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Summer of the Stanley Caps: Kempny and Vrana

August 3, 2018
Monday, July 9

Only a few hours after Caps captain Alex Ovechkin settled the Stanley Cup into its hefty case outside a Moscow nightclub around midnight, our Caps Cup crew and the chalice’s estimable handlers – Howie Borrow and Mario Della-Savia on this particular journey – met up in our Moscow hotel lobby to head to the airport for our next destination: the Czech Republic, where Michal Kempny and Jakub Vrana would have their time with the treasured trophy. 

Upon arriving at the hotel in the wee minutes of Monday morning following Ovechkin’s Sunday evening soiree with Stanley, we arranged for – or, thought we arranged for – a trio of SUVs to haul the seven of us to the airport, along with a heap of large pieces of luggage and the big, wheeled box that encases and rolls the Cup from place to place during its summer travels. Our flight was slated to depart from Moscow at 1:15 p.m. local time, and the flight of just under three hours was supposed to get us on the ground in Prague just after 3 p.m. there, including the one-hour time difference.

Lord Stanley’s progeny moves about on a tight schedule, and it will make a total of 42 stops for various Caps’ players, coaches and other personnel to have their day with it. That’s 42 stops in a span of 61 days, which involves a whole lot of air and road miles, and toting to and from one city to the next. The slightest lapse or hiccup in travel plans can delay and even defer a player’s time with the Cup.

No one is more keenly aware of this than the Cup’s caretakers, so we assembled in the lobby earlier than we normally might have for such an international flight. Borrow and Della-Savia know that occurrences beyond the realm of their control can and often do happen, so they routinely build in extra time to mitigate such travails. And as Monday mornings are often wont to do in any and every corner of the globe, this Monday morning brought some of those hardships.

First up, the hotel front desk staff utterly failed us. Instead of three SUVs arriving out front at 9 a.m., there were two tiny cars big enough for maybe four to six humans, but certainly not for seven humans hauling a week’s worth of luggage plus plenty of camera equipment. And the world’s largest and most efficient shoehorn wouldn’t have been able to get the Cup into either of those wee little whips.  

By the time we were able to rectify this issue and get just one SUV to the hotel to supplement the two little rides, it was after 9:30 and we had burned off a good chunk of our wisely built-in buffer time. The Cup and its caretakers hopped into the SUV and we followed to the airport in the other vehicles, arriving sometime around 10:30.

We still had plenty of time, but we weren’t done with the obstacles. Airport personnel informed the Cup guys that the weighty box was oversized and it would have to travel on its own, on a cargo plane of some sort. That’s never an option for the Cup – it goes nowhere without a caretaker or two at its side or at least on the same plane – and a European flight had to be altered from one airline to another for that very reason a summer earlier.  

Toss in a language barrier, and this was a potentially sticky issue. Fortunately for us, we had a fluent Russian speaker among us in Sergey Kocharov, Caps’ VP of media relations. After an extended conversation that took some more time off the clock, Kocharov’s reasoning skills somehow won out, and the Cup was permitted to ride in the belly of our bird. 

Ah, but the Monday morning hardships came in threes in Moscow, and our flight was delayed not once but twice, and by a total of nearly three hours. There was nothing to be done about this one. We huddled up in an airport café and kept our electronic devices charged while mainlining coffee and/or micro-napping in the seated position, never optimal for sound sleep. 

The upshot of this delay was that Kempny’s Monday evening plans with the Cup – a family gathering at his parents’ house – were going to be held up. Even after landing in Prague, we still faced a three-hour drive through the picturesque Czech countryside in order to reach Kempny’s home in Luzice.

By the time we landed, got through customs and collected the Cup and our less important luggage, it was 6 p.m., or roughly the time we were originally expected to arrive at the Kempnys’ home. 

As Howie and Mario wheeled the Cup out of the baggage claim area and out toward the ground transportation area of the Prague airport, they were met by a handful of local camera crews and journalists. We were pressed for time, but once we were outside, the boys generously opened the case and removed the Cup for a quick viewing and a couple of questions. 

Among the handful of camera carriers was a mid-30s Czech filmmaker named David Klevcov, who was also hired on to be our driver for the week, in a big Ford van that came equipped with three rows of seats to accommodate the Cup, the seven of us, and our many bags, backpacks, suitcases and cases. Kempny and Vrana’s agent, Ales Volek, drove separately in a Mustang GT. Our group of seven includes the two Cup caretakers, Sergey, Monumental VP of productions Jim Kowats, social media whiz/camera guy Zach Guerette, Monumental camera guy Alex Diamond, and myself.

David is a rabid hockey fan and Caps fan, and we quickly bonded with him during the three-hour ride. That bond was even tighter between David and Zach and Alex, our own camera guys. They spent a lot of those three hours talking shop and comparing notes on the latest innovations and camera technology.

