LA Kings Roman Vopat

Photo Credit: Roman Vopat , Getty Images

As the LA Kings prepare for their continuation (sort of) of Frozen Fury, I speak with Roman Vopat, who scored the club’s first FF goal.

Frozen Fury is back. Well, sort of. The LA Kings continue their 2021 preseason by restoring a somewhat familiar event.

After an experimental outdoor exhibition game played there in 1991, Las Vegas played host to an annual exhibition event six years later, involving the same team that took part in ’91: the LA Kings. That annual event, named Frozen Fury, with the exception of the lockout-interrupted years of 2004 and 2012, took place every year from 1997 to 2016.

Over that span, the LA Kings were the most active team in the competition, playing 21 games and going 12-9. The Colorado Avalanche were the second-most active team with 16 games. Now, in 2021, the event returns. The only difference is that it’s not in Las Vegas. Instead, the game will take place in Salt Lake City, UT, as Sin City hasn’t been a neutral site since 2017 when the Vegas Golden Knights entered the league. In short time, they developed a hostile rivalry with the Kings and on Sept. 30 in SLC, they will square off against the silver-and-black in the Frozen Fury‘s newest installment.

But, heading back to the first — September 20, 1997 at MGM Arena — the LA Kings took on the Avs. But, after Josef Marha tallied the first-ever goal of the event to put the Avs up, the Kings got their first-ever FF goal courtesy of Roman Vopat.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Vopat, who shared his memories of the event. The actual goal, however, the former NHLer doesn’t remember as well.

“You know what, honestly, I don’t recall my goal at all,” an amused Vopat admitted. “I remember the experience when we played against Colorado. I was fortunate enough to play [Frozen Fury] twice, and playing in MGM, it was 40 degrees [Celcius] outside and you’re playing hockey in a casino rink, it was great.”

While some of those players may have taken that game for granted, that wasn’t the case for Vopat. In fact, for a kid growing up in stringent Czechoslovakia, playing in any sort of NHL game seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream.

“For a kid like me who grew up in a communist country, it was surreal,” Vopat reflected. “There were a lot of fans there, the ice was crap — I remember that — but I don’t recall I don’t recall that goal at all.”

Having a failure to recollect his tally certainly didn’t put a damper on Vopat’s memories.

“I enjoyed the experience to play against Patrick Roy and all those great stars of Colorado — Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and all those guys,” beamed the former winger. “So, I was privileged to be on the same time with those guys, and the experience was absolutely fantastic.”

While he would only play 57 games over three seasons for the club, Vopat’s tenure with the Kings did have some highlights. That included having the rare opportunity to play with his older brother, Jan, who, by the way, registered an assist in that first Frozen Fury game.

“Anytime that you play with your brother, it’s something special,” a proud Vopat noted. “He was drafted by Hartford, never really played for Hartford, so he got traded to Los Angeles. Then, once I got traded to Los Angeles, I was up with [the Kings] and he was up in Phoenix [with the IHL’s Roadrunners]; and when he got called up, I got sent down. Eventually, we stepped on the ice at the same time, we played together, and it was something that– I was speechless. It was a dream come true to play in the National Hockey League and play with your brother on the same team. So, it was definitely special.”

Of course, Vopat is probably best remembered as one of the players acquired by the Kings in February 1996 in a trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues. While his time in Los Angeles may have been, through no fault of his own, underwhelming, Vopat can at least look back on this juncture of his career objectively.

“Once you get traded for the best player in the world, you put so much pressure on yourself that my tie you up to– sometimes you’re not playing as well as you should,” explained the 45-year-old. “But, for reading in the papers or talking with [then-Kings asst. GM] Dave Taylor and all those guys and once they tell you that I was a vital piece of that trade, it kind of put so much pressure on such a young hockey player that I felt that they were asking too much of me.”

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The former winger continued, explaining that while he did establish himself as a reliable producer, it wasn’t in the form of lighting the lamp.

“Starting with the [WHL’s] Moose [Jaw Warriors] when I was a junior, I was never really a player that was known as a goal-scorer or as a playmaker or anything like that,” Vopat shared. “I always considered myself as a third, fourth line shutdown guy, checking guy with a pretty decent shot and skills that I could eventually chip in with one or two goals here and there, a few points, but mostly with my physicality and my style of play, as I said, I considered myself as a shutdown guy and as a checker. You can never replace the Great One. Ever. As you see the trade and you look who played for the Kings — Craig Johnson played a few seasons, Patrice Tardif and I barely played; and then you have Matt Zultek, who was a first-round pick, he never played for LA. It was just that sometimes you make trades for players and you assume, ‘Okay, these guys are going to become good, they’re going to become great, or they’re going to become whatever.’ But, I just put so much pressure on myself. I was only 20 years old and I just couldn’t deliver what they were asking of me.”

Vopat played in the NHL until 1999 before returning to Europe, playing until 2011 — where he finished his career with his hometown Litvinov HC. In 2014, Vopat returned to North America, where he served as an assistant coach in the WHL — first with the Prince George Cougars and then the Kootenay Ice, but, while he did enjoy that, decided to move on.

“To me, coaching is just a hubby,” Vopat admitted. “”It’s fun to give something back to the community and to the kids, but I couldn’t do it full time. I need to do more of a physical job. It’s not sitting in the office and doing that. That’s not me. But, I enjoyed it. I definitely enjoyed it. It was not one bad thing and I would do it again.”

Today, Vopat is enjoying life in Cranbrook, B.C., where he works as a successful truck operator. Plus, as a hobby, he is coaching and even running a hockey camp — something that fills the former NHLer with immense joy.

“I’m coaching the U18 team here in Cranbrook, and we just had our tryouts, but I do run one hockey camp at the end of August, beginning of September,” Vopat explained. “Just for those reasons that the players that are coming into U16, U18 team, rep team trials that are physically ready for the challenge, and so that’s the reason I’m running the hockey camps. Me and a couple of my friends are doing that — I think this is a fourth year — and every year, we have pretty good turnouts. Again, I enjoy how we’re working with the kids and helping them. So, when you see the smiles on their faces when they make the team, it makes you feel happy, makes you feel that you did your job and I’m glad I could help.”

Some could suggest that more NHL success brings more post-career happiness. I don’t know how accurate that is as whole but in Roman Vopat’s case, it certainly isn’t.

He may not have been the Great One’s successor in Los Angeles but Vopat used his 6’3″, 209-pound frame to nonetheless establish himself as a reliable force during his playing career. He now spends part of his time as an influential coach as he helps aspiring children reach their full potential on the ice and, as far as Mr. Vopat is concerned, he couldn’t ask for a better way to spend his time.

From his playing career to his coaching career to his career away from the rink, the experiences Roman Vopat has acquired are unique and irreplaceable. That is something that the former LA Kings winger is happy to reflect on whenever he wants to — including Frozen Fury — and Mr. Vopat can tell you that that is a pretty good feeling.

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