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For some Lightning players, European trip is a return home

NEW YORK — If as a visitor to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, you do nothing else, David Koci said, make sure to visit Prague Castle and take the downhill walk into Old Town.

For Vinny Prospal, the must-see is the Charles Bridge, on which construction began in 1357. And don't forget the Old Town squares, Radim Vrbata said, especially Wenceslas Square, part of the city's buzzing entertainment district.

"A beautiful city," Vrbata said. "For us who live there, it's all normal. But for people who visit, everybody loves it."

The Lightning is scheduled to land in Prague at about 1 p.m. local time today. The first job? Getting to a rink to skate the stiffness out of their legs after an eight-hour flight during which, coach Barry Melrose said, players would drink water or Pedialyte to stay hydrated and be fed light meals, including "lots of fruit," to combat sluggishness.

It is the start of a 10-day trip through Europe that includes exhibitions in Germany and Slovakia and finishes in Prague with regular-season games Oct. 4 and 5 against the Rangers.

For forwards Prospal and Vrbata, who live about an hour outside the city, the homecoming is guaranteed. For Koci, who grew up and still lives in Prague, much depended on Thursday's 4-2 preseason win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Koci, an enforcer who fought a grueling battle with New York heavyweight Colton Orr, survived another round of cuts and is making the trip home. The roster is at 39, including injured center Jeff Halpern, who remained in Tampa.

Tampa Bay next cuts to 24, one more than normal, an exception given all four teams traveling to Europe as long as the extra player is a third goalie. In the Lightning's case, it's Karri Ramo.

"Let's get this odyssey started," Melrose said.

The Lightning has ties to all parts of the trip.

Goalie Olaf Kolzig lived as a child for six months in Germany and during the 2004-05 lockout won a championship with the Berlin Polar Bears, whom the Lightning plays Sunday. Defenseman Andrej Meszaros grew up north of Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, where the Lightning plays HC Slovan on Tuesday. Defenseman Vladimir Mihalik also is from Slovakia.

Those games will be played on international ice surfaces — 200 feet long by 981/2 feet wide; the NHL's is 200 by 85 — which Kolzig said plays havoc with shooting angles goalies face.

But the showcase is Prague, where the 18,000-seat O2 Arena, which will have NHL-size ice, is sold out for both games.

"It's special," Prospal said. "From what I read in the papers, the city is very excited. The whole country is excited."

"For the country, it is unbelievable," Koci said. "It's a hockey country. And the Czech people want to show the world they can do these big sporting events. Everything will be top class."

And not all business.

"We're not going to keep their nose to the grindstone all 10 days," Melrose said. "We want them to enjoy the experience. They'll have nights together to go out. It's not going to be cracking the whip every day. It's a bonding time. I want them to look back at the experience with good memories."

To which Koci again recommended the walk from Prague Castle to Old Town.

"The castle is the most beautiful thing," he said. "The walk into the old city, the buildings are beautiful. It's like a little story. It doesn't even look real."

For some Lightning players, European trip is a return home 09/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 3:31pm]
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