Trading puck for pigskin, Hudler broke in all alone and in full stride, pulled in a long pass from defenseman Niklas Kronwall
, and sent a backhand past Marty Turco for the game-winner in a 5-2 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Explosive. Quick off his mark. Talented in the open.
The scene stealer was a wisp of a wunderkind named Jiri Hudler
, who, not quite the 5-foot-9, 178 pounds the team claims he is, scored his third goal and 12th point in 13 games in the ’08 playoffs.
Those are the numbers of a front-liner, not a third- or sometimes fourth-liner. Last year, Hudler got on the ice for only six of 18 playoff games, producing no goals and two measly assists.
"He's a little guy, but he's competitive,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said of Hudler. “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. 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."
All Hudler really needed was a chance. He has all the traits you look for in a player. He is fearless. He possesses deceptive quickness, which helps him get to the right place at the right time. Simply, he has a hockey sense that belies his age.
And the more ice time he gets now, 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."
Hudler, selected No. 58 overall in the 2002 draft, is now 24 and coming off a season in which he had 13 goals and 29 assists for a career-high 42 points. He had scored just 48 points in his previous 92 games with the Red Wings over the past three seasons.
Detroit scouts always felt there was more production lurking there, something commensurate with the 36 goals and 61 assists Hudler had in 76 games for the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins in 2005-06.
Too small, too this, too that. We’ve heard it before, yes, even when scouts were talking about Henrik Zetterberg
and Pavel Datsyuk
. It's safe to say that if Hudler was two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier, he would have been in the Top 10 of the 2002 draft, instead of slipping to 58.
Hudler 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. Hudler 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.
"I always played with older players, sometimes three years older, even when I was small," Hudler said.
Hudler is one of those kids that tantalize you with his abilities. His talent got him a chance at the NHL level when he was just 19, playing in a dozen games with the Red Wings in 2003-04. After basically playing three seasons with Grand Rapids, including that 97-point campaign, last season was his first full shot at the big time. It ended with up-and-down production, including 15 goals.
"I get pumped knowing I’m going to play," said Hudler. "It feels great. I feel more confident right now. It's the real season now. I love the atmosphere, the competition. I really didn't like having to watch the games in last year's playoffs. I wanted to show the Wings I could be effective in big games like these."
Don't be misled by the fact that this mini difference-maker is playing in third- or fourth-line roles. Fourth-line players don't often draw a lot of attention at this time of the year -- unless you look back at the history of some of the great Red Wings teams of the past.
Remember Luc Robitaille and Igor Larionov in 2002? They were big-time, fourth-line contributors for the Red Wings in the team's last Stanley Cup win.
Hudler won't complain about the slow nurturing process, knowing full well that every kid from Saskatoon to Olomouc wants to play a lot ... and play right now.
"Playing in the NHL is a dream of every hockey player," Hudler said. "I was lucky I got an opportunity to see the speed and skill of the NHL in one of my first years in North America. I was lucky it was Detroit that drafted me and not someone else. I got to learn on the job, learn the right way to do things.
"I just had to have patience. At first, I admit, you look around and see all the talent and wonder if you're good enough to get a shot at the big leagues. But the Red Wings put young guys in a position to gain confidence. And, when you're ready, you're going to play."
That’s what Hudler has done for the Red Wings, producing big plays in a lot of big games this season and in the playoffs.