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It’s been a very good Jiri in Grand Rapids

It has been quite a season for Jiri Hudler.

While making his North American debut, Hudler has become a fan favorite, stolen the spotlight from a world-class player, captained his homeland’s junior national team, made his National Hockey League debut, been selected to the PlanetUSA AHL All-Star team, and helped guide the Grand Rapids Griffins to the best record in the American Hockey League. All while compiling numbers that are extremely impressive.

Rarely has someone barely out of his teens taken the professional hockey world by storm the way the Hudler has. The Detroit Red Wings may have captured lightning in a bottle with the 20-year prodigy from Olomouc, Czech Republic, whom they chose 58th overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

The storm started with his AHL debut on Oct. 24. With a crowd of 8,031 fans and media from the United States and Canada on hand at Van Andel Arena to watch Curtis Joseph‘s first game as a Griffin, Hudler stole the thunder from the two-time NHL All-Star. He figured in three of the Griffins’ four goals in a 4-1 win over Utah, scoring twice, including the game-winner, and adding an assist.

Considering this is Hudler’s first season in North America, his 40 points in 39 games are all the more impressive, ranking third on the Griffins. He is two shy of Michel Picard‘s team-leading 31 assists, his 11 goals are tied for the third-best total on the squad, and he shares the team lead with a plus-19 rating.

Hudler sandwiched a 12-game point streak, the second-longest in team annals and longest in the AHL this season, around a one-month stay with the Detroit Red Wings and his captaincy of the Czech Republic’s World Junior Championship team.

During the tournament, held in late December and early January in Finland, he led the Czech Republic in points (5) and assists (3), steering them to a fourth-place finish.

Hudler also managed to squeeze in his NHL debut with the Red Wings on Oct. 16 against Vancouver. He waited until Oct. 29 to notch his first point, an assist on a goal by Boyd Devereaux. He tallied his first goal against Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, cousin of Hudler’s linemate in Grand Rapids, Kevin Miller.

The way the elder Miller and Hudler have jelled, it’s almost as if they were family members. While Miller is 18 years Hudler’s senior, the twosome has combined for 79 points through the team’s first 61 games. As of Feb. 25, Hudler had assisted on 11 of Miller’s 21 goals, including five game-winning tallies.

Miller has been around the game of hockey long enough to realize that a player of Hudler’s caliber doesn’t come along every day.

“Jiri is a very, very talented player and sees the ice real well,” Miller said. “We’re confident in each other’s abilities, so we’re able to give the puck up and know that we’re getting it back. We seem to move pretty well with a lot of crosses and different things to find each other. Things have worked out so far.”

Hudler said the admiration is mutual.

“He has a lot of experience,” said Hudler, whose English improves by the day. “He has played a lot of games in the NHL. He’s very good with the puck, stickhandling. He has a very good shot, has a nose for scoring, and makes nice passes. I like playing with him.”

Hudler’s innate ability to find Miller in crunch time is just another accolade on his quickly growing resume.

“You get into overtimes or late into games, a lot of guys can get chances,” said Miller, “but Jiri’s got that ability that when he does get a chance like that, he’s going to make good on it, whether it be on the assist side of it or putting the puck in the net. That’s a great quality to have.”

Hudler relishes crunch time. “I don’t know what it is about the end of the game. We both like that part of the game. Everybody else is waiting for overtime or a tie score.”

Despite his immediate success, Hudler maintains a humble demeanor. His boyish smile and carefree attitude make those who follow the team feel that he is 20 going on 12.

December 9, 2003, one of the oddest days in Griffins lore, certainly could have tested Hudler’s attitude. While the Griffins were making their way to Cleveland for a game against the Barons, a bizarre set of circumstances was unfolding.

Earlier in the day, the Red Wings had recalled Miller and defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Later that evening, shortly after the Griffins had arrived at their destination, Hudler and Joseph were summoned by the parent club. The last vehicle available at the rental car store across the street from the Griffins’ hotel was a Chevy Cavalier, so Cujo and the Kid threw their gear in the back and made their way around Lake Erie to Buffalo, joining their teammates for a game against the Sabres the following night.

The confusion didn’t faze Hudler, as he tallied his first NHL goal against the Sabres’ Miller.

Two months later, Hudler competed in the 2004 Pepsi AHL All-Star Classic. He took part in the Puck Control Relay, Fastest Skater, Pass and Score and Breakaway Relay events during the skills competition, then contributed an assist in the AHL All-Star Game.

Hudler continued his hot play after the all-star break, scoring points in seven straight games, including a three-assist effort on Feb. 13 versus Manitoba that tied the team’s season-high.

Just another day in the life of Jiri Hudler.