When we pulled into the driveway of the house just after 9:30, Kempny was there to greet us. The Cup was pulled from the bottom of the luggage heap in the back of the van and presented to the broadly beaming Caps’ defenseman, who gave it a quick hoist before walking it around to the backyard of this beautiful home to share with a couple dozen close friends and family members. The group broke into applause, then song, then a rousing “Let’s Go Caps!” chant. It was just past sundown on a gorgeous summer night, and those in attendance had already dined on goulash and were now enjoying the post-meal refreshments of their choice; vodka shots, beer or various fine wines from the nearby Moravia wine region. 

The warmth and graciousness of the entire Kempny clan was evident immediately, as our crew was invited to sit down to supper and drinks and made to feel more than welcome. After a bit more than an hour with the Kempnys and the Cup, David took us Caps staffers to our hotel – a small country inn about 30 minutes away – while the Cup boys remained with the Kempnys and their prize.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived, and sleep came easily after our long and arduous day of travel. David went back to the Kempny house to collect Howie and Mario, and we planned to meet downstairs in the restaurant of this quaint inn at 9 a.m. ahead of a planned 10 a.m. departure the next day.  

Tuesday, July 10

We had a lovely outdoor breakfast at our picturesque country inn, and the Cup boys took the gleaming beauty from its case for some photo ops on the grounds of the inn. Some of the other guests were shocked to see that the Cup had shared their lodgings the previous night, and many scrambled to get a photo of their own before we headed back to the Kempny house. 

We spent a short time at the house, long enough to taste some delicious apricot bread baked with fruit from the tree in the yard. Late in the morning, Kempny strapped the Cup into the shotgun seat of the Mustang for the short ride to the Hodonin rink, the Cup’s next stop of this day. 

Even on a short car ride, the Cup turned heads and elicited a symphony of horn-honking from Kempny’s fellow drivers. When we reached the rink, a large crowd was already assembled, and a drum corps was providing musical accompaniment. Kempny unstrapped the Cup, raised it to loud cheering, and carried it inside.  

Once inside, a multimedia retrospective of Kempny’s life and career played on a large screen while an emcee interviewed the humble defenseman. This was the rink where he played as a youth, before he turned pro and a few hundred folks crowded into the arena – there was no ice inside on this midsummer’s day. After an autograph and photo session of a couple of hours in duration, we returned to Kempny’s house and his family gave us copious amounts of schnitzel and some beers (none for David, though; he’s driving and fueled by Red Bull) for our afternoon drive through the countryside to Brno. 

Brno is an hour or so to the north, a larger city where Kempny played five seasons of pro hockey for Brno Kometa in the Czech League. We pass the time eating and hashing over trivia of all sorts, and we arrive in Brno in time to check in to our hotel for the night, change clothes and take a short ride to the arena, which is situated downtown in this city of roughly 400,000 inhabitants. 

The Brno rink doesn’t have an ice surface in July, either. It’s much bigger, and so is the crowd. Once again, Kempny is feted at center ice and we see a different retrospective video with a different emcee. Once it’s over, there is a long and orderly line for fans to have a photo taken with Kempny and the Cup, and the Caps’ blueliner is signing autographs, too. As such, his line is moving much slower than Alex Ovechkin’s did a few days earlier, but it’s not as long as Ovi’s line was, either.  

After grabbing a quick bite at the hotel restaurant, we head to the evening’s main event, Kempny’s private Cup party. It’s being held on the grounds of a hotel in another part of town. The gathering is more low key and the scene is more intimate than what we witnessed in Moscow, and even a brief rain shower does nothing to dampen the disposition of those in attendance. Guests are treated to excellent food and drink, and everyone has a terrific time. A pair of Kempny’s former Chicago teammates – Marian Hossa and Michal Rozsival – show up to support an ex-Hawk. They’ve both played for multiple Cup winners. 

Just before night’s end, Kempny carried the Cup up a hill of greenery for some alone time with it. Of all the Caps to earn the right to hoist it this spring, Kempny is among the least likely to do so. He was serving as a seventh defenseman for a Chicago team going nowhere in the standings until a Feb. 19 trade altered the course of his season and his career. Two weeks before his day with the Cup, the 27-year-old signed a four-year contract extension to remain with the Caps. The last five months of Kempny’s life have been quite eventful. 

“Four more years, boys!” he happily reminds us, as we bid him farewell until September. 

Wednesday, July 11 

We’re up early and headed back to Prague with David at the wheel of our fully packed van. I’ve spent a good deal of this trip marveling at David’s energy. Dude goes everywhere we go, but everywhere we go, he’s also running around with his camera, working and shooting feverishly, and cracking wise. His work is good enough that the Caps’ social media crew uses some of it, and he is constantly eyeing our group’s attire for Caps-related gear that would look good in his own closet. Before we leave to head home on Thursday, Zach will give David the shirt off his back and Sergey promises to send another different styled one once we’ve returned home.

