Everybody likes a good underdog story.
Rocky Balboa is perhaps the most famous: An undersized and unappreciated, honest boxer with a determined heart from the streets of Philadelphia who rose to the lofty, seemingly unattainable status of Heavyweight Champion of the World.
To be sure, Columbus is a long way from Philadelphia, but it’s fair to say this now-popular Blue Jackets team has jogged up the steps from the dregs of the NHL.
And at the root of their success comes the very type of radar-dodging player who personifies this year’s edition of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I knew nothing about him coming into the year to be honest with you,” Mike Commodore, who signed with Columbus in the off-season, told THN.com. “Absolutely nothing.”
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, standing 6-foot-3, weighing in at a hefty 209 pounds, from Prague, Czech Republic, Jan ‘The Mahn’ Hejda.
Not only is Hejda tied for eighth in plus-minus among defensemen with a plus-19 this season, but he was plus-20 and tied for 10th last season on a much poorer Columbus squad.
This year with him on the top defensive pairing, Columbus sits third overall in shot-against per game, allowing just 27.6, a sharp turnaround from a year ago. Not that Hejda will take the credit.
“Well I never play offensively,” Hejda said. “It’s just like last year, I play defensive hockey. I think a big help for us is our game style, because we are playing very low for our center, so he’s helping out a lot around the net. Everything is good in our defensive zone so it’s not very hard to play in our zone.”
Originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres as a 25-year-old in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, Hejda didn’t crack a North American roster until 2006. Before his move across the Atlantic, Hejda established himself as a reliable blueliner by leading all defensemen in Czech League playoff scoring en route to a championship in 2003 and by being part of the 2005 gold medal-winning Czech entry at the World Championship.
And now that he’s on the top defense pairing for a Cinderella story waiting for the ride to the NHL ball, it’s hard not to look at what Hejda brings to the game and how he benefits a defense corps in secrecy.
“It’s been a real treat for me to play with him,” said Commodore, a Stanley Cup champion with Carolina and Hejda’s defense partner in Columbus. “He’s been one of the easiest guys I’ve ever played with. You know what he’s going to do, he’s a big body, he can skate. I think he’s very underrated with the puck. He’s not going to dipsy-doodle and drag the puck around people, but he’s going to be smart, he’s going to make plays and he’s physical in the corners. You get an honest effort out of him every night.”
Honesty. While Hejda ranks among the league’s best stay-at-home defenders in plus-minus, blocked shots and hits, the soft-spoken defenseman is content playing his shutdown role in obscurity. He doesn’t credit the team’s improvement to anything he’s adapted to, but points to the teamwork between himself and Commodore as a reason for why this year’s results are so much better than last’s.
“I didn’t change my hockey style,” Hejda said. “Mike Commodore, I like to play with him. He’s a very smart guy and we are trying to play our best against the best lines.”
Columbus’ unheralded No. 1 defenseman represents his team to a tee, with his unimposing, but persuasive style of play.
And if they continue to be ignored and written off, that’s fine. Because Hejda and the Jackets are trying hard now, getting strong now and soon, they’re gonna fly, fly, fly…
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