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Wings always able to spot a winner

by Larry Wigge

The Red Wings' knack for finding international talent deep in the draft has paid off in spades, including Jiri Hudler, the 58th selection in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, who scored the eventual game-winner in Game 3 on Saturday.
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PITTSBURGH -- There's no cookie-cutter formula that tells the Detroit Red Wings where they are supposed to go to find hockey players, but they find them in all sorts of different situations and under even more unusual circumstances. But they find them nonetheless.

And after seeing Jiri Hudler deftly redirect passes by Brad Stuart to Darren Helm for the winning goal 2:26 into the third period -- you've got Hudler, from Olomouc, Czech Republic (second round, 58th overall, in the 2002 Entry Draft), Helm, from St. Andrews, Manitoba (fifth round, 132nd overall, in 2005) and Stuart, from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta (acquired in a trade at the deadline for a second-round pick this year and fourth-rounder next year) -- well, you kind of get the idea that the Red Wings play no favorites.

There are no boundaries. Birth certificates come in all languages. That was a world stage Saturday night in Pittsburgh in which we saw the Red Wings beat the Penguins ... with all-world talent.

"There's a story behind every one of the players the Red Wings have drafted," said Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who scored the first goal in Detroit's 2-1 victory in Game 4.

We've often talked about the late draft magic that gave the Red Wings Pavel Datsyuk with the 171st pick in 1998 and how Henrik Zetterberg was 210th in 1999 and Tomas Holmstrom 257th in 1994 and on and on. But Lidstrom is right, there's a story behind ever player on this talent-rich roster.

This whole Red Wings dream team began in 1988, when then Red Wings chief scout Neil Smith was supposed to meet a Russian representative from the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau in Stockholm, Sweden. When a taxi pulled up, Christer Rockstrom, a Swedish scout, greeted Smith. Wrong guy. Right advice.

Rockstrom couldn't stop raving about Lidstrom. After seeing Nick play a couple times, Smith agreed. But he had to twist GM Jimmy Devellano's arm to convince him that the team should pick Lidstrom in the third round, well ahead of where most scouting lists had him rated. In that same 1989 Draft the Wings wound up with Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov from that trip alone, not to mention NHL regulars Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner and Dallas Drake.

It was another Swedish delight by the name of Mikael Samuelsson that got the Red Wings off on the right foot in this series with two goals in a 4-0 victory in Game 1. Then in Game 2, Stuart got the game-winner, but Holmstrom and Valtteri Filppula (Vantaa, Finland, third-round pick, 95th overall, in 2002) also scored goals.

The following year, when Smith left Detroit to become the general manager of the New York Rangers and brought Rockstrom into the Rangers' scouting department, Christer recommended Hakan Andersson to the Wings as another pretty sharp European scout. And the beat has kept going with General Manager Ken Holland, Assistant GM Jim Nill and Andersson plucking gem after gem in the draft. The success has lasted longer, in fact, than many of the Motown hits to which we still rock.

The thought of this world-wide playing field and how well the Red Wings have taken advantage of it just seemed to be so dominant in a victory that put Detroit one win away from its fourth Stanley Cup since 1997. That's a pretty good recommendation for the team's blueprint for acquiring talent.

Hudler was center stage in this one.

"Too small, too this, too that," Hudler laughed. "If I was two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier, I might have been picked in the first round. But ..."

Those were just some of the excuses he recalled for us after the game, that he heard in the interviews he did with a lot of different teams before his draft year.

Hudler, just 5-foot-9, 178 pounds, was picked in the second round, 58th overall, in the 2002 Draft.

"I always played with older players, sometimes three years older, even when I was small," Hudler said. "So I knew I could compete against better players. I just had to prove it ... to a lot of people."

Explosive. Quick off his mark. Talented in the open. That's Hudler.

This diminutive winger was born in the industrial city of Olomouc in east central Czech Republic, an ancient town that was once the leading city of Moravia and today is known for its candy, chocolate and many fountains. He moved to Vsetin when he was 12-years-old, living with his father, also named Jiri, after his parents divorced. A defenseman in his playing days, Hudler's father coached his son before the boy graduated to the Czech Elite League at 16.

"He's a little guy, but he's competitive. He's strong. He holds onto pucks. He's as good as anybody on our team in finding the space to make a dynamic play," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock gushed about Hudler. "What I like about ‘Huds’ most is that he had continued to challenge himself to get better. That's why he's playing the important minutes he's getting now compared to last year."

Fearlessness. On-ice vision. Deceptive quickness. An instinct that allows him to worm his way to the right place at the right time. A hockey sense behind his age. All Jiri really needed was a chance. And the more playing time he gets, the more impressive he's becoming.

"Hockey is not about size," Hudler said. "If you play smart, if you play with good players, you can play in any league."

There are no too-small, too-slow, too-this or too-that excuses in the scouting rooms of the Red Wings. Only talent and skill and when can we get them in our lineup.

And once in the lineup there are countless contributions, like seven hits by Stuart, six hits each by Andreas Lilja and Johan Franzen, plus that gorgeous foot-and-stick block by Zetterberg of a late third-period pass across the goal crease that never got to Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby.

A world-class performance by world-class players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Jiri Hudler, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Brad Stuart, Darren Helm and the rest who might not have fit the blueprint of other teams, but have been a perfect fit for the Red Wings’ successful cookie-cutter formula for winning.


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