Richard Panik and his longtime girlfriend were married last summer in their hometown of Martin, Slovakia. It was a glorious ceremony.
Speaking of which, he is off to a sizzling start with the Blackhawks this season. Might these two happenings be connected?
"A few people must think so," he was saying the other day. "When I do something good, my wife Nikola gets texts from friends and family. 'Why didn't you have the wedding two or three years ago?'"
Somewhat surprisingly, Panik has registered six goals-including his first National Hockey League hat trick-and it isn't even Halloween. We say somewhat because somebody in the organization identified Panik as a potential productive winger disguised as a spare part waiting to find his way into a regular role.
When Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman acquired Panik for Jeremy Morin from the Toronto Maple Leafs early last January, small print recognized the transaction. Now, Head Coach Joel Quenneville is thankful for this beacon of brightness amidst his team's rather cloudy takeoff.
"Richard was pretty good for us last season," Q mentioned. "So far this season, he's been very good. He's a big body, our most physical forward. He goes to the net and has a presence there. If he keeps playing the way he is, he has a tremendous upside."
Panik always did, but the back of his hockey card tells the story of a strangely portable prospect. He was drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009, and the Blackhawks are his third NHL stop. Also, he has held various addresses throughout the American Hockey League. The career resume of cameo appearances seems rather extensive for a player who is only 25, but Panik didn't get into this business to collect logos, and it takes a man to investigate why.
"Inconsistent," he says. "It has been a problem for me. I have been working on it, on being better at that. Sometimes I have great games. And then there are other games. Sometimes things don't go your way. I'm trying to not look ahead too far or back too far. I'm trying to shrink it down to focus on one shift at a time. No more floating around."
To a fan's eye, it sounds incomprehensible. How could a gifted athlete logging maybe 20 minutes a night three times a week lack concentration?
"A lot of it is confidence," Panik goes on. "I tried to do my best with Toronto, but it didn't work out. I was ready to move on, but to be honest, I didn't think it would be to a top team like Chicago. This is a tremendous opportunity, and there is a trust here. When you sense the coach has trust in you, when you are on the ice in the last minute of the period, it means a lot. I am more intense now. I want to make a difference. I am more engaged."
Small sample size, but Panik's maturation surely is enhanced by the mentorship of countryman Marian Hossa, who recently collected his 500th goal yet needn't appear on the scoresheet to verify his Hall of Fame stature. Also, rest assured that if Panik blows an assignment, he will have to answer to Jonathan Toews, who like Hossa is a professional proponent of busting it over all 200 feet, corners included.
"We talk," Panik says. "Hoss, Jonathan, Rozy (Michal Rozsival). All the guys. This is a very good group. And to be on a line with Jonathan. This could really be a good chance for me. When you are playing on the fourth line, getting only three or four minutes here and there, it's difficult. What they've let me do here lately, it's much different."
Bowman and his staff spotted Panik awhile ago, liked his size (6-foot-1, 208 pounds) and his hands. Whether the brass envisioned Panik as a prominent piece to the puzzle-who flanks Captain Serious?-is unclear. Now, as Quenneville asserts, Panik is handling the responsibility of not only complementing a superstar but negotiating the other half of the equation. This is, Toews is usually on the ice against the opponents' best players.
"Nikola and I have moved around a lot, yes," Panik says. "But we're young and we can adjust. She loves it here. So do I. The longest contract I ever had was the entry-level deal with Tampa. Since then, only one year at a time. We own a condo back home. But otherwise it's always renting wherever I've played. This would be a nice place to settle down."
Panik is married now and, as he said, also engaged.