When Johnny Oduya returned to the Blackhawks at the trade deadline in late February, a dear pal unwittingly served as spokesman for the team, the organization and the fans.
"He fit right in just like he did before," noticed Marcus Kruger. "It's like he never left."
Oduya did leave Chicago, of course, after winning his second Stanley Cup in 2015. It was difficult, he said, but it was business. The National Hockey League's unforgiving salary cap plays no favorites, even when one of everybody's favorites is involved.
But relationships are tallied on a different bottom line, and when Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman had a chance, he pounced on Oduya. He arrived from Dallas as if he had been away on an extended sabbatical.
Still classy. Still humble. Still physically fit. Annoyingly fit, to us flaccid types. You don't dare ask what his body fat is because you will be shamed by the answer. Niklas Hjalmarsson suggested that his fellow Swede, though 35, is in a league of his own when it comes to being in shape.
"I watch what I eat," said Oduya. "Red meat maybe once a week. No dairy. But if I'm at a wedding or a party, I'll have a glass of wine. I'm not an absolutist. I'm not going to drink [only] water."
Another championship would provide cause for celebration, and Oduya is pumped. But he tactfully resists joining much of the fuss attendant to his reappearance. After all, if it's déjà vu, then the reprise shall proceed accordingly.
"I'm a support cast player," he said. "I think that's important, but I'm just here to help any way I can. One reason why this feels so comfortable, me being back, is that the guys and the coaches know what to expect from me, they know what they're going to get. What are they going to get? I try to be responsible."
But the spotlight? Oduya might as well be a vampire.
"Swedish people have a law, a code of ethics," he said. "It's called 'jante.' You don't put yourself ahead of others, don't call attention to yourself, you don't stick out. If you have money, you don't talk about it or show it. You maybe still drive a Volvo. When I go back home to Stockholm in the summer, I am not a big deal because I play in the NHL. Jante."
Several important players have had to depart Chicago, but few were missed as openly as Oduya. The guys did not want him to go. He commands respect, by his thoughtful ways, the manner with which he comports himself, the unselfish style he fashions on defense. Whether it's beside Hjalmarsson or Brent Seabrook, with whom he was often paired during the 2015 playoffs, Oduya is a rock, blocking shots like it's fun, joining the play when reward dwarfs the risk factor, and generally bringing peace to impending disorder on the blue line. Back in the day, the Blackhawks had to overpay for veterans who did not think much about the forecheck or the backcheck, only the paycheck. In Oduya, the Blackhawks are adding quality for what they hope will be a long playoff run.
"What I see here is pretty much the same as when I came to Chicago from Winnipeg in 2011," Oduya said. "Lots of new faces, obviously, but guys are still hungry. The stars want to win, just like they did before. The atmosphere is the same. Figure out a way to win and do things better. It starts at the top with the people who run the organization. Everybody still has the fire."
Oduya lost a brother, Fredrick, several years ago in a motorcycle accident. His father, who was Kenyan, is deceased. But mother Birgitta, 74, is alive and well, living in Spain. When the Blackhawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup in Boston, Mom was there. She might just show up in Chicago sometime this spring. After it's over, whatever happens, Johnny and his girlfriend, Alexandra, will travel. Bali, maybe. Tibet.
"There's a bucket list of places I'd like to see," Oduya said. "In 2013 when we had the lockout, I wound up in Thailand. November in Stockholm, it gets dark pretty early. So I took off and wound up playing hockey in Bangkok. A tournament was taking place and I joined in. The Land of Smiles Classic. It was a great experience."
Oduya incurred a broken foot in Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings. Earlier this season, he suffered a ruptured tendon with the Stars and missed an extended period of time. Even the fittest of the fit cannot control injuries, but at least now Oduya sits involuntarily. Earlier in his career, he was a bit of a hellion. Moncton Wildcats, 44 games in 2000-01, 147 penalty minutes.
"I had a few fights and was more aggressive than I am now," he said. "But you know how it is in juniors. You lose an elbow pad, that's another five minutes. Same thing when I went back to Sweden for a couple years. But you eventually change. It's part of the learning curve. I can't help the team by killing penalties if I'm taking penalties. I would rather take the punishment now and get what I want."
When Oduya played his first game back at the United Center on March 9 against the Anaheim Ducks, he looked up after a whistle and saw a video tribute hailing his return. Fans arose and accorded him an ovation. Oduya waved from the bench, grateful but bashful.
"Those fans are passionate, and I appreciate that," he said. "We all do. And for the organization to do what they did that night, that was very nice. That's what makes this whole thing even more special."
It was pointed out to Oduya that the film clips from last month were strikingly similar to those shown in the United Center when he showed up with the Dallas Stars for the first time. He smiled.
"You know," he said. "I don't have that many highlights."
There's that jante again.