|Senators forward Milan Michalek is considered a strong candidate to make the Czech Republic's team for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images).
Like many of his countrymen, Milan Michalek
won’t soon forget the greatest moment in the Czech Republic’s proud hockey history.
Michalek, who was just 13 years old at the time, smiles broadly at the memory of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, when an underdog Czech team rode the sensational goaltending of Dominik Hasek to an improbable gold medal which was sealed with a 1-0 victory over old rival Russia.
“I think everybody still remembers that,” said Michalek, who shares the Ottawa Senators' goal-scoring lead (10) with Mike Fisher heading into their game tonight against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark (7 p.m., TSN2, Team 1200). “Nobody in the Czech (Republic) was working and nobody was going to school. Everybody was watching that game.
"It was great. I think it was great for a lot of young players because they could see what you could do (in hockey). They were my heroes and they were everybody’s heroes. It was unbelievable.”
It was also further inspiration for a still-burgeoning hockey career that began when a six-year-old Michalek decided to follow his brother, Zbynek, into the game while both were growing up in Jindrichuv Hradec, a town of 22,700 in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic.
“My brother already played hockey and I wanted to do the same, like him,” said Michalek of Zbynek, now a defenceman with the Phoenix Coyotes. “I went to a few practices with him and I really liked it, so I stuck with it.”
While the National Hockey League didn’t get regular television coverage in their homeland back then, the Michaleks knew all about Jaromir Jagr, the league’s biggest Czech-born star. Together, they dreamed of a future playing in the game’s best league.
“It was my dream always,” said Michalek, who speaks regularly with his brother after their NHL games. “For me and my brother, it was our dream, to get to the NHL and play in this league. It was a dream come true (when the San Jose Sharks made him the sixth overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft) and I was so excited. I’m still excited to play every game.”
"Nobody in the Czech (Republic) was working and nobody was going to school. Everybody was watching that game. It was great. I think it was great for a lot of young players because they could see what you could do (in hockey). They were my heroes and they were everybody’s heroes. It was unbelievable." - Milan Michalek
For the previous four seasons, that often meant walking to the HP Pavilion (a.k.a. the Shark Tank) on hot California days, not exactly your typical hockey setting. But now that he’s in Ottawa, Michalek feels closer to his roots.
“It’s pretty similar,” Michalek said when asked to compare Ottawa and the land of his birth. “The weather and the nature is the pretty much like Czech, so I feel pretty good here.”
Michalek has represented the Czech Republic at both the world and world junior championships. But nothing would make him prouder than to don his country’s journey at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and to follow in the footsteps of those heroes of his youth. He is considered a strong candidate to make that team, which will be announced by the end of December.
“It would feel great,” Michalek said about having his own shot at Olympic glory. “But I can’t really think about that. I have to do my job here and play really well and if the (Czech) coach picks me, the coach picks me. But if I am there, I would be really happy.”