Defenseman Johnny Oduya has made big difference for Hawks
BY ADAM L. JAHNS firstname.lastname@example.org April 9, 2012 8:52PM
Hawks defenseman Johnny Oduya skates in front of goalie Corey Crawford as the play heads into the Nashville zone in the first period as the Chicago Blackhawks host the Nashville Predators Sunday March 25, 2012 at the United Center in Chicago. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times
Updated: May 11, 2012 8:14AM
Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya considered each question with almost as much poise and patience as he handles the puck with an opponent bearing down on him.
His main message?
All he wanted to do after he was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets was fit in and contribute. So he doesn’t quite know what to make of all the adulation that has come his way since he made his Hawks debut Feb. 29.
‘‘I don’t know,’’ Oduya told the Sun-Times. ‘‘My answer is always the same: This is a good team. They were good long before I came here.’’
But the Hawks have been even better since he arrived.
Their need for an experienced defenseman was evident. They missed Brian Campbell, and everyone knew they were counting too much on youngsters Nick Leddy and Dylan Olsen.
Oduya’s acquisition didn’t come with much fanfare, but the depth of his impact deserves it.
‘‘I knew that he was a good player when we traded for him, but I didn’t know he was going to be this effective on our team,’’ forward Patrick Sharp said. ‘‘He’s another great puck-moving defenseman back there. He provides an offensive edge to our team, and our record speaks for itself since we’ve picked him up.’’
That would be 12-2-4.
Oduya’s road to the NHL was definitely an interesting one. He’s one of several players in the league with African heritage, having been born to a Swedish mother and a Kenyan father.
Oduya, 30, grew up in Sweden while his father, a journalist, moved back to Kenya. He followed in his older brother Fredrik’s footsteps.
‘‘My older brother played hockey, so I started playing when I was 6 or 7,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘I was always hanging around the rinks and fell in love with the game.’’
Fredrik died in a motor-vehicle accident last summer. Oduya declined to talk about it, but it’s apparent how much Fredrik means to him.
‘‘Anybody who has an older brother, especially playing hockey, you look up to them,’’ he said. ‘‘He was always around showing you things as you grew up.’’
Fredrik was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in 1993 but never played in the NHL. He had a tough-guy reputation, which he earned early on when he left home at 16 for the Ontario Hockey League.
‘‘I would always joke around and say I was the tougher one because I was the one getting beat up as a kid,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘He had a different style. He was a bigger guy than me.’’
Oduya earned a similar reputation in the Sweden Elite League after a year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, although he never viewed himself that way.
‘‘I racked up some penalty minutes, and I was looked at as a thug,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘But in my mind, coming from juniors, I knew that I’m not a fighter or a tough guy. I know how to defend myself if I have to, but I never really had that role as an enforcer.’’
Despite being drafted in the seventh round by the Washington Capitals in 2001, Oduya spent five seasons in the Sweden Elite League after juniors. He didn’t make it to the NHL until he signed with the New Jersey Devils when he was 24.
‘‘I don’t think I was ever really good enough until that point,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘I was never that kid who was the star player or the guy everybody puts the pressure on. I always got time to develop.’’
Just like the Devils did early in his career, the Hawks are the ones benefitting from his puck-moving skills right now. Coach Joel Quenneville said Oduya has brought balance to the Hawks’ blue line. He had one goal, five points and a plus-3 rating in 18 games with the Hawks, seeing time on both special teams.
‘‘The hope was that he could certainly eat up minutes, but how effective would he be in those minutes?’’ general manager Stan Bowman said. ‘‘I think that that’s the one thing where he surpassed our hopes that way.’’
Bowman said the Hawks will ‘‘explore’’ adding Oduya to their mix beyond this season.
‘‘We’ll probably look at that,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘Right now, that’s not our focus. But certainly he’s fit in well and he’s played well. I think that’s something we have to explore.’’
Oduya often has said the Hawks’ puck-possession style suits his game. Forward Patrick Kane, meanwhile, has commended him for his offensive creativity, forward Viktor Stalberg has described him as an ‘‘overall nice guy and very easygoing’’ and Leddy has said he has been a good model for his own game.
Oduya doesn’t want the attention, though.
‘‘Playoff time is right here,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘I haven’t been in the playoffs in three years, so I’m pretty excited about that. I’m putting all my focus and my energy on that right now.’’