TAMPA — Radko Gudas and Ondrej Palat were born nearly a year apart and grew up in cities 3 1⁄2 hours apart in the Czech Republic.
The paths that led them to next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, however, are very similar.
Gudas left his hometown of Kladno, outside of Prague, to play junior hockey for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League after being passed over in his first draft year. After one season in Everett, the Lightning selected him with the 66th pick in the 2010 draft.
In his third pro year, Gudas established himself as an NHL player, appearing in 22 games with Tampa Bay.
Palat left his home of Frydek-Mistek to play junior hockey in North America and Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. After being passed over in his initial draft year, Tampa Bay used its final pick of the 2011 draft to select the 6-foot, 190-pound winger.
Now in his third pro year, Palat has established himself as an NHL player and enters tonight's game against Washington on a seven-game scoring streak, the longest by a rookie this season and tied with Brad Richards for the longest rookie streak in franchise history.
Now the pair of Lightning rookies — Gudas in a top-four role on defense and Palat in a top-line role up front — will continue on the same path toward representing their country at the Olympics.
When asked who he was most looking forward to playing with in Sochi, Gudas did not mention Czech Republic hero Jaromir Jagr first.
“I'm looking forward to playing with Ondrej,'' Gudas said. “We lived together in Norfolk, and we are good buddies. We hang out a lot. So it's fun to see us have the same success, so I'm looking forward to that.”
Said Palat of playing in Sochi with Gudas: “That's awesome. We played together in the AHL, so it's a dream and an honor.”
Getting the chance to play in the Olympics didn't hit home for either player until last summer at the Czech Republic orientation camp.
“I was invited to that short camp, and I was on a big roster of like 60 names,'' Palat said. “I thought, well, if I can make the team in Tampa and I could play good, it could happen.''
It has also been a treat for Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who has coached both since they turned pro.
“They have come to this organization, they have developed and won,'' Cooper said. “A lot of individual accolades can come when you play in winning environments like these guys have done, and the reason we've had some winning teams is because of guys like Gudas and Palat.''