Resident Czechs offer plenty of tantalizing potential after turning heads in debuts
Hudler and Cervenka have chemistry and appear to have the drive necessary to make a difference in Flames’ lineup
Having visited as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, Jiri Hudler had some idea of what the Scotiabank Saddledome offered.
The ‘C’ of Red. The bursts of fire. The whole ‘Yahoo-ing’ thing after goals.
But, still, the 29-year-old was impressed by the assembled crowd of 19,289 that showed up Saturday to catch his first game in a Calgary Flames jersey and were treated to a 4-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
“It was great,” Hudler said after Tuesday’s practice at the same (but quieter) venue. “I thought it was fantastic. I didn’t expect anything less.
“I’ve played a lot here with Detroit before and the atmosphere was unreal.”
A second-round selection of Mike Babcock’s Red Wings in 2002, Hudler’s only home arena in the NHL had been The Joe, with iconic No. 19 and No. 9 jerseys hung in the rafters and filled with the Michigan faithful.
But, after signing a four-year deal with the Calgary Flames in the off-season, the dynamic winger from the Czech Republic is going to be a mainstay at the Dome through 2016-17.
And Saturday was appearance No. 1 — in a Flames jersey and in Calgary — after missing the first three games when his father unexpectedly passed away in the Czech Republic.
“This is something special,” Hudler said of the atmosphere. “Everybody’s got a jersey on. It just puts you on another level to be playing in a building like this.”
The love was reciprocated. However, by his own assessment, Hudler admitted he struggled on-ice with Calgary’s altitude (as most newcomers do, trying to adapt to the city’s 1,048-metres above sea level). Still, he logged 17 minutes and 36 seconds of productive ice time with an assist on Lee Stempniak’s second period power-play goal and added three hits.
Not a bad debut for a guy who had only a few video meetings and one practice with the team under his belt.
“Me, personally, I didn’t skate much before that,” he said. “But I felt pretty good. I was surprised with the way I felt. The first 10 minutes were tough. Then, you get used to the air.
“But we’re going to get better.”
We, of course, refers to himself and fellow countryman Roman Cervenka who was also making his first appearance for the Flames at the Dome, not to mention his NHL debut.
The sublimely skilled Cervenka was given his fair share of ice time, showcasing his puck-moving ability and fired off a few deadly shots Devan Dubnyk’s way.
And, since Cervenka is still working on his conversational English, we can only assume he enjoyed himself Saturday night.
But Hudler, his unofficial translator, confirmed that assumption on Tuesday.
“He’s a quiet guy,” Hudler said. “I think he, obviously, had some emotions after. But he doesn’t share a lot. For sure, he was excited. He had a scoring chance in the third period, he wanted to score — he usually puts those in. He was excited. He wasn’t panicking. He was playing the way I thought he was going to play. Really strong on the puck and making plays.
“But we’ve all got to get better.”
Saturday’s on-ice magic was one thing, but the chemistry between Hudler, Cervenka, and centre Matt Stajan is growing by the day. The players sense it and everyone sees it, including head coach Bob Hartley.
However, only four games into the Flames’ season, it’s tough to tell if their trio will become a scoring threat.
“Right now, it’s still very very early,” Hartley said. “We’ve only played one game. Roman and Jiri, number one, they can communicate very well. I’m sure they spend most of their time away from the rink together.
“So, it’s an easy chemistry right now. But, hey, we’ll see how it goes. The first game was pretty impressive, so there’s no reason to change.”
With Cervenka having been a proven centreman with Avangard Omsk in the KHL before coming to North America, there’s also the option of moving him to the middle. One thing at a time, though; Hartley said Tuesday that he’d rather ease him into the systems, allowing him to familiarize with the smaller ice surface and adjust to the pace of the NHL.
That being said, Cervenka has caught on quickly.
“We might say it’s only one game, but in that one game, I was very impressed,” Hartley said. “I have absolutely no fear to throw him out there.
“I knew, system-wise, he didn’t get much practise, but his reaction time, he was very smart. He kept his shifts very short and had good legs all night.
“For me, he was a dominant player in his first game.”
However, it was ONLY Cervenka’s first game. Hudler, too.
So, it’s safe to say No. 10 and No. 24 are just getting warmed up.
“Everyone got excited,” Hudler said. “Me too. And it goes two ways — bad or good. It went all right, but we have tough games coming up that is going to show who we are.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take (to adapt) but the good thing is, the first game showed we can play together. We did a lot of good things.
“We can only get better.”
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