The NHL’s ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ story: Hedman and Palat’s pro football team considering promotion

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The offseasons have been short and downtime has been invaluable for every Tampa Bay Lightning player over the past few years, but especially for Victor Hedman. Including the playoffs, between 2019-20 and 2021-22, no NHL player has logged more than his 6,793 minutes and 45 seconds of ice time. The 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and future Hall of Fame defenseman has squeezed every last kilojoule out of his 6-foot-6 frame during that span. So recovery was paramount every summer during the Bolts’ two-straight Stanley Cup title streak and three straight trips to the Finals.

Hedman’s traditional off-season training schedule? Not possible. He had to heal first. Although he said he wouldn’t change it for the world, he wasn’t able to « focus on making things better » physically. It was all about breaking even just to be healthy enough for the start of next season. This included resting as much as he could.

The bright side ? This opened the door to pursuing other interests. And a pitch from his good friend and now former teammate turned out to be life changing.

Longtime Lightning left-winger Ondrej Palat, aka « Pally, » had become close friends with Hedman, aka « Heddy, » during the incredibly successful 10 seasons they overlapped as teammates. Hedman’s love of football, known in his native Sweden as football of course, was well documented. He was an avid Manchester United fan. Palat had also grown up as a football fan, playing there as a child, supporting his hometown club in the Czech League and eventually becoming attached to Chelsea, cheering on Czech goalkeeper Peter Cech. Palat had stumbled upon an exciting business opportunity through a friend’s brother, Florida real estate developer Michal Mincberg. He was setting up a group of investors to bid for 20% of Plymouth Argyle, a third-tier English professional League 1 football team, with the potential for Hedman and Palat to join.

Palat was excited but knew the opportunity would mean the world to Hedman in particular.

« I told Heddy, and Heddy was very excited, » Palat said. Daily face-to-face. « I didn’t know if I should but when I told Heddy there was a chance he was like « Yeah let’s do it » because it’s a huge opportunity to buy 20 % of the club in England. The Premier League is huge, but I had no idea that the third league in England was incredibly popular. Heddy explained it to me, and then I realized how important it was and what a good team it was, and we decided to be part of the investment group.

The idea was irresistible. If nothing else, it was a great way for two good friends to stay close after Palat left Tampa as a free agent to sign a five-year, $30 million deal with the New Jersey Devils. “Well, always have this together,” Hedman recalls they said to each other.

However, they did not expect to celebrate immediate success. Hedman estimates that Plymouth Argyle was due to end between the 14e and 17e in the 2022-23 table out of 24 teams after a seventh-place finish in 2021-22. Palat thought a realistic goal was for Plymouth Argyle to reach the top of the table and win promotion to the Tier 2 English Football League Championship within five years. Hedman, acting as a handbook for a journalist unfamiliar with the world of football, explains that the top two teams in Ligue 1 get automatic promotion every year, while clubs in third to sixth place play a mini- tournament to determine a promoted third. club. The last three teams in the table are relegated to Ligue 2.

« That’s the fun part of football: you’re always on the edge, » Hedman said. Daily face-to-face. “You can’t tank and hope for the first-round pick. It’s about performing year after year and trying to put the best possible team on the field.

No one could have predicted what caliber the Plymouth Argyle side would put on the pitch this season. With just eight games remaining in their schedule, they sit in first place, heading for promotion to the Championship League in Hedman and Palat’s first season as co-owners.

They not only find themselves giddy talking about the team in their group chat, but on the edge of their seat once or twice a week, whether it’s a hotel bed on the road or a… ‘a fitting room. The experience of looking at something that is yours is intoxicating. Hedman finds it more nerve-wracking than playing, and he has become superstitious about his soccer club. When he spoke to Daily face-to-face last week he did the math on the Lightning’s record when they played the same day as Plymouth Argyle: 5-1-1, he says proudly.

« Usually it’s a good sign that when they win and we play, we’ll follow later in the night (with a win), » Hedman said. okay with that. We also have a big scarf in one of our practice rooms at the rink. So a lot of guys have become Argyle fans as well.

« It’s fun because we also know how the players might feel, because we’re professional athletes, so there are ups and downs, » Palat said.

There is an ability to identify, but the duo cannot yet be active with their team. Palat sees himself « as a fan », admiring Argyle from afar. Because their playing schedule overlaps the NHL schedule, it has not yet been possible for Hedman or Palat to see their club compete live, although they have been in touch with manager Steven Schumacher and CEO Andrew Parkinson and hope to make the trip this summer with their fellow investors.

Until there? The former hockey teammates turned football teammates soak up each victory and dream of an even greater ultimate goal: to win the Championship circuit and one day make it to the best footballing scene in the world, the English Premier League. First, it’s about stitching up this promotion in the coming weeks.

« We don’t just want to be promoted and then relegated, » Palat said. « We want to be promoted and be part of the Championship League. And I think everyone wants to be in the Premier League. Our long-term goal is to be in the Premier League, but we’re not focusing on that. We we are focused on being a competitive team in the Championship League.

It’s impossible not to ponder the parallels with another high-profile story about two unlikely football investors having wild success. The answer is therefore yes: Hedman and Palat know very well Welcome to Wrexham, the docuseries chronicling the purchase by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney of an English professional football club. Wrexham currently hold second place in the National League, two divisions behind Argyle in League One.

« For me, it’s very different: I’m not a Hollywood superstar, » Hedman said with a laugh. “They are two leagues below us. But it is almost certain that they will be promoted to Ligue 2 this year. They have done a wonderful job. If you look at the players they have in this league. Great Paul Mullin. They could probably play in Ligue 1 or even in the Championship. Phil Parkinson as manager, highly respected in England. They have a great group and sell all the games and get a lot of people from all over the world to come and see them. They did a great job promoting the team and getting this documentary helped the team grow. So you take your hat off and hopefully in the future you will be part of the teams they play against.

For Palat, it’s another streaming series that won her heart. He swears by Sunderland till i die because of the way it paints a picture of the passion of English football fans.

“It’s crazy for people. It’s their life,” he said. “They talk on Sunday mornings at church about their football team. It’s amazing how much that means to people in England.

And Palat’s romance speaks to the level of commitment he and Hedman have to their club. It’s not about publicity or profit. This is a passion project.

Hedman and Palat are here for the long haul. Hedman hints at wanting to do even more in the sport after his hockey career is over – and even teases another mysterious announcement coming this summer regarding his football involvement.

Until then: They’ll enjoy their new found love from a distance and focus on their way through the Stanley Cup playoffs, where they could meet at some point as first-time opponents.


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