Wings are delighted Hudler took up hockey
You could see why after Hudler batted a puck out of mid-air over Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller's shoulder early in the first period for the game-winning goal in a 4-1 victory against Anaheim Sunday to give the Red Wings a 3-2 series lead.
"Baseball?" Hudler said. "No, I've never played baseball. I've swung a tennis racket, however. I guess that's different, eh?"
Just a little, Jiri.
It's ironic that we started this conference semifinal series between the Wings and Ducks talking about Hudler and how he was knocked to the ice when Anaheim's Mike Brown either hit him with an elbow or shoulder high over his left eye. Now, Hudler bats in the game-winning goal in Game 5.
"I remember all the blood. I wasn't scared, but there was a lot of blood," Hudler said, revisiting the painful incident in the first period of Game 1. "I remember looking in the mirror after the game, seeing the stitches. And now I see the scar. But that's hockey. It's the playoffs. You do what you have to do to battle for every inch on the ice.
"What I remember most is we scored on that power play (a five-minute penalty to Brown) and won the game."
It's clear that Hudler is a difference maker, even if teams kept passing on him until the Wings picked him with the 58th choice in the 2002 Entry Draft.
Hudler, who stands 5-10 and weighs 182-pounds, has proven time and again in his five seasons in the NHL that he has enough staying power to keep going to the tough areas of the ice in front of the net to help the Red Wings win. That's the long and short of it.
"’Huds’ never shies away from getting in the heavy traffic ... and he's got great hand-eye coordination as you saw (Sunday)," Lidstrom said. "I'm sure there's even a bigger smile on Huds face after what happened to him in Game 1."
Explosive. Quick off his mark. Talented in the open. Gutsy, with a get-even attitude. That's Hudler, who is often at his best in the playoffs. Of his five goals in 22 playoff games last year, two were game-winners. Add another GWG against the Ducks Sunday.
"He's a little guy, but he's competitive. He's strong. He holds onto pucks. He's as good as anybody on our team in finding the space to make a dynamic play," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "What I like about Huds most is that he had continued to challenge himself to get better. That's why he's playing the important minutes he's getting now compared to last year."
Fearlessness. On-ice vision. Deceptive quickness. An instinct that allows him to worm his way to the right place at the right time. A hockey sense behind his age. All Hudler really needed was a chance. And the more playing time he gets, the more impressive he's becoming.
"Hockey is not about size," Hudler said. "If you play smart, if you play with good players, you can play in any league."
Hudler had career-highs with 23 goals and 34 assists in the 2008-09 season, not bad for a guy who usually plays on Detroit's third line. But he wasn't always looked upon as a difference maker, even in Detroit, where he had just 28 points in his first 92 games. That coming after he had 36 goals and 61 assists for an eye-popping 97 points in 76 games for Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League in 2005-06.
Too small, too this, too that. We’ve heard it before, yes, even when scouts were talking about Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. I think it's safe to say that if Hudler was two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier, he would have been in the Top 10 of the 2002 draft, instead of slipping to late in the second round.
Hudler was born in the industrial city of Olomouc in east central Czech Republic, an ancient town that was once the leading city of Moravia and today is known for its candy, chocolate and many fountains. He moved to Vsetin when he was 12-years-old, living with his father, also named Jiri, after his parents divorced. A defenseman in his playing days, Hudler's father coached his son before the boy graduated to the Czech Elite League at 16.
"I always played with older players, sometimes three years older, even when I was really small," Hudler said. "So I knew I could compete against better players. I just had to prove it ... to a lot of people.
"Now, I get pumped knowing I’m going to play. It feels great. I feel more confident right now. It's the real season now. I love the atmosphere, the competition."
Don't be misled by the fact that this mini difference-maker is playing in third- or fourth-line roles. Fourth-line players don't often draw a lot of attention at this time of the year, unless you look back at the history of some of the great Red Wings teams of the past. Remember Luc Robitaille and Igor Larionov in 2002? They were big-time fourth-line contributors for the Red Wings in the team's third Stanley Cup-winning season in six years.
Hudler won't complain about the slow nurturing process, knowing full well that every kid from Saskatoon to Olomouc wants to play a lot ... and play right now.
"Playing in the NHL is a dream of every hockey player," Hudler said. "I was lucky I got an opportunity to see the speed and skill of the NHL in one of my first years in North America. I was lucky it was Detroit that drafted me and not someone else. I got to learn on the job, learn the right way to do things.
"I just had to have patience. At first, I admit, you look around and see all the talent and wonder if you're good enough to get a shot at the big leagues. But the Red Wings put young guys in a position to gain confidence. And, when you're ready, you're going to play."