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Coyotes’ Vrbata gets ‘ace’ tickets after 1,000th NHL game

Arizona Coyotes right wing Radim Vrbata skates toward the net during practice at Gila River Arena on Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Glendale. (Photo by Tyler Drake/ Cronkite News)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Just over a month ago, Coyotes right wing Radim Vrbata played in his 1,000th NHL game.

To celebrate the milestone, his teammates gave him the perfect gift — tickets to a major sporting event.

No, not hockey. Vrbata is a big tennis fan, who played the sport recreationally while growing up in the Czech Republic. So his Coyotes teammates got him tickets to Wimbledon.

“When I saw that envelope and I saw Wimbledon on it, I was really surprised,” Vrbata said. “This is not easy to get, so I appreciate the work that (Doan) and the guys put in. It will be something that I will enjoy.”

Coyotes captain Shane Doan, 40, and Vrbata have been teammates for seven seasons. Doan said Vrbata talked about getting Wimbledon tickets at some point in his life, and the Coyotes wanted to get him something special that he might not get for himself.

“But to know the experience of doing it because you’re teammates . . . makes it that much more special,” Doan said. “We’re pretty excited about the opportunity to do something that we knew was important to him. Guys that play a thousand games, especially someone that’s been with the team for awhile, you start to be able to see the things that they enjoy.”

Vrbata, 35, said he still plays tennis during the offseason, but it doesn’t compare to how much he played as a child.

“As a kid in Czech . . . in the winter, we would play hockey and in the summer, we would play all kinds of different sports — tennis, soccer,” Vrbata said. “We got a tennis court in front of our apartment building, so that’s where we would play in the summer. Now, I built a tennis court at my house. So I play there sometimes, and now more with the kids.”

Growing up, Vrbata said he would watch tennis on television and attend tennis matches.

“There were some small tournaments in Czech, so we went once or twice with the parents,” Vrbata said.

He said that he has attended the French Open, but has never been to Wimbledon.

“So this will be nice,” Vrbata said.

Although Wimbledon is still a few months away, Vrbata will be excited for the chance to see his favorite tennis player, Roger Federer. Vrbata said that Federer “took tennis to another level.”

“Everything that you see now with (Novak) Djokovic, (Rafael) Nadal and (Andy) Murray, he was the one who kind of pushed them to be this good if they wanted to beat him,” Vrbata said. “And for him to still be playing, and now he just won the Australian Open — I just love watching him because of the way he plays. It seems so effortless and he’s pure class.

“The way he plays, I mean Djokovic is great, Nadal is great, but you can see how much they work at it. He obviously works at it too, but he just makes it look so easy.”

When Vrbata first came to the Coyotes, he wasn’t the only one who played tennis in the organization.

“I remember my first year here, when Wayne (Gretzky) was the coach, we would have a tennis tournament on a long road trip, so I know some guys back then played,” Vrbata said. “I’m sure there’s more guys that would play tennis.”

However, Doan said he didn’t participate in the tournament because he’s “a terrible tennis player.”

Vrbata will attend Wimbledon in the summertime when he will have the opportunity to see some of his favorite athletes compete.

“This is something that I think is more of an experience that him and his wife could do or him and a friend could do — something special,” Doan said.

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