When you picture a prototypical Calgary Flames forward, it’s likely a brawny North American like Jarome Iginla, Gary Roberts, or Jim Peplinski. The southern Alberta NHL club has broken form somewhat by inserting two quick, clever, diminutive Czechs up front this season.
Head coach Bob Hartley hopes that Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka can inject some much-needed second-line scoring. Both are capable of playing either centre or the wing.
Expectations are higher for the 29-year-old Hudler, a 2008 Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings who inked a $16-million, four-year deal with Calgary as a free agent in the off-season.
But Cervenka, 27, is also brimming with potential in his first NHL campaign. Playing alongside Jaromir Jagr with Avangard Omsk in 2010/2011, he led the KHL with 31 goals, and cracked the league all-star team as well last year. Cervenka has made his mark at the IIHF World Championship, claiming gold in 2010 and bronze in 2011. So far with Calgary, he’s showed flashes of his quick shot and stickhandling ability.
“I feel every game [Cervenka is] getting better and better,” said Hartley, who’s returned to the NHL after leading the ZSC Lions Zurich to a Swiss championship last year. “Look at the scoring chances he’s getting. You can see offensively he’s very gifted and he reads the game very well.”
Is it tough for a player like Cervenka to adjust after years of big-ice hockey in the Czech Republic and Russia? Hudler said: “You could say it’s tough, but from what I’ve seen since game one, he has no problem with the smaller rink. He just has to make some adjustments on little details. But he’s had lots of chances. I’ve got a great feeling about him. He’s a great player.”
Both Cervenka and Hudler have faced serious challenges away from the rink this season. Cervenka was sidelined for over a month due to a blood clot issue, and missed Calgary’s first three games, as did Hudler, who was on bereavement leave after his father suddenly died in the Czech Republic.
Will they be able to have a meaningful impact with a Calgary franchise dreaming of its first playoff berth since 2009 and its first Stanley Cup since 1989?
Historically, high-profile Czech players haven’t shone all that frequently in Alberta’s largest city.
Jiri Hrdina was a perennial force for Czechoslovakia at the Worlds and Olympics in the 1980s. But when he won his first of three Stanley Cups with Calgary in 1989 (the other two came with Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins), he played more of a supporting role in his 30s.
Robert Reichel is deservedly a Czech national team legend, starring in three World Championship gold runs and the 1998 Olympic victory. But even though his best offensive years in an 830-game NHL career came with the Flames, the two-time 40-goal man often took heat for his playoff performances. He was limited to five goals in 26 post-season appearances with Calgary.
The canny centre is best-remembered there for getting stopped by Vancouver’s Kirk McLean on what appeared to be a sure goal on a 3-on-1 rush in overtime of Game Seven of the 1994 Smythe Division finals.
Roman Turek, early in the 2001-02 season, appeared to be the answer in goal for the Flames. The 31-year-old boasted a stellar 1.62 GAA and a 94.0 save percentage when he signed a four-year, $19-million contract extension that November. However, after landing the deal, the former Best Goalie of the 1996 World Championship couldn’t maintain his high level, posting middle-of-the-road numbers until Miikka Kiprusoff took over between Calgary’s pipes in 2004.
But of course, history isn’t going to determine the fate of Hudler and Cervenka. They both know they have the ability to make their maiden voyage in Calgary a memorable one, even if Cervenka is too old to contend for the Calder Trophy.
“I try to help him out off the ice with anything he needs, but I’m not trying to teach him anything hockey-wise,” said Hudler. “He’s a grown man. We live in the same building. We knew each other before. Obviously I’m there for him.”
If captain Jarome Iginla can find the form that made him a force in Canada’s last two Olympic gold medal victories and if goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is able to rebound from his knee injury woes, that’ll take a lot of pressure off these two Czech forwards as they strive to get Calgary on a winning track.