LAS VEGAS – Calgary Flames forward Jiri Hudler knew an awful lot about the history of the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy he claimed at the 2015 NHL Awards Show at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Wednesday.
The Czech center knew Wayne Gretzky won it five times during a career that made him a hockey icon. He knew that superstar Jaromir Jagr, among the pantheon of players from the Czech Republic, had never won the Lady Byng. He also knew the award made its debut in 1925 when it was given to Ottawa Senators forward Frank Nighbor.
But he knew one fact made all the others pale in comparison.
"I know I'm the first Czech player to win it and that is all I care about," Hudler said, looking at the trophy as he sat at the podium a few minutes after he became a headline part of the two-hour show when he delivered a heartfelt and humorous speech while not wearing shoes.
The shoeless journey to the stage was as unlikely as Hudler’s emergence as a core player for the Flames and his place among the game’s most gentlemanly players.
So why exactly was Hudler standing before a full house at Grand Garden Arena and in front of a national televised audience in a suit but sans shoes?
"My shoes were stiff," said Hudler, who bought his suit for the ceremony upon arriving here and apparently did not have time to break in his footwear. "I couldn't do it. I was sitting there for an hour and half. I thought Lady Byng was going to be first trophy [in the Awards program], but it's not. Obviously, it is the most important one."
He says he did not bring a suit home with him so he had to improvise and figured Las Vegas would have some place for him to find the proper outfit.
"I didn't have a suit, but my friends set it up so I look the sharpest," he said.
Hudler, usually reserved in public settings and not considered to be among the most vocal players in the dressing room of the Flames, got as many laughs during his speech as he did in his comments afterward.
"Vegas, what a place!", he said with a note of bewilderment to open his speech, drawing some of the heartiest laughs of the night in the process.
Then he joked about all the text messages he received on Tuesday, including one from his coach, Bob Hartley, reminding him to make sure that rookie Johnny Gaudreau was in bed by midnight. That, he said, was followed by a text from Gaudreau telling Hudler to remember to tell Hartley that Gaudreau was in bed by 11 p.m.
Both Hartley, who won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach, and Gaudreau, a runner-up for Rookie of the Year, were in the crowd as he told the story.
But his speech was not all laughs. It turned serious at the end and showed the other side of Hudler.
"Most of all, Jan. 7 was the best day of my life. My daughter was born, Anna Josefine," he said. "You know what, sports awards are awesome, but life is life and I love my daughter."
With that, Hudler turned on his heels, raised his trophy high and walked off to thunderous applause.
It was a crowning moment for a player who spent much of the early part of his NHL career in the shadows, joining a star-studded Detroit Red Wings team for good in 2006. Two years later, he was a support player on the Red Wings’ 2008 Stanley Cup-winning team.
His role with Detroit continued to grow, but fame did not follow. In 2012, he joined the Flames as a free agent, hoping to expand his influence on a younger, up-and-coming team.
So far he has done that, on and off the ice. This season, he had career-highs in goals (31) and points (76) and was acknowledged as one of the team’s leaders by Hartley.
It was a role Hudler was ready to embrace.
"I have been leader since I was young," Hudler said. "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. That is why I signed in Calgary. I want to be Calgary's [Pavel] Datsyuk or Calgary's [Henrik] Zetterberg. You know what I am saying? I want to be around a young group like we have and show them the ropes."