Jan Hejda isn't your typical second-year NHLer. At 29, the native of Prague in the Czech Republic is playing in just his second NHL season and first with Columbus. Despite his late start in North America, Hejda has had plenty of experience against elite hockey talent after a lengthy stint in the Russian Super League and four trips to the World Championships with the Czech Republic.
He actually has an interesting memento from the Worlds this past spring.
"My father brought me a nice picture from this world championship," says Hejda. "I'm battling with Rick Nash on the ice."
And who won that battle?
"I had a penalty," the comical Hejda says with a grin.
Defensemen like Hejda do their best work blanketed in anonymity. The towering Columbus D-man doesn't possess the slick offensive abilities of notable defenders like Nicklas Lidstrom or Chris Pronger, NHLers who receive as much praise for adding to the scoresheet as they do for keeping others off it. But Hejda has a different role when he mans the Jackets' blue line.
His job is essentially to keep from getting noticed, a tough proposition when you're facing the best forwards in the league every night. In fact, Hejda is starting to turn some heads but not because he's screwing up. He leads the Jackets in plus-minus with a +9 rating through 30 games and has evolved into a voracious minute eater pairing with captain Adam Foote.
Hejda has chipped in five assists and numerous crushing hits, like the one that sent Anaheim's Corey Perry sailing into the Columbus bench at Nationwide Arena last week. After a tentative beginning to the 2007-08 season, the big man is certainly getting comfortable as a Blue Jacket regular, thanks in part to Foote.
"I'm learning from Adam," says Hejda. "I see a couple of situations on the ice. He's a good teacher. He's a great partner for me. He's very similar to Jason Smith who I played with in Edmonton. Similar style."
Hejda has been a nice surprise for head coach Ken Hitchcock, who says the Czech has been an integral part of the overall defensive success of the team.
"Looking back on what our team needed, we needed someone like Jan to play with Foote to get Adam back in the role he was best at," says Hitchcock. "Those two guys have been a great pair, they've both played great all year. "I think it's been good for Jan to play with Adam and it's been really good for Adam to have a guy like Jan to carry the heavy minutes against a good team.
"We have to have that shut down pair for the way we play the game now."
Hejda got his first taste of the NHL last season, playing in 39 games with the Edmonton Oilers, though he missed the final 15 games of the season with a shoulder injury. When new GM Scott Howson was searching for that big, shut-down defender, he gave Hejda, a free agent at the time, a call.
"He's played very well for us," Howson says. "He's a player that didn't have a lot of NHL experience but has a lot of international experience. He's not a young player that has to learn everything. He just had to learn the North American game and we thought he accomplished that in Edmonton last year.
"He was certainly on our radar in Edmonton."
Hejda was originally selected by the Buffalo Sabres 106th overall in the 2003 Entry Draft. But coming to the NHL was not a huge priority for him. He didn't really dream of playing in the league as a youngster in the Czech Republic. His main exposure to NHL players actually came through old-school video games.
"I had a Sega game system with NHL 93 or 94," says Hejda. "I played with Ulf Samuelsson all the time."
While in the Buffalo organization, he waited for a contract but didn't like the offer he got so Hejda elected to go to Russia, playing two years for CSKA Moscow in the Russian Elite League before moving on to Mytishi Khimik in the 2005-06 season.
"I made the choice to play in Europe," says Hejda, a teammate of Nikolai Zherdev at CSKA during the lockout season. "It was my choice. I think it was a good choice.
"In Europe, there are 52 games in a season," he adds of the transition to the NHL. "That's the biggest difference. And it's a much more tough game here, tough hockey."
Hejda, who speaks three languages including Russian, enjoyed some of his greatest hockey moments playing for his national team. The Czechs won gold at the Worlds in 2005 and silver the following year, two high points in Hejda's career.
"For me, it was fantastic," he says. "It created a couple of great moments. I played in four World Championships and it was probably the best moment of my hockey life when we won a world championship in Austria."
Hejda appears well on his way to producing a few more great moments in North America. He's been a tremendous addition to the Jackets on the ice and off it, proving he's quite the character (he once conducted an impromptu interview with Pascal Leclaire after a reporter left his tape recorder lying around the dressing room).
In terms of performance, his game got better as he got more comfortable in Columbus along with his wife Tereza and their daughter Natalie.
"The start of the season, I didn't play like I could play," Hejda says. "A new team, a new city, a new country. It was a little different.
"It was tough on the family at first. But we're making lots of new friends here."