Ondrej Palat relishes long NHL journey, from seventh round to Sin City

Ondrej Palat led the Tampa Bay Lightning and ranked second among NHL rookies with 59 points.

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Should you ever find yourself in the quaint twin township of Frydek-Mistek on a summer’s day in the Czech Republic — and nominated for the Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top rookie — here’s Ondrej Palat’s suggestion on the best route to the bright lights of Las Vegas. Tampa Bay’s outstanding, 23-year-old winger who summers in his native land, Ondrej wouldn’t miss Tuesday’s awards gala for the world, and he’s traveling halfway around it to be there:

"I’m driving about four hours to Prague. Then flying to New York, changing planes to Las Vegas. It’s a long trip but I really want to be there. I’m bringing my girlfriend, Barbara. To be in the conversation for this award is tremendous. I never even dreamed about it. It’s pretty awesome."

PAUL KENNEDY: Your centerman Tyler Johnson is also a finalist (with Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon). You and Tyler just signed identical three-year, $10 million contracts.

ONDREJ PALAT: I want to thank Mr. (Steve) Yzerman for this opportunity. He believed in me — in us. My agent told me Mr. Yzerman was very generous and complimented me. I appreciate that. This team has a lot of talent and a lot of prospects. It is exciting to be a part of this and what we can become. There are so many young players and we all have a confidence that we can be special.

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KENNEDY: MacKinnon was drafted first overall prior to last season and the consensus favorite to receive this year’s award. You weren’t taken until the seventh round with the 208th pick in 2011 while Tyler went undrafted. Ed Belfour was undrafted and won the Calder with Chicago in 1991. If your name is called, you would be the lowest drafted to be honored since Calgary’s Sergei Makarov in 1990. And you and Tyler are even linemates. This is so extraordinary.

PALAT: Maybe other teams underestimated us. I am happy for "Johnny." We have played together now for three years (two in the AHL with Norfolk and Syracuse) and know each other very well. We skated with Marty (St. Louis) and Stammer (Steven Stamkos) and we learned every day. I am very proud of the fact that we both started out on the third and fourth lines and worked our way up to the first line during the season. We earned our way. Remember, we both had to make the team in training camp. That may have been the highlight of the season for me, to be on the ice Opening Night and have made the team.

KENNEDY: What’s one example of what opponents would have overlooked in you this season?

PALAT: I think I am stronger on the wall than many believe. I take pride in that. I will compete for the puck. I will play defense.

KENNEDY: You led the Lightning in scoring. In fact, every year you’ve played — at Drummondville in the QMJHL and in the AHL — your stats have nearly doubled over the previous season. And your numbers were even better at the NHL level than they were in the American Hockey League. You scored 13 goals your last season at the AHL and then 23 with the Bolts. And you led the team at plus-32. How’d that happen?

PALAT: Confidence. Every season, starting in juniors, I was learning the league the first year. And I realized each year that I could compete. I told myself, ‘I can play here.’ Then to Norfolk, I observed first, then the same thing occurred. And when we came to the NHL, I knew Coop (Jon Cooper) and many of the players. That truly helped my confidence."

KENNEDY: What goal do you most remember?

PALAT: Late in the season in Pittsburgh. I was able to beat the defense. I was so focused that I really think I kind of ‘blacked out.’ I just went through four players and was able to get to the net to tie the game. That was my favorite goal to be sure.

KENNEDY: Another rookie Radko Gudas earned an assist as did his defensive pair Matt Carle. You and Radko played in the Olympics together too. But that was a lot of physical wear.

PALAT: Radko and I enjoyed that. I was so proud to play for the Czech Republic at Sochi. I couldn’t play in the world championships because I hurt my neck. I had headaches in the playoffs (against Montreal). But I am fine, 100 percent now. My body has recovered.

KENNEDY: Offseason conditioning among NHL players is legendary. Tormenting. What exercise keeps you awake the night before a workout?

PALAT: You will laugh, but I hate running. I don’t mind skating or lifting. But my trainer has us running sprints. Everyone in Tampa runs, but I have never enjoyed it. And we really get our heart rate up. That for me is the hardest part.

KENNEDY: Give us one hobby, away from the sport, fans might not have any idea you enjoy. Something few teammates might know about.

PALAT: I love to cook! I am a pretty good cook, too. I watch cooking channels on television both in the States and here at home. It’s my hobby. My girl makes the desserts and I prepare the main course. My favorite is traditional Czech dishes, like goulash. I cut the meat and select the vegetables — everything. I’ll make it and you can see for yourself."

KENNEDY: What have you been doing the past few weeks?

PALAT: Right now, I’m holding the phone watching my nephew Mikael playing soccer. This is fun. It’s beautiful here in the summer, just perfect. The weather is cooler than Tampa. And it’s quiet and very small. You want to come?

KENNEDY: See you in September… in Tampa.