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HANZAL EMBRACES KEY DEFENSIVE ROLE

Sunday, 02.01.2009 / 1:51 PM / Features
By Dave Vest
Coyotes center Martin Hanzal began his second season in the NHL last fall with a lot more on his mind than just avoiding a sophomore slump. Hanzal reported to training camp anxious to see how he would be able to perform just two-plus months after having back surgery to repair a herniated disk.

Much to his surprise, and the surprise of others, Hanzal made it through camp and began the regular season per usual, and he hasn't missed any of the team’s first 51 games.

HANZAL IN DEPTH:
  Highlights
  Stats
“Those were the toughest two months of my life,” Hanzal said of the 60 days or so he spent recovering from the surgery performed July 17 in Los Angeles. “I couldn’t even walk for two weeks so I didn’t know when I’d be able to come back and skate, or if I’d come back with the Coyotes or in San Antonio (the team’s AHL affiliate). And now I have 24 points (nine goals and 15 assists through 51 games). That’s pretty amazing to me because I didn’t get to work out in the summer. I’m really surprised, and I want to keep working hard and keep going. My goal is to score 20 goals.”

Like he did in his rookie season, Hanzal spends most of the Coyotes games defending the other team’s top centerman. In the Pacific Division alone, that means going up against San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf six times each this season. He also logs significant ice time on the penalty-kill unit.

“I think he’s doing a really good job given all that he went through last summer,” said Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who is Hanzal’s roommate on road trips. “He’s a big part of our team and a big body in the middle. He’s playing a good defensive role and we rely on him.”


Ask Hanzal to talk about his role and he’ll tell you flat out that it’s very tough to play against players such as Thornton, Getzlaf and Calgary’s Jarome Iginla.

“I have to make life miserable for them on the ice,” Hanzal said. “Sometimes it’s not easy because they are some of the best players in the world and it’s not that much fun, but it’s my job and I have to do it. They are big, strong players and really good on the puck, and they all have great vision and great shots.”
He’s a big part of our team and a big body in the middle. He’s playing a good defensive role and we rely on him.” - Zbynek Michalek

Coyotes Head Coach Wayne Gretzky said Hanzal performs his role so well that it’s easy to forget he is only 21 years old.

“Marty is a big man and he plays like a seasoned veteran,” Gretzky said. “It’s nice to have him on the team because all of the coaches and the players know we can depend on him to play hard every shift.”

Hanzal, who stands 6-foot-5, started playing competitive hockey when he was a boy in the Czech Republic. His older brother, Jiri, also is a hockey player, and Hanzal often tagged along when Jiri would head to the ponds and rinks with his friends.

“I’ve always loved hockey,” Hanzal said. “Me and my brother would play all the time. He’s two years older so I would just follow in his steps. It was fun...I was always taller than everybody else so it was a little easier for me to skate faster than the other kids.”

Hanzal quickly became a very good hockey player and began drawing the attention of NHL scouts. When the 2005 NHL Entry Draft came along, Hanzal was ready to go.

“I knew I was going to be drafted in the first round, but I had no idea who was going to pick me,” Hanzal said. “I had spoken to several teams before the draft, but the Coyotes were not one of them.”

Nevertheless, Phoenix selected Hanzal with the 17th overall pick in that draft and Hanzal made the team two years later. As a rookie in 2007-08, he ranked sixth on the team with 35 points and 27 assists in 72 games. (He missed eight games in February because of a shoulder injury.)

Martin Hanzal (left) tries to gather the puck before Wild forward James Sheppard.
“I loved my rookie season,” Hanzal said. “It was more fun than it was work. Everything was new for me, but I had a very good time, except when I hurt my shoulder.”

Hanzal credits his one-year stint with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League in 2006-07 for helping him reach the NHL so quickly.

“My first year in junior hockey in Red Deer I had to learn a lot and I was really lucky because my coach was Brent Sutter,” Hanzal said. “He was really hard on me and I learned many things from him…I learned that practices were totally different than they were in Europe. In Europe they were pretty easy. He also taught me that you have to play your best game every night if you want to make it to the NHL.”

Now that Hanzal has reached the NHL and knows what it takes to grind it out against star players each game, he really appreciates the off-season. When he needs to relax, you’ll most likely find him on the shore of a lake or river with a fishing pole in his hand.

“I love to go fishing and I always will,” Hanzal said. “I can go fishing for entire weekends. It’s just a great way to relax. I never get bored when I’m fishing, even if I go alone. It’s just so, so relaxing.”

And if Hanzal needs to feed his competitive drive in the off-season, you might find him at a card table or playing Ping Pong. The latter is an activity his mother, an elite Ping Pong player in her area of the Czech Republic, taught him years ago.

“I still have never beaten her,” Hanzal noted with a smile.

Martin Hanzal (right) battles Flyers goalie Martin Biron for a loose puck.
Hanzal’s parents, who live in the Czech Republic, attended a few Coyotes games this season and just happened to be in attendance on Dec. 4 vs. Toronto, the night he notched his first career hat trick. Hanzal said having them in the arena to witness his feat was an unforgettable experience.

“That was one of the best games of my life and one of the best nights of my life,” Hanzal said. “I’m still really, really happy about it.”

Hanzal also is pleased by how well the Coyotes are playing and he expects them to make the NHL postseason for the first time since 2002.

“I think we have a great chance to make the playoffs,” Hanzal said. “We are all focused on that and that’s really the only goal we have right now.”



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