By Larry Wigge
Explosive. Quick off his mark. Talented in the open. Gutsy ... with a get-even attitude.
That's the kind of scouting report we often heard about Jiri Hudler in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
He was too small. To this, too that. But, it's clear that the 5-9, 178-pounder was a difference maker, even if teams kept passing on him until the Wings picked him in the second round, 58th overall.
"Hockey is not about size," Hudler said, with a smile.
"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.
We're not about to say that his eight seasons with the Red Wings were mis-spent. He won a Stanley Cup for Detroit in 2008 and played for a contender each year in Detroit. But ...
He for the Calgary Flames in 2014-15, Hudler clearly emerged as one of the game's best -- scoring 31 goals and 45 assists. He finished eighth among league scoring leaders. Then, he added four goals and four assists in 11 playoff games for the Flames.
"He's a little guy, but he's competitive. He's strong. He holds onto pucks. He's as good as anybody in finding the space to make a dynamic play," gushed former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock last year about Hudler. "What I like about Huds most is that he had continued to challenge himself to get better."
Challenge? Hudler showed the guts and gumption he knew he always had.
"I have been a leader since I was young," Hudler said matter-of-factly. "I started playing professional hockey when I was 16 in Czech, in elite league.
"It's tough to be a leader in Detroit, right? I started when Steve Yzerman was there, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom. You are not going to stand out in that group. The Red Wings had groomed Pavol Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to be the next leaders.
"That is why I signed in Calgary. I want to be Calgary's Datsyuk, or Calgary's Zetterberg. I want to be around a young group like we have and show them the ropes."
In recording these big numbers, Hudler received 52 first-place votes to finish ahead of Datsyuk and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar in the voting for the Lady Byng Award, for gentlemanly play.
"Pav is a beautiful person, a beautiful human being and my favorite player I ever played with or played against," Hudler said. "When I heard I was nominated for this award against him and Kopitar ... I'll take it any day."
Hudler started for reminisce. He began watching and following the NHL ... the Stanley Cup finals ... since he was 9 in Olomouc in the Czech Republic.
"My dad would wake me up. Then sometimes he'd tell me to wake him up if something happens, Hudler said. "There was a lot of excitement. I'd wake up at three in the morning and watch. I'd fall asleep and wake up again. I had to go to school, and sometimes we'd watch the overtimes at school. It's big back home."
Hudler was referring to the Montreal-Los Angeles finals in 1993, when Wayne Gretzky played for the Kings who were beaten by Larry Robinson and Guy Carbonneau.
"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."
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."
And Jiri Hudler continues to produce big plays for the Flames.
At a time when the pace of NHL play has never been faster, Hudler, now 31, has that Gretzky-like ability to slow things down. He thinks the game on a higher plane than most players and the net result is, he has become the offensive catalyst on the Flames’ No. 1 line, which also includes its two best prospects, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
"He's not the fastest guy, but he makes up for it with his brain," said Flames G.M. Brad Treliving. "He's able to think the game at a high level.
"The biggest revelation for me was his competitiveness. He's driven to win and he's a fiercely competitive guy, and he's really been good with our younger players."
Thinking aloud for a minute, Treliving says, "The other really intriguing thing for me is, he's wont at Detroit. You can't duplicate that experience. He's played in these types of games before. ... We may get all excited, but he knows it's only going to get harder because he's been there and done that. He knows the trail."
Hudler's been there and done that, but ...
"I like to play with players who are hungry for the puck, who want to score. I see these kids I'm playing to score. I love that feeling, when they're fist pumping. Sometimes, I tell them that it's embarrassing, the way they celebrate, but ... I do that too. It's just the natural reaction of human beings -- that happiness."
That Jiri Hudler. Too small. Too slow. But ... just plain good.