TAMPA — Leo Gudas looks the part of a bruising defenseman, his broad shoulders and big hands having gone through many battles in a 15-year professional career in Europe.
At age 48, his shaggy hair is a blend of white and gray, and he jokes he plays only in "old-timers" leagues. But Gudas is gladly living vicariously through his son, Lightning rookie defenseman Radko Gudas, 22, taking photos from the Tampa Bay Times Forum stands before Saturday's game against the Hurricanes.
"It's like a dream," the elder Gudas said. "It was my moment and my time when I was young. But I didn't make it. But my son made it, so I'm happy."
Leo and his wife, Radomira, flew in from Prague, Czech Republic, to catch their son's first week in the NHL last week. Radko has played in just three games — his fourth will be tonight against the Flyers at the Times Forum — but he has already established himself with his physical, poised play. Coach Guy Boucher said he has been one of the Lightning's best defensemen.
Boucher compares Gudas, a 6-foot, 204-pound "major menace," to retired hard-hitting defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. "He's a head hunter," Boucher said. "He's one of those guys that hits you clean but extremely hard."
Radko says he has modeled his game on that of his father, who won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics playing for Czechoslovakia. "He was the same player I am," Radko said. "Back in the day, it was a different style of hockey. But if it would be like right now, I'd say we'd be pretty close."
Leo said, smiling, "I think he's better."
Radko remembers traveling all over Europe during his father's playing career. It should come as no surprise, then, that he speaks five languages. Leo coached his son when Radko was a teenager and continues to teach with daily phone calls, catching his games online or on TV.
"He's just trying to help me as much as he can," Radko said. "He's got that experience. He played for 15 years pro, so he's always watching me."
The Lightning saw major upside in Radko when drafting him in the third round in 2010. But Boucher said he made a key adjustment in calming his game over two AHL seasons, learning to choose his moments better so his checks don't prove costly.
"You've got to read when to make the hit and when not," Radko said, "to help the team not get out of position, to not give the other team a chance."
Radko was impressive in training camp and believed he was ready for the NHL. "I was just waiting for my chance." That came last week, and since being recalled from AHL Syracuse, he has made a seemingly seamless transition.
In his first NHL game, Tuesday at Florida, Radko played 15:20 and received attention for a clean knee-to-knee hit that knocked Florida's Kris Versteeg out of the game (and later, it was learned, the season when Versteeg had to have surgery). But more than Gudas' brute force, Boucher has been pleased with how steady and smart he is with the puck, making simple plays.
"He's only played (three games), but it looks like he's played for a couple years," wing Teddy Purcell said.
Gudas said his fellow defensemen deserve a lot of credit for helping him, but he has earned enough trust from coaches to log 20 minutes of ice time in the win against the Hurricanes.
"He's been terrific," Boucher said. "We knew he was good. We knew he was probably ready. We just needed to put him on the ice and see how close he is. And he's not just close, he was probably our best defenseman (Thursday in a loss to the Islanders) and almost our best defenseman in his first game in the NHL. He's been doing it all right now."
And making his father proud.