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Rangers get a warm welcome in Prague

Czech Prime Minister says his whole country is excited for games

Thursday, 10.02.2008 / 7:10 PM / News
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Rangers get a warm welcome in Prague
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It was a big travel day for the Rangers on Thursday, as the team left Bern early in the morning and arrived in Prague by 1 p.m.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek shows off Rangers and Lightning jerseys during a welcome reception on Thursday night in Prague. Topolanek said he will wear his Lightning jersey on Saturday and his Rangers jersey on Sunday.
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Signs and banners throughout the city of Prague are already promoting the Rangers’ Oct. 4 season-opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the planned back-to-back weekend games between these teams have certainly created a buzz throughout the city.

The Blueshirts went to the spacious O2 Arena for their first practice, hitting the ice at roughly 2:45 p.m. local time. Excitement about the game was so high, that the arena held open practices for both the Rangers and Lightning, and a crush of media hit both teams as they came off the ice.

Rangers forward Petr Prucha, a Czech citizen,  said he was amazed at the turnout for practice, which he estimated at 10,000 fans. Prucha was engulfed in a sea of local reporters after practice, as he gave interview after interview in his native language.

“They (the Czech fans) even had to buy the tickets just for a seat at practice, so I think they are really excited about this,” Prucha said of having the NHL in Prague for a weekend.

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said it felt good to get on the ice for the first time in Prague, but said he had to remember what it felt like to play on an NHL-sized rink again after spending four days on the wider ice in Bern, Switzerland.

“The rink felt small, especially for the first 10 or 15 minutes of practice,” said Lundqvist. “… But it feels good to be here and getting settled and preparing for the weekend.”

Lundqvist last played in the O2 Arena during the 2004 World Championship tournament’s gold-medal game, where his Swedish team fell to Canada 5-3. Lundqvist said his memories of the arena are generally good, because he felt he had a strong performance in that overall tournament.

While Prucha was the center of the media attention during the day, the spotlight fell on the Rangers’ other Czech player, defenseman Michal Rozsival, later in the evening, when  the team attended an official reception hosted by Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister.  Topolanek invited Rozsival and Tampa Bay forward Vaclav Prospal to share the stage with him as he spoke of the importance of this weekend’s games to all Czech citizens.

Also speaking at the official reception was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who said part of the reason the NHL had opted to play regular-season games in the Czech Republic was to pay tribute to the hundreds of Czech and Slovak players who have come to North America to play in the NHL.

Following Bettman’s speech, Rozsival thanked the prime minister for his hospitality on behalf of the entire Rangers organization. Prospal followed suit, as both players addressed the audience in Czech, followed by an interpreter’s English translation.

Prospal drew a hearty laugh from the Czech speaking audience at one point during his brief remarks, because he confidently predicted victory for his team in both of the weekend games. English-speaking members of the audience missed that joke, however, because the interpreter left it out of his subsequent translation.

As they prepared to play their regular-season opener, the Rangers were still feeling very good about their comeback victory over Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Victoria Cup game on Wednesday in Bern. The Blueshirts had rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win it 4-3 on a Ryan Callahan goal with 20 seconds left in the third period.

“We took that game seriously, so it felt really good to get the win. And the way we came back as well was a really good feeling. So we’ve got to build on that one for the weekend,” Lundqvist said.