how you get respect in the NHL and we did that.”

Dvorak played another five seasons for Florida before being traded to the San Jose Sharks, who in turn traded him to the New York Rangers shortly after. After four seasons in the Big Apple, Dvorak was traded to the city where he was drafted and suited up for the Edmonton Oilers. Dvorak played one season for the St. Louis Blues before things came full circle when the Panthers offered the savvy two-way forward a chance to return to South Florida.

Now a veteran, Dvorak returned to Florida for the 2007-08 season and remained a Panther for the next four seasons. During his second stint in South Florida, Dvorak led the Panthers in shorthanded goals for two consecutive seasons (4, 2008-09 and 3, 2009-10) and celebrated his 1,000th game in the NHL, a moment that Dvorak will never forget.

“It was amazing. That 1,000th game is a magical number. I’m very grateful I was even able to reach that number and it was more amazing that I was able to reach that number with the team I started for. There’s nothing better than that”.

Dvorak played the majority of his career as a Panther, playing in 613 games over nine seasons, ranking him second all-time in games played by a Panther. Dvorak holds the distinction of being the first European-born first round draft choice in franchise history and leads Florida all-time in shorthanded goals (16).

On Jan. 27, Dvorak officially retired from the NHL but doesn’t plan on leaving hockey behind.

“My plan is to spend some quality time with my family, my kids and obviously I want to stay around hockey,” said Dvorak. “The retirement is fresh, but I want to stay around this wonderful game.”

“I go to games, I still love the game. I watch other [teams] but most of the time, [I watch] the Panthers. If I can go to the rink, I go. I’ve got a five year old and an 11-year old, I take them to the game. It’s fun, I still follow hockey and it’s nice to be around.”

The 37-year old Dvorak loves to spread his love of the game to the youth of South Florida as well, most recently assisting in the Florida Panthers ‘Try Hockey for Free Clinics’ as an instructor.

“[Hockey in South Florida] Has taken big steps,” said Dvorak. “Since the Panthers started in 1993, the youth hockey and everything around hockey just keeps growing. You see more kids [down here] playing the game, it’s not just an ‘up north sport’ like everybody thinks. It’s great to see that. For the kids to have a chance to play the sport and for what the Panthers do for the community is amazing.”

One of the Panthers’ most tenured and beloved players, the man affectionately known as 'D-Vo' was a heart and soul player for the Cats during his playing days in South Florida. Dvorak looks back at his career in Florida humbled and grateful for every moment he was able to spend with not only the team and organization but the fanbase in South Florida as well.

“It means a lot [being a Panther]. I’ve said it many times, the Panthers gave me the chance to even start in the NHL. They drafted me and I felt like this was my home from the first day I got in. They made me feel like part of the family, the Panthers family. For a young guy like me coming from Eastern Europe it was just amazing. I was with the Panthers for a great and spectacular nine years and I just can’t thank them enough to also bring me back for a second term. I always tried to play hard for them. From a personal perspective I just can’t thank them enough for giving me a chance. ”

“I just can’t thank my fans [enough]. They were with me for 18 wonderful years. It’s a very great sport with the best fans in the world. They are very passionate. They try to help you every time, they cheer you up and stick with you. The Panthers fans were always there for me. I want to thank them for that and thanks for everything.”

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