If you've seen Columbus Blue Jackets
defenseman Jan Hejda
score a goal, count yourself among the lucky few. He's got 7 in four NHL seasons, 3 this season.
No, scoring isn't the strength of this Czech Olympian's game. Hejda has only 3 goals and 10 assists as one of Columbus' top four defenseman.
So, offense isn't his game, but of the 829 NHL skaters this season, exactly 100 have averaged more ice time than Hejda (21:04), the Blue Jackets' leader in blocked shots and even-strength ice time. On the defensive side, he has 112 blocked shots, 91 hits, 10 takeaways, is second on the team with an average of 3:26 minutes of penalty-killing time and first with 17:27 of even-strength ice time.
Defensive defenseman don't get a lot of recognition in the NHL, but earlier this season Hejda earned the honor he's been pursuing for most of his 31 years. He was named to the Czech Olympic team and he'll get to play for his former teammate and, dare he say, childhood hero, Vladimir Ruzicka.
Hejda played his first three professional seasons with Ruzicka for his hometown Slavia Praha HC team. He was a rookie when Ruzicka captained the Czech Republic to the 1998 Olympic gold medal.
There's a very good reasons Hejda was selected and you'll never find it on a score sheet.
"Unfortunately for all the other countries, especially Canada, he's hard to play against," Team Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock said. Hitchcock coached Hejda for most of three seasons in Columbus and gave him plenty of ice time. "That's the problem with Jan, he's very difficult to play against. He's determined defensively. He's very physical in his own way. You don't get any easy ice. He's a very valuable member of (the Blue Jackets). He's a positionally sound player. Outside the dots, where the game is played, for defensemen, he's one of the best in the League."
"It means a lot because it's probably the last dream for me When I was small, I dreamed about the NHL, about the Olympics and about the World Championship. I am playing in the NHL. I played in five World Championships and now I'm going to play in the Olympics. So, it's very important to me." -- Blue Jackets defenseman Jan Hejda
Hejda should see plenty of ice time with the Czech team because most of his defensive teammates are stronger on the offensive side of the game. The eight Czech defenseman include Tomas Kaberle
, Filip Kuba
, Pavel Kubina
, Zbynek Michalek
, Marek Zidlicky
, Roman Polak
and Russian-league defenseman Miroslav Blatak
"I heard I might play with Michalek, but I'm not sure yet," Hejda said. "He's a defensive defenseman too, so we're probably going to play against all the best lines, like I do here with the Blue Jackets."
Because the national federation omitted former Olympic defensemen Jaroslav Spacek
and Roman Hamrlik
as well as Michal Rozsival
, this group will be under great pressure to perform.
Hejda's not looking at it that way. This is the dream of a lifetime for him.
"It means a lot because it's probably the last dream for me," Hejda said. "When I was small, I dreamed about the NHL, about the Olympics and about the World Championship. I am playing in the NHL. I played in five World Championships and now I'm going to play in the Olympics. So, it's very important to me."
Hejda had just helped Slavia Praha HC win its third championship in four years when he was taken in the fourth round of the 2003 Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres
. Hejda played Buffalo against CSKA Moscow and found the Russian deal better. He played two seasons for CSKA then moved across town to play for Mytischchi Khimik in 2005-06.
He was asked why it took him so long to "make it" to the NHL, but he doesn't look at it that way.
"I played in Russia for three years before I came here," Hejda said. "I left the Czech league when I was 24. Buffalo drafted me but they offered me a two-way contract and CSKA offered me a better contract so I decided to play in Russia."
During that final season, Hejda started talking with former NHL defenseman Frank Musil, a 14-year NHL veteran and a legendary Czech player. Musil played his last three NHL seasons for the Edmonton Oilers
. The Oilers signed him as a European scout and he's been with them ever since. Musil is serving as assistant coach to the Czech Olympic team.
"Frank Musil called me and asked if I would like to play in the NHL and if I would like to go to Edmonton," Hejda said. "I said yes, definitely, I would like to try it."
The Oilers then swapped a seventh-round pick to get Hejda, who was restricted because of his age by the collective-bargaining unit to signing a one-year, two-way contract. He played 39 games for Edmonton and five games for their AHL affiliate in Hamilton and then signed with the Blue Jackets in 2007. He's played three years there and has become an increasingly important member of the defense. He was plus-20 in his first Columbus season and plus-23 last year. He's slipped to minus-9 this season on a team that doesn't have a regular player in the plus category.
"I'm trying to be a defensive defenseman. I'm trying to do the best I can. I'm not an offensive guy, I'm not a power-play guy," Hejda said. "So, I'm not trying to skate with the puck through the whole ice, just play a simple game and try to be the best."
Hejda was the target of good-natured teasing from his teammates in early January when he had goals in back-to-back games against Edmonton and Calgary and assists in four of five games.
"There were a lot of jokes," he said with a chagrined look. "They were calling me 'Sniper' after the two goals."
Contact John McGourty at email@example.com