It’s a small price to pay for David’s driving, his translating, and his non-stop chatter and entertainment. (Editor’s note: We did pay David actual cash as well, for his three days as our chauffeur.) The Cup’s days are long, usually in the neighborhood of 15 hours. David’s days are longer than all of ours; he’s the one who has to be up the earliest and the latest in order to get the Cup and the rest of us to our appointed destinations on time, and he seems to use Red Bull as a sleep substitute. Our early morning drive from Brno to Prague is not a short one; it’s nearly three hours and much of it consists of the morning rush hour. There are a few harrowing moments, but our guy handles them all without colliding with any other vehicles, our only real concern. 

Around 10 a.m., we arrive at our hotel for the night, a lovely old chateau on the outskirts of town. We check in and drop our bags just in time for Jakub Vrana’s arrival. Vrana and his dad Karel pull up in one of those seemingly ubiquitous Mustangs. We spend some time with the Cup in a virtually deserted hotel café before heading off to a quick downtown stop at an outdoor beer garden. Guests are served various meats and hefty steins of beer at this short stop, and a few folks queue up for Cup photos before we move along to a cemetery where Vrana’s grandmother rests. The 22-year-old winger spends a brief period of private time here before we head to another restaurant, and more food and beer. This next eatery is an old school spot that has been in business for decades, with a soccer field just outside its back door.  

Fed and fueled once again, we head to the rink just a block or so from where Vrana grew up, and this one is part of a decent-sized shopping mall, too. A large stage is set up in the parking lot outside, and again an emcee interviews Vrana in between songs by a rock band. Several hundred folks are on hand to see the Cup, listen to the music and get a photo and/or an autograph. 

At this point of the day, four of Vrana’s former teammates from his days in the Swedish League join him. The five of them are absolutely joyous and boisterous, and at various times during the remainder of the day they will spontaneously huddle together and break into song while jumping up and down. 

Later, Vrana explains to me that when he left home to go to Sweden to play at the age of 15, these four older teammates took him under their wing and helped the fledgling winger to make his way both on and off the ice when he was still just a boy in a strange country. This clearly created quite a bond between them; Vrana is reverent in recalling their many kindnesses toward him and the quartet of former teammates couldn’t be happier for their young friend. 

While the concert and the photo op/autograph line moves ever so slowly, a couple of us wander into the mall in search of caffeine. We’re used to long road trips, sure, but we’re also used to built-in down time and meal times, and the Cup’s hectic schedule allows for neither. After a smoothie and a jolt of espresso, we head back outside.

By mid-afternoon, Vrana has taken the Cup inside to his boyhood rink, taking it to the pro shop and then happily interrupting a men’s league game so the players could huddle at center ice for a surprise photo with Vrana and the Cup. From there, we walked to Vrana’s nearby house so he could change clothes for the evening’s festivities.  

Dinner time drew near, and we headed into downtown Prague for some photo ops and the last couple of stops of this European Cup tour. We literally and briefly stopped downtown rush hour traffic for a picture of Vrana hoisting the Cup on a bridge, with the famed Charles Bridge in the background. Then David parked the beast and Vrana lugged the precious hardware a couple of blocks to a downtown restaurant where we spent the next hour eating and drinking.  

With the sun beginning to sink and with the recent arrival of Washington winger Andre Burakovsky, we left the restaurant for a walk of several blocks to Club One for Vrana’s final few hours with the Cup. As we walked through this beautiful and ancient city, the crowd grew larger and larger. At one point, a woman grabbed my arm and asked breathlessly and urgently, “Is this Stanley Cup?” When I assured her it was, she shrieked “You are kidding me!” 

I wasn’t.  

The lighting was perfect, and many photos were snapped of a beaming Vrana with the Cup aloft. With the sun about to set, it was time to go inside. 

As Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character would certainly agree, Club One was indeed Prague’s hottest club on this night. A wristband was required for admission to this private party with more food and more drink, and with much of that drink flowing from the bowl of the Cup itself. The youthful crowd had a terrific time dancing and listening to the music while some of us older folks played Sporcle in a large booth while enjoying our libations. 

Just after midnight, Vrana carried the Cup out to the cobblestone streets of Prague and set it gently into its case for the trip back to the States. On the first leg of its two-legged, European tour, the Cup went to the Caps player who had waited the longest to win it, Ovechkin. It went to the player whose wait in a Washington uniform had been the shortest, Kempny. And it went to the most recent of the seven homegrown Caps first-rounders to win it, one of five such players that hails from Europe. It went from the 32-year-old Ovechkin to the 27-year-old Kempny to the 22-year-old Vrana.

David began the drive back to our hotel, and we all knew this would be a short, short night. We’d be getting back to our rooms after 1 a.m., and we needed to be up and packed and ready to go by 6:30 a.m., a situation that eventually led Zach and I to simultaneously – and spontaneously – break into the first couple of lines of Kris Kristofferson’s hangover classic, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” 

It was the second time on the trip that we’d serenaded our friends with this song after putting in a full shift. The ride back was mostly quiet, probably because we were all exhausted and keenly aware of the short night’s rest and the full travel day just ahead.

Then a voice – I’m not sure whose – cut the silence.

“Hey, there’s still some schnitzel back here!”