Emotional Hudler returns to Flames fold
Veteran gets in a game of light-hearted shinny with Calgary coaches after returning from father’s funeral
First, it was the coaches and three players.
Then, Calgary Flames strength and conditioning coach Rich Hesketh joined and strapped on a pair of goalie pads.
But things really heated up when a Stanley Cup-replica trophy — OK, an old pail and salad bowl wrapped in tin foil made by head boss Bob Hartley earlier in the day — was trotted out, signalling something was on the line during a quick four-on-four scrimmage to wrap up Thursday’s skate at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
And breathe easy, folks. It was Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka, and Anton Babchuk along with goalie coach Clint Malarchuk who came out on top versus Hartley, Craig Conroy, and Flames’ assistant coaches Martin Gelinas and Jacques Cloutier.
“It looked fun at the end, but it was a really tough practice,” said Hudler, cracking a smile. “I think they wanted to look like they’re in better shape than us.
“Martin Gelinas probably is.”
Hartley, on the other hand, wasn’t as thrilled (“A big loss,” he joked) however, like always, there was a method behind his madness.
“Jacques and I had this going in Colorado and players always want to beat the coaches,” Hartley explained. “At the same time, it was a great workout before. We just want to show that we’re very demanding, but this game is about fun.
“You want guys to come to the rink with a smile and that’s the culture we’re trying to establish here.”
The practice was really the first day back at the office for all three players who, before the scrimmage, were put through the paces by Hartley and Co. And, truthfully, the boss felt an element of competition was important.
Babchuk has been skating, trying to recover from a shoulder injury, and so has Cervenka who was dealing with a blood clot and was finally cleared Tuesday after a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.
However, understandably, Hudler hasn’t hit the ice with the coaching staff since he left during the Flames training camp when his father, Jiri Sr., passed away on Jan. 14 in the Czech Republic.
Thursday was also his first time addressing the media since he took a brief bereavement leave and missed the first three games of the Flames’ salvaged 2012-13 NHL season.
“I didn’t skate once there, I didn’t have time,” said Hudler who arrived on Tuesday and practised with the Calgary Hitmen on Wednesday. “But, I feel a lot better than I did when I was leaving from training camp.”
And, for the time being, any form of hockey — or laughter — is a welcome distraction.
“I don’t know if it makes it easier, but I know it’s a lot better for everyone,” said an emotional Hudler. “I really appreciated the Flames organization for letting me go home and spend some time there and take care of a lot of stuff.
“Like I said, I’m excited to be back and playing hockey again.”
An only child who was raised by his dad and grandmother, the 29-year-old native of Olomouc, Czech Republic, spent the majority of last week preoccupied, although he did manage to catch all three of the Flames games on the Internet.
Meanwhile in Calgary, Hudler, an off-season signing from the Detroit Red Wings who is at the start of a four-year deal with the team, was in the team’s thoughts.
“I sat with him (Thursday) morning,” Hartley said. “Obviously, we’ve all been there at one point in our lives. It’s not something you want, but, unfortunately, it’s part of life. He’s doing good. Like I told you, he had to handle all of the business being an only child. It was tough.
“He’s here and he’s happy to be with us.”
Grief comes in many different forms and takes time to process — Hartley, for one, understands it doesn’t happen overnight. Having lost his father at age 18, he is sensitive to the fact that Hudler will be playing through pain.
“I told him I was sorry he didn’t make it on time to see his dad still alive,” Hartley said. “I think you can draw motivation from this. I’m sure Jiri will play this season in honour of his dad. I think that’s the way he would handle this thing.
“We’re all different. But in situations like this, we’re all the same.”
When the Flames learned of Hudler’s ailing father, who was only 50, the organization understood his circumstances.
Hudler was thankful for the support of his new teammates, coaching staff, and ownership group.
“They’ve been really good to me, same as the support from the Detroit Red Wings,” he said. “I had a lot of calls from all of my friends and teammates there and, as well, from the office and ownership.”
“I did take some time, but I cannot sit on my ass for the rest of the season thinking about bad things.
“We have to get back and get your mind on what you love the most and that’s hockey.”
And his evaluation of his new club’s 0-2-1 start?
“All three games have been tough,” said Hudler who had 25 goals and 25 assists in 81 games last season with Detroit. “The first game, I thought it could be 4-0 the first period. We could have won all three. We’re going to win at one point.
“We’ve got to battle back.”
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