“The energy that’s in the Bell Centre? I wish every player had the chance to play here. It’s a truly special place,” former Canadiens defenceman Roman Hamrlik said.
Photograph by: John Mahoney, Postmedia News Service
Roman Hamrlik will be a day and change into his professional hockey retirement Tuesday night when the Canadiens take on the Edmonton Oilers — two teams for which he played during his 20-season, 1,395-game NHL career.
So since he’s in Montreal, surely Hamrlik will be at the Bell Centre for the opening faceoff?
“I’d have to ask a former teammate to give me some tickets,” the 39-year-old said Monday afternoon following a news conference in Chambly to formally announce his retirement.
Hamrlik’s voice brightened, the gag at hand.
“I’m unemployed now. I’m not making any money.”
“I can’t afford to buy hockey tickets for $200!”
Of course, Hamrlik was joking.
But this is a man who has never sought the spotlight. After having played 312 sometimes invisibly strong games for the Canadiens from 2007-11 (and 196 for the Oilers from 1998-2000), still a well-known face in this city, he was a little reluctant to attract attention in the arena stands and cause a ruckus amid others trying to watch the action on the ice.
That’s when his longtime friend Zdenek Matejovsky stepped in. Late Monday afternoon, the Montreal-based journalist with TV Nova, the Czech-national broadcaster, was encouraging Hamrlik to come watch his two old clubs.
Should that happen, a Canadiens camera must find Hamrlik during a break in the game and recognize him on the scoreboard, this uncommonly durable defenceman having dependably represented both of the night’s opponents — and five other NHL clubs.
The ovation sure to follow would be richly deserved.
Where fellow Czech Jaroslav Spacek was the clown prince of the Canadiens dressing room, Spatcho growling his jokes that sometimes required subtitles, the man they call Hammer went about his work quietly and with little fanfare.
Night in, night out.
Only on Oct. 11 was he passed for NHL games played by a Czech native; his 1,395 now trail by four the sum of New Jersey’s Jaromir Jagr, who on Tuesday will hit the 1,400-game milestone.
“I wish Jagr all the best to play as many games as he can,” Hamrlik said. “I’m a little bit tired. I played lots of seasons, lots of games. But now I have time to rest, to do different things and enjoy some free time. I’m going to miss hockey, I still have lots of passion for it. It’s been a long, good run and I’m happy with what I’ve done.”
The curtain of retirement started to fall this past summer when Hamrlik lacked his usual enthusiasm while training for the season ahead, an unrestricted free agent in need of a contract.
He was a workhorse during his time with the Canadiens, playing huge minutes especially during the lengthy injury absence of Andrei Markov. Hamrlik arrived as a free agent in 2007, pulling on the No. 44 jersey vacated by the freshly departed Sheldon Souray.
He would average 22½ minutes per game for the Habs, an almost shatterproof rearguard who missed only 16 games of the team’s 328 played during his stay. On Monday, fellow defenceman Josh Gorges suggested that it wasn’t that Hamrlik was never injured, but that he knew how to play hurt.
“There are some injuries you can play through and some you can’t,” Hamrlik said. “I want to thank the athletic therapists in Montreal who really took care of me and kept me healthy enough to play.
“And it’s nice to hear what Josh says about me. I wish him all the best. I have lots of respect for that player.”
Hamrlik said he played his best hockey when he was getting plenty of ice, which was never an issue in Montreal.
“I never had problems playing those minutes. The more I played, the better I felt,” he said. “I was probably grumpy after the games, saying I played too much. But you just regroup the next day and you go again.”
Hamrlik’s first game as a Canadien was his 1,000th in the NHL. He would play Nos. 1,100, 1,200 and 1,300 here, too, and was part of the 2009 centennial team and the many events celebrating the club’s history.
“I have so many memories, but that my 1,000th game was my first game with the Canadiens, to wear a Canadiens jersey on my chest, that will stay in my memory for sure,” he said.
Hamrlik left the Canadiens in 2011 when the Washington Capitals offered him a two-year contract, one more than the Habs. He says he’d have accepted less money on a two-year term in Montreal had that been forthcoming.
“You can’t say ‘maybe’ or ‘if,’ ” said Hamrlik, the NHL’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 1992 who debuted with Tampa Bay as an 18-year-old. “I was 37 and not getting any younger. I was looking for some security.”
He would be waived by the Capitals after four games last season, picked up by the New York Rangers for the final dozen of his career.
Hamrlik has more memories than he can catalogue, highlighted by a 1998 Nagano Olympic gold medal that lifted the Czech Republic into ecstasy during a time of grave political crisis.
Twice he represented his nation in the IIHF world championship, twice in the World Cup, once more in the Olympic arena.
Hamrlik’s girlfriend of four years is a Montrealer, so the city will remain on his path. For now, he’s stepping away from hockey, though not discounting the possibility of sharing his wisdom and experience with young players in the future.
“I had four special seasons here, four incredible years,” he said. “I already miss competing against the best players, going to the rink, having fun with the guys, travelling.
“But I know I’m doing the right thing retiring. It was a great honour to play in the world’s best league for as long as I did.
“And this whole city lives hockey,” Hamrlik said of Montreal. “The energy that’s in the Bell Centre? I wish every player had the chance to play here. It’s a truly special place.”
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette