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Michalek's leads the way in blocked shots

by John McGourty
There are only two ways to be long-time shotblocker in the NHL. Either you have a high threshold for pain and a quirky nature in which you think pain can be funny, like Derian Hatcher, or you're extremely quick and accurate with the placement of your shin pads, like Zbynek Michalek.

Asked once how he could get knocked to his hands and knees by blocked shots three times in one shift and then take his next shift, Hatcher responded, "Heh, heh, heh, heh."

Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Michalek, 26, led the NHL last season with 271 blocked shots, yet he played in all 82 games. In four seasons, he's missed only seven games, all at the start of the 2007-08 season, with a broken hand. Michalek also is the average ice-time leader among the top 10 shotblockers with 22:46 minutes per game.

"I think that most of the players in the NHL play through bumps and bruises, it's part of the game," Michalek said. "I've been hurt and played through injuries. That's the life of a hockey player."

Michalek said shotblocking is instinctive and reactive, opportunities develop quickly and don't lend themselves to analysis and preparation.

"Actually, it's not too bad," Michalek said. "I was lucky last season, nothing really hurt me and I didn't break any bones. Of course, it hurts to get hit in a bad spot, but that's part of hockey, a physical game. I'm guessing that I place my pads really well. I don't know why for certain, but it may come from when I was young and my older brother and I played street hockey. I was the goalie and he was shooting at me."

Michalek said he benefited from playing for San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan when they were with the AHL's Houston Aeros.

"I played for Todd McLellan, and he helped me big time," Michalek said. "I was 19 and I didn't know anything about pro hockey. He was a great mentor and coach for young guys. I can't thank him enough for what he has done for me. He's a good person and a great coach. I'm really happy for him and I wish him well in San Jose, except when they play us.

"I never really practiced (blocking shots), it's always just been part of my game and I got better and better at it over the years. I was always known more for my offense, carrying the puck and being on the power play, but my role has changed a little bit in the NHL. The coaches here wanted me to play more of defensive game. The shotblocking helps me in that type of game. I'm doing well with it and it's paying off for me."

Michalek grew up in a small town southeast of Prague and left home at 15 to pursue a professional career. He played two seasons for the Shawinigan Cataractes, with Jason Pominville, Radim Vrbata and Marc-Andre Bergeron, and was the No. 90-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting in 2000 but wasn't drafted.

The Minnesota Wild signed him as a free agent in 2001 and traded him to Phoenix in 2005 for Erik Westrum and Dustin Wood.

He's spending the summer back home in Jindrichuv Hradec with his wife, Helena, and their baby son, Andreas, born June 23. A Bosnian, Helena was working in Houston when Zbynek played there.

"I played two years in my hometown, until I was 15, but when I got into midgets, I had a tough choice to make: Stay here in my hometown and play in a lower league or go somewhere else. So, I played two years in Karlovy Vary, in western Czech Republic, one year of midget and one year of juniors that really helped me, before going to play juniors in Canada.

"I went to Canada because I thought I'd have a better chance to make it to the NHL. It wasn't easy but it worked in the end."

Michalek is a cornerstone in the strong defense corps Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney has assembled in Phoenix, joining Ed Jovanovski, Kurt Sauer, Adrian Aucoin, Jim Vandermeer, Sami Lepisto and Keith Yandle. He said playing for Wayne Gretzky has been great and he's learned a lot from assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson.

"I played one full season with 'Jovo' and a whole year with Sauer," Michalek said. "It's always about communication. 'Jovo' is more offensive. Kurt is more defensive, a different style from my game. Kurt and I talk on the bench and in the dressing room. I know those guys have more NHL experience and 'Jovo' is an All-Star so I'll take any advice they can give me. 'Jovo' is one of the best defensemen in the NHL so it's great to have someone like that who can tell me from experience.

"Wayne is more an offensive coach and Ulf Samuelsson works with the defense. But anytime Wayne talks to you, you listen. He's the greatest hockey player ever. It's a great honor to play for him. I try to take in everything he says and I use it on the ice. Obviously, Wayne plays a big part in the game plan. No one can analyze like him, he knows the game so well and the players' abilities. He tells us what moves guys like to make. He's good that way."

Michalek said he has a role in Phoenix and will continue to fill it. He's not going to let the thought of 90-mph shots deter him. There's something that he fears more.

"The thing that scares me most is being hurt and not able to play."
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