The Atlantic Ocean off Virginia Beach averages about 42 degrees in February. That never bothered Richard Panik.
After practices with the American Hockey League’s Norfolk Admirals during the 2011-12 season, no matter the month, Panik would zip home, shimmy into a wetsuit, grab a surfboard and spend hours in the water. Sometimes he’d just bob around wet in the ocean, talking about anything but hockey and throwing around a football with his roommates. Sometimes he’d fall face-first into the water, over and over while trying to ride the relatively minor waves. Sometimes, he’d even manage to stay standing for a few seconds.
Some players golf to unwind. Some play video games. Panik, Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas and Jaroslav Janus — who pooled their money to rent a beach house less than a half hour from the rink for the season — surfed. Or, at least, they tried to.
After all, it’s not exactly a natural activity for a bunch of guys who grew up in landlocked Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
“It took me pretty much the whole year to figure it out,” Panik said. “We couldn’t do anything. By the time I started to get it, the season was over. But after two years, we came back to Virginia, and I didn’t forget. I still like to do it. It didn’t happen right away, though. It looks so easy, but it’s not.”
That pretty well sums up Panik’s hockey career, too. The way he plays now — throwing his body around in the corners, crashing the net, banging in rebounds with his similarly styled linemates, Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad — looks so natural for a player of Panik’s size and skill.
But just like with his surfing, it didn’t happen right away.
Panik bobbed up and down between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs and their AHL affiliates for more than four years before the Blackhawks took a flier on him by trading away a similarly disappointing prospect, Jeremy Morin. Less than two years later, Panik is a bona fide top-line winger, a 22-goal scorer and, in Joel Quenneville’s words, a true power forward in the making.
There are no more questions about his NHL-readiness. No more questions about his lack of consistency and his penchant for disappearing for weeks at a time. The only question left now that he’s entrenched in the NHL with a two-year, $5.6 million contract is what’s the next step?
“All of a sudden, you start thinking of him as a power forward,” Quenneville said. “By having that status and getting to that next level where [he has] that predictability game in and game out, bringing some physicality, being hard to play against, getting to the front of the net, scoring hard goals and big goals, Pan can be that consistent guy for us. That’s the next step.”
Panik has never liked talking about himself, particularly when he’s doing well. There’s a whiff of superstition in the way he squirms when you bring up the fact that he has three goals and three assists in the Hawks’ five games, and how his line has been a three-man wrecking crew in the early going.
But even Panik can admit that he has a comfort level now that he has never had before in hockey, at least not since those days where he could clear his mind on a surfboard with his buddies off the Virginia coast. Lake Michigan isn’t exactly a viable surfing option in the dead of the Chicago winter, but Panik’s mind is pretty clear these days, even on dry land.
“The years before, I was kind of on edge,” Panik said. “I was just playing to make the team. I didn’t know where I was going to be — the AHL, the NHL, whatever. But last year I proved I can be an NHL guy and earn a contract. Now my goal is to prove that it wasn’t just a one-year thing, that I can be like that every year.”
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