Monday, February 15, 2010

From watching Nagano Games to playing in Vancouver, Roman Polak living a dream

Blues defenseman will represent Czech Republic
at ice hockey's grandest stage

ST. LOUIS -- The challenges for Petr and Tana Polak were that of most parents willing to do whatever it takes for their children.

But for the Polaks, living in a blue-color country then known as Czechoslovakia in the town of Ostrava was even more of a challenge, simply because money was much more difficult to earn.

And items were much more expensive.

First, it was skates, then various other equipment such as sticks, pads and other necessary hockey gear.

But the Polaks, like parents often do, somehow managed to do whatever it takes for their children. Even in the Czech Republic.

"It's kind of a different situation in the Czech Republic than here because everything is so expensive there," Blues defenseman Roman Polak, son of Petr and Tana. "Sometimes, they had to borrow money to buy me skates. It's kind of a different world there."

A different world but same conclusion for a story that is often told.

Petr and Tana Polak's hardships certainly did not go unnoticed, nor did they go unrewarded.

Roman Polak wanted to be a hockey player, and today, the 23-year-old is an Olympian.

Roman Polak is in Vancouver representing his native Czech Republic for the first time in the Winter Olympics.

"They were proud and happy," Polak said when his parents got the news.

Polak took an interest in the sport and the games when he was a youngster, looking up to Czech Republic legends Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr among others.

He couldn't help but watch as those legends carried the flag of his country all the way to a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

"I was like 12 years old, so I don't remember much but I was watching every game," Polak said. "We still have a tape of all those games. It was pretty exciting at that time, because we have a small country. We have 10 million people and we won the Olympics and that was unbelievable for our country. We want to do it again."

Given the chance to play hockey or go to school and become something else, the choice was all Roman Polak's. His parents did not push him in one direction or the other.

"I just started playing hockey because I loved it," Polak said. "I was like 14, 15. I was going to school, but I wanted to make sure because you never know what's going to happen. It was when I was 17 that I chose to go to the WHL (Western Hockey League) to play, so it was probably the big thing. I had to stop school. I had to decide if I wanted to go to school and stay home or if I wanted to go and play hockey and go to Canada. I chose to go and play hockey."

It's turning out to be a great choice, as Polak's stock is rising not only with the Blues but around the league as well. And he was justly rewarded with a spot on the Czech Republic team this year for the very first time.

In a country where soccer is known to reign supremacy, hockey has certainly gained its ground, and Polak chose the ladder despite the cost.

"It's probably the same thing like soccer," Polak said of hockey's popularity. "Those are two big sports. They're sharing first place ... maybe soccer is most popular because it's cheaper (laughing)."

His stock around the NHL may be on the rise, but he is definitely a known commodity.

"I know he's a great defenseman.," Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman and fellow countryman Tomas Kaberle said of Polak. "He's a big kid, strong kid. He's good defensively and he doesn't let people go by him. That's a key. (He's) mostly a stay-at-home defenseman, but he's got a good shot also so he can contribute offensively at the same time.

"He's a big kid and he doesn't mind throwing (his weight) around. It's hard, especially when the opposition knows he can hit so they have to be cautious. He's going to hit you."

Polak, who played for his country at the most recent IIHF World Championships, got his chance with the Blues a couple years ago and made the decision easy for them to keep the 6-foot-1, 225-pound defenseman.

Injuries to fellow teammates Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson at the time gave him his chance, and he's made it stick -- all the way to Vancouver.

"I was good in Peoria, too, but it was just the numbers," Polak said of his sticking with the Blues two and three years ago. "There were lots of defensemen here and I got my opportunity last year because of a couple injuries. Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer were injured so I got an opportunity to play and I play lots of games. I took that opportunity. Maybe that's a big reason because I was playing a lot in Peoria. ... I was waiting for the big chance and I got the big chance last year and I took it."

Now he'll showcase his talents at the world's grandest stage, where he hopes his country will sneak up on the favorites. And he'll get to do it with one of the players he fondly looked up to.

"Jagr always said we would be playing together, and I played with him in the World Championship last year," Polak said. "Back home, everyone called it the Jagr team. He's a big star, so it's an honor to play with him."

Polak isn't there for all fun and no play. He will he an integral part of this team.

"He's going to be a big part of the team," Kaberle said.

Polak hopes so.

"It's always a dream for every professional athlete to play in the Olympics and play for your country," Polak said.

Polak's dream will come true when the Czech Republic opens round robin play Wednesday against rival Slovakia.

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