Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas certainly has the characteristics of a professional hockey player.

The rugged defenseman renowned for his thunderous hits and supreme beard-growing ability has trimmed the bristles to a more manageable handlebar moustache in honor of Movember. He formerly lived with teammates near the Atlantic Coast while playing for the former Tampa Bay affiliate in Norfolk, and now lives and commutes to games with several Czech and Slovakian teammates as a member of the Lightning.

Before he was selected by Tampa Bay in the third round of the 2010 NHL draft, and before developing his lifestyle as a professional hockey player, the six-foot, 204 pound native of Kladno, Czech Republic – Jaromir Jagr’s hometown – made his North American club-affiliated hockey debut as an invite to the Los Angeles Kings’ development camp in July, 2009, and subsequently the team’s 2009 rookie camp. On Tuesday night he’ll play at STAPLES Center for the first time in his career (7:30 p.m. / FOX Sports West / KTLK AM 1150) as a member of the first-place Lightning.

Though Gudas was passed over in the 2009 NHL Draft, he was then a European-based player who was yet to play in North America, which prohibited the Kings from signing him as an undrafted free agent.

But the development camp and rookie camp experience allowed the Kings to gain an up close look while affording Gudas a lasting impression of the commitment necessary to play in the National Hockey League.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” he said after Tampa Bay’s skate at the Toyota Sports Center on Tuesday. “For me, it was the first everything, pretty much. [I saw] the players I had been watching when I was young – how they worked, what they were doing for drills, how they lived. Like, that they were actually humans. From Czech or from Europe, it’s hard to see any players around. But I think it was a great experience. The organization was more than kind to me, and I had a great time.”

It was well before he took part in development camp that Gudas had taken notice of the Kings.

“Gretzky was playing here, so obviously I was watching him. But it was one of my favorite teams growing up,” he said. “When they invited me, I was just, ‘This is awesome, it’s great.’”

It was through a future teammate with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips that Gudas became acquainted with several members currently on Los Angeles’ roster.

“It was me and Tyler Maxwell here – he was with the Everett Silvertips, too – and Linden Vey and Brandon Kozun. Maxwell’s from here, so he took us around and took us to the beach. I think [Martin] Jones was there, too – the goalie. So I got to know them a little bit, and they’re good guys. It was fun.”

After a standout junior season that included a defensive pairing with future number two overall pick Ryan Murray – now with the Columbus Blue Jackets – there was no chance Gudas would slip through the NHL Draft once again.

While the Kings certainly had their eyes on the defenseman, it was the Tampa Bay Lightning that selected him with the 66th overall pick in the third round of the 2010 draft. Four selections later, Los Angeles took Jordan Weal.

Though being selected by the Lightning stifled any lingering fondness towards the Kings organization, he still came away with a positive impression of the club after his team’s 5-1 win at the Tampa Bay Times Forum last month.

“They’re a really good team, really strong. They move the puck well. They’re pretty big, and they hit hard, too,” Gudas said of the Kings. “So we’ve got to make sure we stick to our system and make sure we’re playing our role right. I’m sure if we give everything it should be a good matchup.”

Now 23 years old, the right-handed shooter leads Tampa Bay with 61 penalty minutes to go along with his goal, five assists, plus-three rating and 20:02 average time on ice.

For those who remember several of the hits he dished out during rookie camp scrimmages four years ago, this take down of Teemu Selanne in a win over Anaheim last week shouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary.

“I was waiting for him to move the puck somewhere. He was looking somewhere for a player, and nobody popped up…he didn’t know what to do with the puck for a second. I used the opportunity and took the hit,” Gudas said.

The hit, placed in context with head coach Jon Cooper’s evaluation of Gudas from his early days with the Norfolk Admirals and the Lightning, give an illustration of a player that has undergone significant development since his weeks of living out of a hotel in El Segundo.

“I would say his game has matured. As long as it’s matured, it’s calmed down, too,” Cooper said. “He was a little bit erratic, a little bit all over the place. He went out of his way to hit people, and it would always take him out of position. When we calmed his game down and kind of got a little bit more feel for the pro game, his game elevated, and that’s probably in the progression of four years, is where he doesn’t go out to end a player’s night. Now he plays much more under control, which makes him much more reliable. He’s really becoming more of a well-rounded D-man.”

Scott Audette / National Hockey League

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