By Larry Wigge
The grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence.
In a truer than life example, Jiri Hudler won a Stanley Cup championship with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 ... then a year later he opted Dymamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for lots of rubles.
One year later, when financial troubles hit his team in the KHL he was on the phone with Red Wings GM Ken Holland. His return didn't follow the greener pastures on the other side of the fence ... or the other side of the ocean.
After leaving the Wings as an annual 20-goal scorer, he returned with 10 goals.
Last season's start crushed Hudler confidence. This season he brought a renewed attitude and ...
"I got into real good shape," the 28-year-old winger from Olomouc, Czech Republic, explained. "I was disappointed with my play last year. I had to be ready to earn my living.
"It's easier to play when you have more energy and you're strong on the puck ... "
"When you can play with guys who can create space like they do," Hudler continued, "it makes it a lot easier."
Hudler has gone to great lengths to show the season in Russia didn't have any negative effect on him. But ...
Said teammate Tomas Holmstrom, "It's really good he got scoring early because that builds confidence. You have to have confidence in everything you do and with confidence you are a better player."
It worked to the tune of 21 goals and 22 assists in 73 games.
Holland didn't want to lose the diminutive ball-of-dynamite.
"He's a very gifted player," Holland said. "We're happy to have him back. We're in a real competitive business. You want to find every opportunity you can to make your team better.
"The exciting part for me is we know what we're getting. He's really coming into the prime of his career. I think we're getting a very motivated player. He's a popular guy in the locker room."
"He's a game-breaker for sure," forward Johan Franzen said. "He's got really good hands and good hockey sense. He showed in the playoffs he can come up with really huge plays when we need it."
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. Like the five goals in the Cup win in 2008.
It's clear that the 5-9, 178 pounder is a difference maker, even if teams kept passing on him until the Wings picked him in the second round, 58th overall, in the 2002 Entry Draft.
"Huds never shies away from getting in the heavy traffic ... and he's got great hand-eye coordination," captain Nick Lidstrom explained.
"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 gushed about Hudler. "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 Jiri 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.
He wasn't always looked upon as a difference maker, even in Detroit, where he had just 48 goals in his first 92 games with the Red Wings. 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 -- long before Jiri had more than brief trial in the NHL.
Too small, too this, too that. We’ve heard it before, yes, even when scouts were talking about Henrik 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 58.
Hudler was born in the industrial city 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."
Remember Luc Robitaille and Igor Larionov in 2002? They were big-time fourth-line contributors for the Red Wings in the team's Stanley Cup win. 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 observed. "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."
And Jiri Hudler continues to produce big plays for the Red Wings.