PRAGUE — Czech winger Dominik Kubalik has waited six years for a chance to play in the NHL. He never expected his debut would take place at home.
The 24-year-old Kubalik is set to play his first game for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague on Friday in the teams’ season-opener, as part of the NHL’s 2019 Global Series.
Having been drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, Kubalik has had to wait until now for a chance to actually play in the North American league and spent last season playing in Switzerland. The Kings shipped him to Chicago for a fifth-round pick in January, setting up a surreal homecoming this week.
”It’s going to be a great experience, especially for my family,” Kubalik said. ”A dream come true. It’s something very special.”
For Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton, though, there were no sentimental reasons for including Kubalik in the opening-night roster.
”The thing I’ve been impressed with is his work ethic,” Colliton said. ”He’s not a passenger out there. We think he can produce offensively but he can also play on a defensive line and give the line some punch, so that’s a good sign for him and he shown he can be valuable in different ways.”
It’s the third straight year – and eighth overall – that the NHL returns to Europe as part of its efforts to grow the local fan base in hockey-mad countries like the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and others.
The interest remains huge. Even the training sessions for the teams on Thursday were sold out – as is Friday’s game at Prague’s O2 Arena. Kubalik won’t be the only Czech player on the ice, with Philadelphia winger Jakub Voracek also excited about playing in front of a home crowd.
Voracek played two season-opening games in Stockholm with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010 against the San Jose Sharks, but said this trip was more special.
”When I started to play (in the NHL) I never expected I’m going to get a chance to play here,” Voracek said. ”It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Chicago also has Czech center David Kampf.
For the Flyers, it’s their first trip to Europe for a game. Chicago came in 2009 to open the season with a couple of games against the Florida Panthers in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, before going on to lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.
Defenseman Brent Seabrook was on the team back then, and is hoping for a similar experience.
”Ten years ago when we were over here it was a wild atmosphere and I think we’re looking for the same kind of atmosphere on Friday,” Seabrook said.
Chicago also lifted the Cup in 2013 and 2015 but missed the playoffs last season. For Colliton, the trip also represents a good team-building exercise as the Blackhawks try to get the season off to a good start.
”I think that’s one of the reasons why you go for this trip is for the guys to have some time together,” Colliton said. ”We’re going to learn way more in the first game than probably we learned the whole three weeks of preseason. I’m excited about that and we’ll react accordingly. So that’s exciting.”
The Flyers haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1975 and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in seven seasons.
Alain Vigneault was hired as coach to fix that. He might be known for quick fixes but he knows there’s work to be done after the Flyers lost to Swiss team HC Lausanne 4-3 in an exhibition game on Monday.
”Obviously, right now we’re in the process of making the evaluation that we need for this team to be successful,” Vigneault said.