Blackhawks’ Johnny Oduya thanks Bangkok for getting him ready
BY MARK LAZERUS email@example.com January 31, 2013 9:17PM
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Bangkok is known around the world as a city where you can do just about anything — legal or illegal, safe or sketchy, printable or unprintable. But when Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya and a buddy left cold, dark Sweden for a vacation to Thailand in October, Oduya discovered that Bangkok offered something even he never dreamed of.
‘‘We were just joking around about trying to find hockey over there,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘We looked it up, and we actually found it.’’
In fact, Oduya’s timing couldn’t have been better. He arrived just as the Land of Smiles Hockey Classic — a charity tournament that raises money for Thai youth — was about to start. It was a 60-team tournament that had a recreational division and an ‘‘open’’ division, which included a handful of elite players from around the world. Oduya admittedly had no idea what to expect, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to stay on the ice during the NHL lockout, even on vacation. So he joined the local team — the Flying Farangs — as a ringer and promptly guided them to their first tournament victory in 18 tries.
But this being Bangkok, there was nothing normal about the experience. The rink was in a mall, drawing curious on-lookers by the dozens. They played three 13-minute periods with a running clock, and top players such as Oduya were on the ice nearly the whole time. There were teams from Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, even Dubai. Former NHL goaltender Vesa Toskala played for the Finnish team — as a forward.
‘‘It was pretty cool,’’ Oduya said. ‘‘A fun experience.’’
Of course, the locale certainly helped. Oduya could just walk into an airport on an off day, buy a cheap domestic flight to the beach and be in ‘‘paradise’’ within the hour.
‘‘It’s a huge city,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s one of those Asian mega-cities that makes New York look like a little town up north. But it’s one of those cities where you can do whatever you want to do — restaurants, night life, bars, gyms, even hockey.’’
Oduya liked his 10-day stay so much, he came back for the month December, working out on his own and with other ‘‘ex-pats,’’ as he put it. He worked with local kids and yes, drew a few strange stares.
‘‘They look at you funny when you get on the plane on Thai Airways with hockey sticks — they’ve never seen that,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re like, ‘It’s not golf. It’s sticks, but I don’t really know what it is.’ So it was actually pretty funny.’’
Oduya was still in Bangkok when he got word the lockout was ending. He immediately flew to Sweden for a few days, then to Chicago right before the new CBA was official. His Thai experience has helped him get off to a strong start for the Hawks. Through seven games, he’s a team-best plus-7. He’s teamed with Niklas Hjalmarsson to become a potent pairing behind Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and his 11 blocked shots — two of which came on a crucial 5-on-3 penalty kill that helped the Hawks snag a point in a shootout loss at Minnesota on Wednesday — are second-best on the team behind Seabrook.
‘‘Right from the first game after picking him up [late] last year, he’s been very consistent, predictable and playing meaningful minutes,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘We like the way he defends, gets up in the attack, and his patience with the puck, as well.’’
The Hawks dealt two draft picks to Winnipeg for Oduya in late February, shortly after the Hawks’ nine-game losing streak. Oduya felt he fit right in Chicago. Though, based on his offseason adventures in Bangkok, it seems he can fit in and succeed just about anywhere.
‘‘If you’re home just skating, it’s not that exciting,’’ he said. ‘‘But if you go somewhere else and make an experience of it, it’s more fun and it keeps you motivated. It was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better setup.’’