When contract talks with the New York Islanders fell apart over the summer, Lubomir Visnovsky thought about walking away. After 14 seasons and 883 games, the 39-year-old defenseman was growing comfortable with the idea of going back home to Slovakia, and “enjoying the life with my family.”
Sure, the fact that he never won the Stanley Cup (heck, he hasn’t even won a playoff series since his rookie season) would always gnaw at him. But it’s been a heck of a career, all the same.
Then the Blackhawks came calling, offering him a tryout contract.
“Wow, it’s the best team in the NHL,” Visnovsky recalled thinking. “I want to try it. Why not? Look at this place. Look at the city; it’s unbelievable. It’s a hockey city, the fans are unbelievable, the team is — wow. Everybody loves to play with the puck and play an offensive style, which I like. It doesn’t matter how old I am. I’m here, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Jan Hejda’s in the same situation. The 37-year-old Czech native spent the past four seasons as a mainstay on the Colorado Avalanche blue line, and figured he’d have a contract somewhere by now. But, as he put it, “The market was a little weird this year,” and he was happy the Hawks threw him a lifeline with a tryout contract of his own.
His reaction was pretty much the same as Visnovsky’s.
“I feel like, wow, this is a three-time Stanley Cup champion in the last six years,” Hejda said. “This is something great.”
Especially when the two veterans accepted those tryout deals. At the time, the Hawks had just six NHL-level defensemen signed, and given the youth on the Hawks’ third pairing — Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad — one of the veterans figured to land that final defense spot. But then the Hawks re-signed Michal Rozsival — all but forgotten after his gruesome broken ankle suffered in the second round of the playoffs — and the odds got a lot longer for Visnovsky and Hejda.
But Hawks coach Joel Quenneville loves cagey veterans, particularly on the back end. And he insisted this week that his top seven aren’t set in stone. The fact that Rozsival is still not 100 percent healthy, and possibly could start the season on injured reserve, keeps the dream alive for Visnovsky and Hejda.
“You never know,” Visnovsky said. “I remember my first year in the NHL (2000-01), there were eight or nine defensemen in camp on one-way contracts, and I had a two-way contract as a rookie, and I made the team. You never know. Sometimes miracles happen, and sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to enjoy it.”
Chicago has become a coveted spot for aging veterans hoping to make one last run at a Stanley Cup. Brad Richards reinvigorated his career and won his first championship in more than a decade in his one year with the Hawks. Michal Handzus went from washed-up to champagne-soaked in 2013. Kimmo Timonen won his first and only Cup in his final game, at age 40. Tomas Kopecky is giving it a go at Hawks camp this fall. Even Rozsival re-signed for a mere $600,000, setting trumping salary.
“This is the best team in the league right now,” Hejda said. “This is a great chance for anybody coming here, with a contract or without a contract. Just to have a chance to be here, and to [get] a little feeling of what this team’s about.”
Neither player is inclined to accept a trip to Rockford of the AHL, so it’s all or nothing these next two weeks. Is it a long shot? Sure. But at this stage of their careers, with a combined 38 playoff games between them, it’s also their best shot.
“If I don’t make it, it’s OK,” Visnovsky said. “I’ll go back to Europe and see what happens. But I’m here and I’m enjoying it, every day. I still love the hockey. I’ll give it a try.”