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RED HOT

Now in his third season in Grand Rapids, Jiri Hudler is showing the spark that led the Red Wings to make him their first pick in the 2002 draft

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Three years into his professional career, it’s easy to forget that Red Wings prospect Jiri Hudler is still very young and that Grand Rapids hockey fans may be seeing something special in the making.

Hudler won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday until Jan. 4, which means that his best years are likely still ahead.

Consider:

At 22, Brett Hull was still a year away from earning a full-time job in the NHL. Chris Chelios hadn’t yet made his professional debut with the Montreal Canadiens.

Pavel Datsyuk (Russia), Teemu Selanne (Finland), Daniel Alfredsson (Sweden) and Robert Lang (Czech Republic) were all still playing in their native countries. Martin St. Louis and Zigmund Palffy were just getting started in the minors.

At 22, Dominik Hasek was still three seasons away from leaving his Czech Republic homeland for North America, where he would still play two more seasons in the IHL before landing a full-time job in Buffalo.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hudler is only beginning to exhibit the full scope of his talent.

Thirteen goals in the Griffins’ first dozen games this season suggests he’s come a long way from being a wide-eyed rookie or the distracted second-year player fighting off a sophomore slump.

“It’s great to see Jiri playing well and getting points, but the big thing we’re looking for him to show is maturity,” says Griffins head coach Greg Ireland. “I think he came into this year very determined to show he can play for the Detroit Red Wings.”

Big things were expected for Hudler when the Red Wings made him their first pick (58th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He started the 2003-04 season in Detroit, but it was clear that he would benefit from more minutes in the minors.

Hudler tallied 17 goals and 32 assists in 57 games during his first year with the Griffins, then took a step back last season when he suffered a broken ankle and returned home to the Czech Republic to be with his ailing father.

But he got off on the right foot this fall. He scored on his first two shots of the season, building his confidence with 10 goals and five assists in his first seven games, then posting points in a personal-best 14 straight games.

“What happened last year was difficult,” Hudler says. “It was a bit of bad luck, but it’s behind me. This year is different. I’m just concentrating on hockey.”

The change has been noticeable.

“You don’t really know how much his troubles last year played a factor, but he’s another year wiser and he’s more relaxed,” Ireland says. “He’s found a great comfort level here.”

For his part, Hudler chalks it up to confidence and finding the right chemistry with his linemates. “We’re playing really well together,” he says. “It’s all about helping each other.”

The line of Hudler, Eric Manlow and Kent McDonell combined for 61 points in just 14 games. “We’re getting 10 scoring chances almost every game,” Hudler notes.

Manlow and McDonell, meanwhile, marvel at the success they’ve enjoyed being part of Hudler’s line.

“You can’t ask anything more of Jiri Hudler,” Manlow says. “He went through a tough year last season, but his mind is back to hockey where it needs to be. He’s basically thinking of hockey and nothing more.”

“Jiri is a fantastic player,” McDonell says. “Any time you give him the puck, you know there’s going to be some magic coming out of his stick. And he’s not just getting lucky points. They’re all hard-work points that he deserves.”

If Hudler is providing the spark, it’s the support of Manlow and McDonell that help fuel his success.

“When a line’s on fire, it’s not one guy,” Ireland says. “You look at that line and you’ve got some skill, some smarts and some grit. I think they’re a great unit together.”

In essence, Manlow and McDonell help accentuate Hudler’s strengths.

“He’s got an equal number of goals and assists because he’s playing with guys who can finish and who can get him the puck and vice versa,” Ireland says.

And Hudler has shown that he is not a selfish player, either. “There have been a couple of nights where he’s had a chance to get a hat trick and he’s given it up in the last few minutes to make a pass,” Ireland notes. “Those things are important and they don’t go unseen by his teammates.”

Nor is such play unnoticed by the Red Wings brass. “It’s his work away from the puck, his leadership, his defensive play that will get him back to the NHL and keep him there,” Ireland says.

Hudler knows there’s more to hockey than putting the puck into the net, and if he’s learned one thing in Grand Rapids, it’s how to be a more dependable defensive player in his own end.

“It’s what I’ve been working toward for two years,” he says. “I talk to coach about it and I think I’m getting a little better.”

Getting better is what drove Hudler to train this past summer in the Los Angeles area, where Chris Chelios has been training at Gold’s Gym in Venice for the past decade or so.

“It was my first time there,” Hudler says. “It was mostly working out in the gym or riding bikes. I think I can feel the difference. My legs feel stronger. I feel stronger in the corners.”

The summer regimen was Hudler’s first step toward re-igniting his career. “Before the year, I talked to my agent, my dad and my family and I said, ‘This is my third year, I’ve got to show something.’”

He wasted little time. Of course, he had a red-hot start a year ago, only to burn out under the bright glare of the Van Andel Arena spotlight.

“I need to play hard every night, not just for 15 or 30 games,” Hudler says. “I know there are going to be times when my points might be down, but I’ve got to make sure I’m still doing good things for the team even when I’m not scoring.”

It’s traits like focus, commitment and steadfastness that will determine whether Hudler achieves the level of maturity that Ireland and others are seeking.

“In his mind, he’s got to be thinking, ‘Listen, I can string together a full season. I can be consistent in all these areas that people want me to be.’ Consistency is the key,” Ireland says.

Most observers think it’s only a matter of time before Hudler is recalled to Detroit.

Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock has said on record that he likes what he’s hearing about Hudler’s play and is anxious to get a closer look at the young prospect.

Hudler will be ready.

“It’s a new season and a new game,” he says. “Like everybody in this locker room, you hope for the call. It’s why we play hockey.”

Ireland thinks it will help Hudler to see that there are others deserving of promotions. “There are so many good prospects here and that’s showing in the play of our team right now. Everybody wants that opportunity to shine and show what they can do.

Hudler, suggests Ireland, will need to stay focused wherever he plays.

“A lot of guys get called up to the National Hockey League, play a few games and then they come back and it’s not easy – it’s a regular roller coaster,” he says. “Consistency is what will eventually keep him there.”

Hudler says nobody needs to worry. “It’s a new season and a new game,” he says. “I’m just trying to keep it going.”

The talented forward feels this season’s new rules play to his benefit. “It’s a bigger (offensive) zone and you have more room than last year. It means you have one or two more seconds (with the puck) and that’s a huge difference.”

He also knows that what he does without the puck is just important. Playing stronger defensively will make him a better player and, ultimately, more attractive to the Red Wings.

“(Defense) is what I’ve been working on for two years,” he says. “I talk to coach about it and I think I’m getting better. I know I’m not going to score goals or gets points every game, so I have to make sure I keep doing good things.”

And that, Hudler knows, will do him good when it comes to getting that phone call from Detroit.


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