PRAGUE, Czech Republic — From hearing the Czech national anthem before games to the media attention to playing in front of family and friends, Vinny Prospal said the Lightning's trip to his homeland was a dream come true.
"I wish a lot more Czech players in the future have a chance to experience what I experienced," Prospal said. "Hopefully, the NHL returns here. It's a great place to play hockey."
But was Tampa Bay's 10-day, three country European tour, which ended Sunday with consecutive losses to the Rangers at O2 Arena, the best way to prepare for the regular season?
Publicly, players and coaches said the travel schedule — which in one grinding day included three countries, two plane flights and a game — was an adventure that helped personal relationships.
Privately, though, there were concerns the team, trying to mesh a revamped roster, a new coaching staff and a new system of play, was worn down by the demanding itinerary. Goaltender Olaf Kolzig even said the trip, while an overall positive, could have been a few days shorter.
And while exhibitions against teams from Germany and Slovakia were surprisingly competitive, perhaps more games against NHL squads would have been beneficial. That Tampa Bay lost twice to the Rangers added to the questions.
Prospal pushed them aside.
"We're all pros and we have to play where we have to play," the left wing said. "It's not really different than an NHL rink. It's a great arena, just like in the states. I don't think that or anything else should be an excuse. We just didn't get it done."
"It's easy to say, 'Was it a good idea?' " center Vinny Lecavalier said. "If we had two wins, we would be saying it was a great idea."
There weren't any complaints about the bigger picture.
Players came together through private dinners and events such as meeting the Czech prime minister and mayor of Bratislava, Slovakia. The well-attended games and open practices also bode well for the NHL's plans to expand the season-opening program from four to perhaps eight teams, and give the league a starting point for its long-range vision of adding European franchises.
For Tampa Bay, though, the bottom line is two losses heading into Saturday's home opener against the Hurricanes.
"You want that instant magic on the ice, but it doesn't happen all the time," Kolzig said. "The thing is, we can't get frustrated. We're 0-2, but we have to stay the course and realize it's a process. We have five days to work on it once we get home. But as far as a group caring for one another, I think it definitely served its purpose."
Coach Barry Melrose agreed. As for whether it made preparing his team more difficult, he said, "That's neither here nor there. We have to get the job done."
"It was special," Prospal said of the trip. "It's the outcome that takes it away."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]