Jiri Hudler's skills force defenders to play a futile game of cat-and-mouse.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
The first thing you notice about Jiri Hudler, even before he skates onto the ice, is his smile.
Actually, it's more impish smirk than smile, perhaps better described as a Cheshire grin, a look that is a tad mischievous. You wonder what the young Red Wings prospect might have up his sleeve.
Good luck finding out.
The twinkle in his eye suggests he knows he has something special, although he is quick to share the credit: he is lucky to play with talented teammates who give him the puck.
And when he returns to the Van Andel Arena ice for a curtain call after being named one of the three stars of the game, he always grins and bangs his gloves together in a manner of applause, thanking fans for their support.
Hudler is a legitimate prospect, a talented teen at the beginning of the year when he was turning heads in Detroit . Now in Grand Rapids , he is making the most of his first season in North America after leaving his native Czech Republic .
He has many of those elusive qualities that stamp him a star in the making.
Fearlessness. On-ice vision. God-given hockey sense. Deceptive quickness. An indeterminate instinct to be in the right place at the right time. Skills that force defenders to play a futile game of game of cat-and-mouse. Tom & Jiri
The only knock against Hudler, who celebrated his 20th birthday four days into the New Year, has been his size. It's probably the only thing that kept him from being a Top 10 draft pick.
Hudler is listed at 5-foot-9, which may be generous, but the Red Wings were willing to overlook the fact that he looks like a boy among men in the pre-game skate because he has skills that have enabled him to excel at every level of hockey he has ever played.
He's a very talented player," says Griffins head coach Danton Cole. Obviously there's a big upside for him. You don't see a lot of guys at his age coming in here and putting up the points like he has.
Hudler was sent to Grand Rapids to get more ice time, to hone his talent in hopes of becoming the next Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg. Time is obviously on his side: he is 5-1/2 years younger than Datsyuk, more than three years younger than Zetterberg.
Instinctively, Jiri does an awful lot of things very well, Cole continues. He sees the ice, he shoots, and even defensively he's good. From end to end, he has a head for the game of hockey. He's a fun player to watch.
Certainly, Hudler has excelled in his first season in the minors. He had a 12-game point streak earlier this year, the second longest in Griffins history, and he has averaged more than a point per game since coming to Grand Rapids .
For his exploits, he was the second youngest player chosen for the 2004 Pepsi AHL All-Star Classic.
His English, he will tell you, still needs improving, but he has made great strides in the space of a few months, thanks to talking to teammates and watching a lot of television, especially MTV.
I had English in school, but it's not the same, Hudler says. It's life here. There it was just words. His teachers, he now realizes, were not exactly the best English speakers.
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 the age of 16. I always play with older players, sometimes three years older, even when I was small, Hudler says.
The elder Jiri Hudler mentored his young son, nurturing the Czech prodigy who was drawing comparisons to a young Jaromir Jagr. His father's advice was simple. He helped me a lot, Hudler says. He said to just play and have fun. Every time on the ice, just have fun.
His team in Vsetin was a six-time champion in the Czech Republic . It's a small city, but very good hockey lots of big names," Hudler says, rattling off players like Roman Cechmanek, Jiri Dopita and Pavel Patera.
They teach me, Hudler says. I just look at big stars, how they play, how they do things.
Three times, Hudler represented his country in the World Junior Championships, where he excelled among the best players on the planet. Every year was a good experience for me, he says.
Last season, he was a member of the Czech Republic team in the senior World Championships. I get to play with Robert Reichel, Milan Hejduk and Martin Straka, Hudler says. It's unbelievable for me.
Getting the opportunity to learn from a two-time 40-goal scorer like Reichel, or Hejduk, who scored 50 goals last season for Colorado , was something that Hudler won't soon forget.
He experienced a similar epiphany this past fall when he made his NHL debut. Three months ago, I was in the Red Wings' locker room for the first time and I can't believe it, he says.
Growing up, Hudler's exposure to the NHL came via NHL Power Week broadcasts and televised Stanley Cup playoff games. He knew he would have to work to make the Red Wings' roster.
Detroit is a good team and so for young guys like me and the guys here, I think we've got time, Hudler says. We must play well here, have fun, and nothing more.
Defense is the one area of Hudler's game that he hopes to most improve. Obviously, there's little he can do about his size, although he doesn't see his lack of stature as any detriment to his play.
I don't care because hockey is not about size, he says. If you play smart, if you play with good players, you can play with anybody.
After accomplishing everything he could in the Czech Republic , Hudler was ready for a new challenge. Late last season he made the surprise move to play for Ak Bars Kazan of the Russian Superleague.
My agent said it would be a good experience, playing in a new country, Hudler says, explaining the rationale for leaving the Czech Republic before signing with the Red Wings this past summer. It was something new.
Unfortunately, Hudler broke his finger in Russia , which effectively ended his year one game into the playoffs. I couldn't hold the stick, he says.
This fall marked his second trip to North America as he had travelled to Toronto in 2002 for the NHL Entry Draft. Ranked third among European skaters by the Central Scouting Bureau, he was selected 58th overall by the Red Wings with their first choice in the draft.
In what has already been quite a season, Hudler recorded his first NHL goal, a power play tally, in Buffalo on Dec. 10. Jason Woolley made a good pass and I one-timed it, he says. I was lucky a little bit.
The goal capped a memorable journey for Hudler, who had been recalled along with goaltender Curtis Joseph a day earlier. They were at the back of the Griffins' bus, headed for a game in Cleveland , when the call for help came.
The veteran and the rookie hopped into a rented Chevy Cavalier it was the only car available and travelled the 200 miles to Buffalo . Joseph drove and Hudler crashed figuratively, of course. I was a little bit tired, he says.
Hudler isn't worried about running out of gas this season. At his age, he doesn't think his body will have any trouble coping with the rigors of an 80-game schedule for the first time.
If nothing else, he'll run on adrenalin.
I like Grand Rapids because it is a hockey town like Detroit , he says, realizing his fate likely will be tied with the Griffins for the rest of this season. We are first overall, we have a good team, so no problems. It is good here.
His father and grandmother joined him for the first couple of months in Detroit this season, but now that they're back home, Hudler stays in regular communication. He talks with his father every day by cell phone. It's one case where talk is not cheap.
When quizzed what he misses most about home, he doesn't hesitate. Goulash and Tatar steak, he says.
His grandmother's goulash is the best, but Hudler and his appetite will have to wait until he's able to return home next summer before he's able to get another taste of her delicious stew.
Hudler admits that the idea of her shipping a pot of goulash overseas has already occurred to him. I told her this but she said, It's a long flight,' he says. Then he flashes that grin that tells you he couldn't be happier, goulash or no goulash.