CALGARY, Alberta — Practice ended some 20 minutes ago, and most of the Blackhawks already are in their pea coats and knit caps, ambling down the dank Saddledome corridor on their way to the bus back to the hotel.
Michal Rozsival still is in his shorts and undershirt, flat on his back in the dressing room, his body folded like a lawn chair so that his feet are by his face — stretching out his back and his thighs, strengthening his core, working out the kinks. These are the things you have to do when you’re 38 years old, with 1,051 NHL games behind you.
“I just try to keep myself ready to go,” Rozsival said. “That’s all you can do. Stay focused, keep working hard, and hope for the next call.”
It’s a call that hasn’t come often this season. And a call that likely won’t come any time soon.
Every morning skate, Rozsival straps on his gear, laces up his skates, tapes up his ankles, and heads out on the ice. And a little less than a half hour later, Joel Quenneville skates by during his usual rounds, informing the veteran and two-time Stanley Cup champion that he won’t be playing that night. And that means an extra 20 or 30 minutes of hard skating under the watchful eye of assistant coach Mike Kitchen, while Quenneville and the non-scratches head in early to rest up for that evening’s games.
Rozsival has played just four games this season. He sat out the first six games. He’s sat out the six since. He’ll sit out Friday night in Calgary, too. And with Trevor van Riemsdyk on the verge of returning from his shoulder injury to bump Rozsival from the seventh defenseman to the eighth, there’s little hope he’ll see game action any time soon.
For a guy who missed just 10 games total from 2005-10, during the peak of his career with the New York Rangers, it’s been an adjustment.
Is Rozsival frustrated? No, he insists. Is he, well, bored? Yeah. A little.
“It’s definitely something I’ve had to work through,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly what it would be like this year, but I knew it could be like this. I was just happy to sign another contract and try to be part of it again, to play the game that I love to play. Obviously, I would love to play more. I’ve never been through this before, but there’s no frustration. I still like coming to the rink and I still like to practice, to be here and be ready. I’m ready. Whenever they need me, I’m ready.”
Rozsival can still play. He acquitted himself well in those four games when van Riemsdyk and Gustav Forsling were both hurt. But the additions of Brian Campbell and Michal Kempny in the summer, and the emergence of Forsling in training camp, made Rozsival all but unnecessary. He’s now basically a security blanket for Quenneville — a guy to keep around, just in case.
Rozsival knows he still has an NHL game, but wonders if the lengthy layoff between appearances — who knows the next time he’ll get in a game? — will hurt him. He’s been studying up and talking to other players about how to stay sharp and loose after so much time off the ice. But if Rozsival is worried about his readiness, his teammates aren’t.
“We know when he’s going to be in there, he’s rock solid,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m sure it’s never easy, even at this stage in his career. Everyone wants to be playing every single day. But he does bring that positive attitude, that energy in the locker room. He knows he’s going to be ready when we need him. And that definitely hows a lot of our younger guys the type of attitude they have to have, especially if they’re not getting their ice time.”
Rozsival blanches at the idea that he’s a mentor, or a beloved mascot of sorts. He’s still just one of the guys, not some beloved mascot. He has served as something of a chaperone for fellow Czech Kempny — “This is Michal’s first road trip, so he’s always asking me questions: ‘What do I wear to breakfast? What do I wear to practice?’” — but that’s the extent of his tutoring.
“I’m not here to be a teacher or tell them what to do,” Rozsival said. “I’m just being a good teammate. I totally understand the situation. The young guys that came in, they’re the future, right? You’ve got to build for the future. And they’re playing well. They don’t need to be told what to do.”
Quenneville said that Rozsival still has a role to play. The Hawks coach has seen too many injuries on the back end over the years to think seven guys will be enough for 82 games. And so Rozsival keeps at it. He works longer at morning skates. He stretches longer after practices. He still puts on his full gear and participates in pregame warmups, just to have another chance to be on the ice. And he still waits for the call.
Rozsival considered retirement two springs ago when he broke his ankle in the second round of the playoffs. Thought about it again last summer before the Hawks offered him another one-year deal. Chances are, this is Rozsival’s last go-around, but he’s not looking at it that way. He said if he knew this was the end, if retirement was looming, it would affect his preparation and affect his play. And he still wants to prepare, and he still wants to play.
“I’m just trying to live in the moment,” Rozsival said. “Basically, I go game by game.”
Then he laughed.
“OK, not game by game,” he said, still chuckling. “Practice by practice.”
NOTE: Vinnie Hinostroza didn’t practice Thursday, but could play Friday, Quenneville said. Tyler Motte (lower body) could join the team as early as Friday, and van Riemsdyk could join the team in California next week.