Michal Handzus remembered his first NHL game.
A young player coming up with the St. Louis Blues and then-coach Joel Quenneville, Handzus was part of a less-than-stellar penalty kill that night against the Boston Bruins.
“We gave up two goals and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is not a good start,’” Handzus recalled prior to Sunday’s game. “But obviously he trusted me and it got better after that.”
Flash forward to Sunday night, which marked Handzus’ 1000th NHL game. Playing against his old team, Handzus had a chance to reflect on a career that’s included a few stops, a lot of games and the chance to finally hoist that Stanley Cup for the first time last season.
But for Handzus, the true look-back moment won’t come until once he’s finished his career.
“These numbers are more for after you’re done,” he said. “You can reflect on them. It’s a nice achievement for sure. But right now I’m just focused on the season, on the games and what we need to do as a team.”
When Handzus was first acquired at last year’s trade deadline, the Blackhawks saw him as a depth center, perhaps one who could anchor the fourth line. But as the playoffs began, Handzus grabbed the second-line center role and ran with it. He was also the first of the Blackhawks player to get the Cup from captain Jonathan Toews after Game 6 in Boston.
Quenneville, who’s coached Handzus with two different teams now, said Handzus has amassed a nice career.
“He’s one of those guys who was probably under the radar when he started,” he said of their St. Louis days. “He was a heck of a player for our team. He’d play against top lines and quietly went about his business. He was a great teammate, he was hard to play against, and we could use him in all situations. It’s been a nice career and I’m happy he got to hoist the Cup.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock coached the Philadelphia Flyers when Handzus was there and remains close friends with him today.
“Michal’s the same player he was 10 years ago. He’s just a little bit slower and a little more beat up, quite frankly. But when you talk about the terms of a professional, he’s a professional,” Hitchcock said. “His preparation, his focus, his concentration, every year he was with us in Philly, he came in as the top conditioned athlete, and in better shape every year than the year before. He set a standard that was hard for people to attain, and really professional.”
Hitchcock said Handzus also has respect in his native Slovakia.
“I spent time at the world championships in his country a few years ago and he’s so highly thought of there,” he said. “So many kids emulate him and his personality and his professionalism.”
How much longer will Handzus play? He’s on a one-year deal with the Blackhawks this season and he’s had his share of injuries, but Handzus said it’s something he’ll think more about this offseason.
“At this age, you go season by season,” said Handzus, who turned 37 earlier this month. “You see how you feel, how you play and if you can still help the team, and you go from there.”