The mystery man slips out the back of a now mostly deserted Calgary Flames dressing room, wearing a T-shirt with Marlon Brando's likeness on it. The optional practice is long over; the room clear of the usual cast of interrogators.
Though Jiri Hudler is the leading scorer on a Flames team making an unexpected playoff push, little is known about the diminutive Czech native, a fleeting presence here most days, someone who prefers to be seen, not heard. This is more a function of personality than a language issue for Hudler, whose English is lightly accented but quite good.
Now 31, Hudler has been in North America since the start of the 2003-04 season, when he came over to play for the Detroit Red Wings, who'd made him the 58th overall choice in the 2002 NHL entry draft. Hudler was in his second full season when the Red Wings won the 2008 Stanley Cup and he has 66 playoff games on his NHL résumé. On a young, inexperienced Flames team, that makes him No. 1. Only Mason Raymond (55), Dennis Wideman (44) and Brandon Bollig (24) come even close.
The natural starting point today is Hudler's choice of outerwear, the Brando T. Does it signal an interest in the movies, in Brando, or did he just randomly pull it out of a pile of shirts this morning?
"I'm a big movie guy; I love movies, but this? This is coincidence. He was cool. I'm trying to be cool – sometimes," Hudler says with a laugh.
Cool accurately describes how Hudler plays the game. At a time when the pace of NHL play has never been faster, Hudler has that Gretzky-like ability to slow things down. He thinks the game on a higher plane than most players and the net result is, he has become the offensive catalyst on the Flames' No. 1 line, which also includes its two best prospects, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
Collectively, they are the trio that has answered the biggest pre-season question about the Flames – who will score? Hudler is tied for 28th in the overall NHL scoring race alongside Phil Kessel, Andrew Ladd and Alex Steen. Gaudreau is No. 2 among rookies and Monahan, still the youngest player on the team at 20, has managed to avoid the sophomore slump that's dogged so many others from his draft class.
Physically, there is a cherubic quality to Hudler – a round face that crowns a thick neck on a small but solid 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame. He is shy around strangers, uncomfortable in scrums and funny under the right circumstances, but ultimately prefers to live his life far outside of the NHL spotlight.
Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who took over the team last spring, was like a lot of people who knew Hudler only by reputation. Treliving inherited an organization that included leftover bits and pieces collected by several different regimes; it was up to him to learn quickly who might be part of the team's future and who would soon be part of its past.
"The first thing I've come to really appreciate about Jiri is he's one of the most intelligent players in the game," Treliving said. "He's not the fastest guy, but he makes up for it with his brain. He's able to think the game at a high level. The biggest revelation for me was his competitiveness. He's driven to win and he's a fiercely competitive guy, and he's really been good with our younger players.
"It's not all hugs and kisses with Johnny [Gaudreau]. Jiri expects certain things to get done and when they're not, he tells them – but not in a way where he's brow-beating them or anything like that.
"The other really intriguing thing for me is, he's won," Treliving adds. "You can't duplicate that experience. We're playing big games right now; he's played in these types of games before. We may get all excited, but he knows it's only going to get harder because he's been there and done that. He knows the trail."
The marriage of Hudler and the Flames demonstrates how luck and changing circumstances sometimes trump even the best-laid plans.
Hudler said he opted to sign with Calgary, originally in July of 2012, for two primary reasons: He liked the team's veteran core of forward Jarome Iginla, defenceman Jay Bouwmeester and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, and he thought they had a chance to win right away. Beyond that, Hudler always seemed to play well in Calgary. For reasons that he couldn't exactly explain, he just liked playing at the Saddledome.
"When [former general manager] Jay Feaster and I we were talking, I had a feeling like, this organization is going to be a contender team for the Cup," Hudler said. "We had a good team – Iggy, Kipper, Bo, Cammy [Mike Cammalleri]. I thought I was the right fit. And when I played here with Detroit, I had good games. So I'm like, 'The building is right for me.'
"All those little details are more important than people think. I saw their very strong interest in me, so I decided to take that road in my career. Obviously, in Detroit, we had a great team. I learned a lot there and I thought I could be one of the big guys here."
Calgary subsequently made the decision to rebuild and all four of the core players who drew Hudler to the Flames were traded, retired or allowed to depart via free agency. It left Hudler as one of the few remaining leaders on the team. He doesn't like the term mentor, even if that's what he's become to Monahan, Gaudreau and others.
"I wouldn't say 'mentor' because they're grown men, the kids," Hudler said. "You just have to talk to them and show them the ways you think are right for them."
Hudler joined the Flames in the same year as coach Bob Hartley did, coming out of the 2012-13 NHL lockout. Almost immediately after arriving when training camps opened in January, Hudler had to return to the Czech Republic, because of his father's illness. Hartley made the point right away – the new regime in Calgary was trying to create a family atmosphere and thus, they would always permit players to put family first.
Hartley describes Hudler as "a human being, where you gain a lot by sitting with him, talking to him. He has unbelievable qualities.
"Look at last year. He doesn't say a word to anyone. Suddenly, we find out that Monahan is at his house during training camp. Look at the progression of Johnny Gaudreau this year. Johnny took a major step with Jiri around him.
"Jiri is not a guy that wants the limelight. He gets undressed; he runs out; he wants to be left alone. But he's very caring and he knows the game inside out. I really believe he is one of the most underrated players in the NHL."
Hudler says his hockey-playing instincts come naturally to him; they are "not a thing you can work on. You've got to have that in you. I feel I can always calculate the situation. I'm thinking of other guys open as if it was me. How would I like to get the pass? So I look for teammates in better position. If he is not there, I am willing to take a shot or jam the net, but before I get the puck, I try to analyze the whole ice and the things around me.
"I like to play with players who are hungry for the puck; who want to score; then I see the kids I'm playing with score, I love that feeling too, when they're fist pumping. Sometimes, I tell them that it's embarrassing, the way they celebrate, but I do that too. It's just the natural reaction of human beings – that happiness."
Happiness, according to Hudler, is an underrated quality in the building of a winning team.
"If you're happy or make a joke, the other guy is going to be happy too. We all sit here and talk about regular stuff, like people would in an office or any other work. We're having fun. You bring that to the ice and if you work hard, then one of the guys blocks a shot and everybody's into it. They think right away, 'If everybody else thinks that great, then I'm going to do it too the next time. I'm going to get that cheer from the bench.' So it's contagious. Those little things, it takes not much to become a group like this.
"You still need some character, but we've got a lot of character. … With this team, we need to always be together. We cannot be on our own. I don't think it's our identity – and people love to watch it here."