DETROIT – It’s been such a turnaround both on and off the ice for former Red Wings forward Jiri Hudler that one of his closest friends in Detroit’s locker room hardly recognizes him anymore.
“You know he’s changed when he’s texting me and says, ‘Hey Bear, be a leader. Good luck,’ ” Wings forward Daniel Cleary said. “I’m like, ‘Who the hell is this kid?’”
The Red Wings selected Hudler in the second round of the 2002 NHL draft. He averaged 42.4 points in each of his five full seasons in Detroit where he showed flashes of great offensive instincts and a Houdini-like ability to escape the corners with the puck.
Now in his second season in Calgary, Hudler, who signed a four-year contract worth $16 million prior to the 2012 NHL lockout, has become the Flames’ go-to-guy, leading the team with 30 points in all 34 games, and showing leadership acumen.
“He’s a great pro,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said. “I’ve said it before; he was raised in a great organization. When you have a Stevie Y, a Datsyuk and a Lidstrom around you, I don’t think you can find any better school to make you first steps in the NHL.”
Hudler became a teacher during training camp when he took in 19-year-old rookie Sean Monahan helping the rookie make the jump from the Ontario Hockey League to the NHL while also getting acclimated to life as a professional.
“I came into training camp and it was couple of days in and we got talking,” said Monahan, the sixth overall pick in last June’s draft. “He asked me if I wanted to move into his house for the rest of camp and for as long as I was staying. It was nice of him and I respect him for doing that.
“He’s a great guy and he treated me really well. We talked a lot and he has a lot of experiences in this league, so we talked about the experiences that he’s been through and that will definitely help me for the rest of my career.”
This season, Hudler became the first player in league history to record points in every game of the first nine contests to start a campaign. While his production has cooled, the Flames hope Hudler continues to help with Monahan’s young development in Detroit where the pair will work on a line with 5-foot-7 winger Paul Byron.
“I feel that Monny and Huds really needed the Energizer Bunny around them,” Hartley said. “We need offense from those two guys and I feel with putting Paul on that line, we’re adding our fastest guy to their line. Our lines are written in pencil on my sheet so it can change real quick but I like what (Byron) can bring to Monny and Huds and hopefully it’s the right combination.”
Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall believes Hudler learned most of his hockey traits during his time in Detroit’s winning culture.
“He’s done a great job and he leads the team in scoring and he’s playing well on both ends of the ice,” Kronwall said. “Off the ice I heard that Monahan was living with him, so he’s helping out in many different ways.
“I think he’s matured big time. I think he’s taken upon himself more responsibility and I’m sure it has something to do with here he was always behind somebody else. In Calgary now he’s taken on more responsibilities and becoming more of a leader that way than he had to be here.”
Hudler won’t be the shortest player on the ice tonight – that distinction will belong to Byron – however, the 29-year-old Czech must overcome his short stature every night, though Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson has other ideas.
“It might be good for me that I know what he’s all about, otherwise you can get tricked by his size,” Ericsson said. “He’s strong in the corners and I know that, so it could be an advantage for me that I know that. But he pretty much knows what I’m about too, so we’ll see who gets on top tonight.”
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