April 21, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Happy Hudler keeps Wings laughing off ice, scores goals on it

Jiri Hudler has become an important member of the Wings' third line. He set career highs this season with 23 goals, 34 assists and 57 points. Hudler will become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. (David Guralnick/ The Detroit News)

Detroit

Jiri Hudler is happy, almost always. Well, except when he's rushing to get ready for practice and pops on his helmet without noticing someone loaded it with shaving cream. Or when he sticks his hands in his gloves and is greeted by a poof of baby powder. Or when his dress pants go missing and he has to leave the arena in his hockey Under Armours.

"There's a couple guys, I won't mention their names, but they got me really good the last few months," Hudler said, smiling. "But this is the playoffs now. No more pranks."

He said it like he meant it, sort of, with a tell-tale grin, not a tattle-tale grin. And then he laughed, which is something Hudler does often, which is why some call him "Happy Hudler," which doesn't make him particularly happy.

"Why not something tougher?" he said. "You should call me the Rock or something."

He laughed again, and when the Red Wings hear that, they know Hudler is in his happy place, in the middle of everything. As the Detroit defense was smothering Columbus to take a 2-0 series lead heading into Game 3 tonight, Hudler semi-quietly was scoring a team-high two goals on the dangerous third line, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

Perfect complement

In a breakout third full season with the Wings, Hudler, 25, is more than just a fun and funny guy, the one who grabbed the Stanley Cup on stage at the parade last June, hoisted it merrily and led the crowd in various chants in his clipped Czech accent.

Hudler is 5-foot-9, which makes him an easy target off the ice, and a hard target on the ice. He's the perfect complementary player, a clever passer with a quick shot and a sniper's mentality (verbally, too). And don't let his good humor fool you -- he's feisty and ultra-competitive, fifth on the team with 23 goals during the regular season.

"He plays big in the big games, and he brings passion all the time," coach Mike Babcock said. "And he's a really likeable kid. I think he's a favorite with the guys."

Of course, that all depends on how you define "favorite." Kirk Maltby chuckled as he described Hudler as "carefree, no worries, and he also talks a lot of gibberish."

Kris Draper has seen all sorts of characters in his 15 seasons in Detroit, but he's not sure he has seen many like Hudler. And he means that in a positive way.

That helps explain why, before one practice this season, Happy Hudler was Harried Hudler, running late again. So naturally, as he quickly tried to put on his skates, he found the laces cut. And when he yelled for help, teammates threw him the wrong laces, or shredded laces, or just yelled back.

"I would say, if there are 10 pranks being done on our team, Huds is probably going to see seven of them," Draper said. "He can't get guys as good as we get him, so don't let him tell you otherwise. He's a good guy, and those are the ones you target because he can take it. You know how it is -- you're toughest on the ones you love, right?"

Keeping things loose

The truth is, this long has been an underrated element of the Wings' championship atmosphere. For a team that plays so tight defensively, that demands so much, it's a loose bunch.

After practice the other day, a shout came from the training room and out sprinted Maltby with the remote control, followed by Draper and Chris Osgood, hollering for its immediate return. Draper grabbed a stick and chased down Maltby, who ultimately surrendered.

Few teams are as comfortable with each other as the Wings, which makes sense because they've played together so long. Mikael Samuelsson, who joins Valtteri Filppula and Hudler on the third line, admitted it was a difficult adjustment when he arrived four years ago and discovered how relaxed the Wings were.

That was before he discovered how loud Hudler was.

"I wouldn't say it was a problem for me, but I couldn't believe what the guys were like, joking around before games," Samuelsson said. "Now I love it. And Huds, he's a special kid. He talks a lot, right from the get-go, from the moment he walks in the locker room."

Hudler, or Huds, or Huggy Bear as some teammates call him, greeted Channel 7's Tom Leyden the other day with a cheery, "Hey Ron Burgundy!" Sure, Leyden might bear a slight resemblance to Will Ferrell's character in "Anchorman," and that's all Hudler needed to bring up his favorite actor.

"I like the comedies," Hudler said, before sheepishly confirming he watched "Caddyshack" three times during a two-day period recently. "I just like to laugh -- it keeps me loose, keeps me happy. I don't see any reason why I gotta be grumpy or miserable, you know? I wake up every morning and can't wait to get in the room, go on the ice, work hard, talk to the guys. When I first got here I was surprised, no superstars, they're nice, it was just amazing to me."

Best time of the season

It didn't take Hudler, drafted in the second round in 2002, long to fit in. Now he fits so well, it's hard to imagine him leaving, although he's a pending restricted free agent. He'd love to stay but would rather not discuss it during the playoffs, when the talking and pranks go down, and his productivity goes up.

He has 127 points in 255 regular-season games -- and 19 in 30 playoff games. General manager Ken Holland would like to sign him but acknowledges it'll be difficult to keep everyone. Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen landed long-term deals and Marian Hossa could be next.

That's the business for later.

The business for now is half-serious, half-fun and all-consuming.

"I love this part of the season," Hudler said. "You just feel the energy, the crowd is going crazy, all this makes you a better player. You're proving something everyday in your life. I'm not the biggest guy but I want to go into the tough part of the ice and show the courage, you know?"

This time he was smiling but he wasn't laughing, and the point was subtle. For unsuspecting teammates or unsuspecting opponents, watch out -- Hudler is lurking, and he'd be more than happy to disrupt, or enliven, your day.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Jiri Hudler has scored in each of the Wings' playoff games. "I ... (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
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