TAMPA, Fla. — It was the sort of afternoon where it felt like anything might be possible. When Pavel Kubina brought the Stanley Cup to the tiny Czech village of Janovice in July 2004 everything stopped.
First the people flooded his parents’ yard and later a nearby soccer field.
They came on bikes and in cars. Men, women and children — many of whom Kubina had never met — including a young boy named Ondrej Palat, who lived one town over in Frydek-Mistek.
For Palat, Kubina was a beacon of hope. The 13-year-old was the biggest Lightning fan you could find 8,000 kilometres from Tampa and he had his dad wake him up in the middle of the night to watch them beat Calgary in the Stanley Cup final.
A dream was born a few weeks later when Kubina brought the trophy to their small corner of the world. That’s when Palat started thinking he might one day win it, too.
“I just thought it’s really nice,” he said. “I was a kid. Shiny, big Cup.”
The fact he has a chance to do it now with the Lightning borders on fairytale. Seriously, what are the odds?
Kubina was on his second tour of duty with Tampa in 2011 when his countryman first showed up at training camp. He instantly liked the quiet, polite kid who had been taken in the seventh round but Palat never shared his story.
In fact, the now-retired defenceman hadn’t heard it until receiving a phone call from Sportsnet on Thursday morning.
“To be honest, I would say it’s like a little miracle,” said Kubina. “It’s crazy. If you would tell me 11 years ago there was some kid there who was going to win the Stanley Cup, I don’t think I would believe it.”
Now 38 and running a small car business in St. Petersburg, Fla., he’s been following Tampa’s playoff run closely.
Kubina marvels at how far Palat has come since being passed over twice in the draft before being taken 208th overall the third time around. Now he’s a member of the triplets line that has carried the Lightning into June.
“When he got here he spent a lot of time playing for the farm team,” said Kubina. “With his size it’s not easy to break into the NHL. He just kept working, working, and look at him now.
“The way he’s playing, he’s one of the top players in the league right now.”
There simply aren’t many forwards that play with such defensive awareness. Palat should find his name in the Selke Trophy conversation eventually, although that award rarely goes to wingers nowadays.
He can also hold his own in the offensive zone with eight goals and 16 points in these playoffs.
“His whole game is played properly,” said coach Jon Cooper. “Put a camera on him, you can make an instructional video on how to play the game by following Palat.”
His boyhood dreams have certainly carried him a long way.
Beyond Kubina and Palat, there aren’t many players who have reached the NHL from that region of the Czech Republic. Richard Smehlik carved out a good career with the Buffalo Sabres in the 1990’s. Radek Faksa is currently in the Dallas Stars organization.
That’s about it.
It’s little wonder then why so much fuss was made when Kubina brought the Stanley Cup home in 2004. A charity soccer match was scheduled for the afternoon — the money went to the local hospital — but word spread quickly when the trophy arrived early in the morning.
Soon strangers started gathering at his parents’ house in hopes of getting a glimpse.
Kubina had expected about a thousand people to turn up at the soccer field, but says “we were shocked because over 10,000 people came to see the Cup.”
Palat was among them, but couldn’t get anywhere near it.
“I went but I never took a picture or something,” said Palat. “There was so many people there.”
If things go well, he might get that long overdue photo with it in the coming days.
Kubina has attended a couple games at Amalie Arena in the playoffs and is pulling hard for the franchise to secure its second Stanley Cup.
“I would be so happy,” he said. “It would be great for the city and it would bring 11 years back. Nobody ever thought we could win in ’04 and I’m pretty sure not many people believe in those guys before the season.
“They’ve been good the whole year and it’s a lot of fun to watch those guys.”
They are down to a best-of-three with the Chicago Blackhawks for a championship. Should the Lightning manage to pull it off, and Palat get the chance to bring the Stanley Cup back to the suburbs of Ostrava, Kubina vows to brave the crowds and join him for the party.
“Of course I will go,” he said. “It would be a lot of fun to hold the Cup again.”
Back where it all began.