Martin Havlat grew up with the game of hockey. Literally.
From the time he was a young boy right up until his early teens, Martin travelled with his father's teams all over what was then known as Czechoslovakia. His father coached second level professional hockey teams out of Brno. Young Martin rode the buses, skated at practices, and stood on the bench during games.
Exposure to the pro game gave Martin a head start on many other young players in his country. He also got significantly more ice time than most kids in Brno. Back then it was a city of about 450,000 people but there was only two rinks - one indoor and one outdoor.
By the time Havlat was emerging as a top young talent in the country, his father increased his coaching influence. He was hard on his son, but instilled the work habits necessary to make it to the National Hockey League.
By the age of 16 Havlat moved to Trinec and dominated the Czech junior hockey. By the age of 17 he was playing in the top men's league.
The Ottawa Senators selected him in the first round (26th overall) of the 1999 draft, and after one more season in Trinec, Havlat joined the Senators for 2000-01. Despite knowing very little English, Havlat made the NHL's all-rookie team by getting 19 goals and 23 assists in 73 games.
“I was fortunate to have had a few Czech and Slovak players around me in Ottawa, like Marian Hossa, Radek Bonk and Vinny Prospal to make me feel comfortable,” Havlat said. “The Czech players helped me with the language, to feel comfortable, and to find good restaurants to eat at both home and on the road.
He continued to develop in his second year, establishing himself as an explosive skater with soft hands, but the highlight of the year came when he played on a line with Czech superstar Jaromir Jagr at the 2002 Olympics.
"He may be the most exciting player on our team," said Ottawa coach Jacques Martin. "He reminds me of Guy Lafleur. Some players have a flair, and when they touch the puck, it seems to raise fans up out of their seats. He has that."
Martin also agreed that Havlat reminded him of Pavel Bure, though he wished Havlat was more selfish with his offense like Pavel.
"I'd like Marty to focus on shooting the puck more," Martin said. "He's got a great shot and too often he wants to get the defenseman one on one instead of using the shot. He'd get a lot more production if he started shooting more."
Another career highlight came a year later when Havlat helped the Ottawa Senators emerge as a contender. Along with the likes of Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa, the Senators were a strong team that never quite seemed to figure out how to take that final step.
"I am disappointed we didn't win the Stanley Cup in Ottawa because we were so close and I always felt like we had the talent here that could get the job done," said Havlat. "We were so close in 2003 and we came within one game (of reaching the Stanley Cup final).
Oddly enough, the Senators finally realized their potential and played in the Stanley Cup final in 2007 - the same season Havlat left the team. In search of a new contract that was too rich for Ottawa's liking Havlat was traded off to Chicago prior to the 2006-07 season.
"I thought of Ottawa as my home. I spent most of my summers there, I was there all season and I spent more time there than I did in the Czech Republic in the last six years. That's why it is tough for me to leave and go elsewhere. But I have to move on."
Havlat did move on and for a brief time he was the face of the Hawks, helping bring struggling franchise back to respectability. Injuries would derail his first two seasons in Chicago, though he was clearly a nice building block in what would become a powerful Stanley Cup dynasty.
Coach Denis Savard called Havlat “just a great player. He makes a lot of things happen out there and he's fun to coach. Obviously, with us, as young as we are, some of the young players will pick up on the things he does."
Havlat would be gone from Chicago before the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith were hitting their prime. He would go on to play a couple of seasons in Minnesota under their suffocating defensive system before moving to San Jose where injuries always seemed to haunt him. He briefly played in New Jersey and St. Louis, too.
All said and done Martin Havlat had a pretty nice career in hockey. He played in 790 NHL games, scoring 242 goals, 352 assists and 594 points.
“I know when you retire people ask you about your favourite moment or memory, but for me, it’s tough to pick one. There are so many things I’m grateful for. It was a great run. Sure I had my ups and downs, but I loved the game and enjoyed too many positive things to pick one,” Havlat said.