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Former Coyote Vrbata heads home to Czech Republic, begins post-NHL life

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Radim Vrbata’s 20-year, professional hockey odyssey came to a close on April 7. The Florida Panthers honored him in a pre-game ceremony before he faced the Buffalo Sabres in his final NHL game.

Vrbata’s nearly two decades of North American living will come to an end on Wednesday when he, his wife Petra, and their three children — Krystof, Oliver and Vincent — will board a flight from Miami to the Czech Republic.

This time, there will be no return trip in September for the start of training camp. Vrbata will dive right into the fruits of retirement when his new home is finally built in Mladá Boleslav, about 30 miles northeast of Prague.

“I’m taking that first year off,” Vrbata said. “I won’t be involved with anything with my hometown team. The only thing that I will do is coach my son’s (Krystof) team. Coming home after 16, 17 years and for myself it will be 20 because of the three years I played in juniors, it will be an adjustment for all of us so I will just be a dad to my kids and a husband. After that, I will probably get more involved with my hometown team. We’ll see what the situation is and how I feel.”

Vrbata concludes his seven-team NHL career as one of just 322 players to play 1,000 or more games. He played 1,057 (237th all time), scoring 284 goals (219th all time) and finishing with 623 points (297th all time). Of those, 509 games, 157 goals and 343 points came with the Coyotes, where he always hoped he would end his career.

“When I decided to play one more season, I thought it would be in Phoenix, honestly, but with everything that happened with [Dave Tippett] and [Shane Doan] and [Martin Hanzal] and [Mike Smith] all leaving, that’s when I realized it wasn’t going to happen,” said Vrbata, who had 20 goals and 55 points in the 2016-17 season with the Coyotes. “We had already decided I was going to play so I looked for a team and Florida seemed like the best fit, but if I were to choose, it would have ended in Phoenix.”

Vrbata, 36, said he knew before last season began that it would be his last. He and Petra wanted to get Krystof back in Czech schools before he fell too far behind, but he also saw the change in style and philosophy that was sweeping the game.

“Everybody is going younger,” he said. “The last two or three years, the game has changed so much that I don’t know that I could play at the level I’d like to and contribute.

“The third thing is, I’ve been playing professional hockey for 16, 17 years with the lockout, so the body just has had enough. The last couple seasons, the recovery wasn’t where it was when you were 25, 27, 30. It’s harder to keep pace with those younger guys coming in. The last couple seasons, you feel those little injuries or even the big injuries that you had during your career.”

Vrbata is convinced that with the emphasis on younger, faster (and cheaper) players, the NHL won’t see as many players playing until they are 40 as in previous years.

“These kids who are coming in, they are training as NHL players since they are 15 years old,” he said. “We used to start that kind of training when we got there at 20. They’re already doing a lot of the same stuff so they are ready, but I think their bodies will give out when they are 30, not 35 if this trend keeps going.

“At least guys are getting their money a lot quicker. Guys used to cash in at 27 when they reached free agency. Now guys are cashing in after their entry-level deals. My guess is everything will go down five years. The guys that would have played until 40 will play until 35, but I can’t imagine guys playing 15 years in this kind of game. You’ll have superstars like Crosby or McDavid who can play a long time, but for regular players, I don’t think they will have as long a career as they used to.”

Vrbata has always been a player who finds open space to use his quick release and accurate shot. He benefits from an offensive style that enters the neutral zone with possession.

“Younger kids are coming in and they have speed so the teams want to play fast,” he said. “They want to get out of their zone quickly, touch it in the neutral zone and get in on the forecheck. Everybody wants to do that. There’s not too many teams that want to carry it in and do it under control.

“That’s not my game. I think there will be a lot more guys like me retiring. You saw it with the Sedins and Patrick Sharp, and there will be guys that want to play but the teams will decide for them.”

Vrbata’s career did not have the storybook ending he would have written. He had to leave Phoenix three times, with his only real success coming in Vancouver where he had 31 goals and a career-high 63 points in 2014-15. None of those unwanted exits has tainted the NHL city that he still views as home.

“I would like to thank everybody there for their support over the years,” he said. “That’s where I turned my career into what it ended up being. Every time I left, I didn’t want to leave. I always wanted to make it work there. Sometimes, it didn’t work out but every time I came back I was happy to be coming back.

“Even though we endured all those cities and organizations where I played, Phoenix will always be on top and be a special place for my family and for myself as a hockey player. I hope it will work out there. I hope the stadium will get built and I hope the team will stay and will have success because I think the fans and the people around the team deserve it.”

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