Havlat brings more than a game to Wild

Sep 14 2009 - 6:18pm

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- There's something too good to be true about Martin Havlat -- the biggest free-agent acquisition in Minnesota Wild history.

On the ice, he's a special player, a flashy, fast difference-maker who can score goals in imaginative ways.

"We put together a highlight video for training camp, and there are a couple of Martin Havlat goals on there that are just incredible," Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. "He's a natural goal scorer and playmaker. The way he can lean on defenders down low or win a 1-on-1 battle on the wall or just outskill you is just dynamic."

Off the ice, he's special there, too.

In Ottawa, he was heavily involved in the Ronald McDonald House and used to show up unannounced at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario to play video games with kids.

In Chicago, he often held up exiting players after games so he could get out of his car and take a photo with a shivering fan.

In an age of fake player Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, Havlat -- the real Martin Havlat -- engages his social-network fans with open dialogue on Twitter, and he plans to launch a Facebook fan page in a few weeks.

Heck, over an hour-long lunch last week in which he answered questions about his first Wild training camp, Havlat spotted the reporter's glass empty. Between bites of salmon, Havlat picked up the bottle of water and poured.

"I'm just me being me," said the 28-year-old Havlat, who has bought a suite at Xcel Energy Center to donate on a nightly basis. "Hockey has allowed me to do a lot of things, and I love doing my charities. I try to give kids help the only little way I can. And the fans, they're one of the most important things around hockey. They pay a lot of money to watch you, so you try to give them everything back with the way you play and treat them."

Rick Dudley, the Atlanta Thrashers associate general manager, knows Havlat better than most from his days as Ottawa's GM and Chicago's assistant GM.

"I'm a big Marty Havlat fan. I like him as a player, but I love him as a person," Dudley said. "He's just a class act. There aren't too many better people."

Dudley was instrumental in Havlat's acquisition in Chicago. Three years ago, Havlat was a restricted free agent and a year from unrestricted free agency. He told Ottawa he wanted to sign a one-year deal so he could test free agency the following summer.

Dale Tallon, then the Blackhawks GM, wanted to trade for Havlat and sign him to a three-year, $18 million deal, so Dudley and Tallon drove to late Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz's house to convince him the investment was worth it.

"Bill Wirtz looked at me and said, 'What do you think?"' Dudley said. "I said, 'I'm not going to talk to you about the money. It's a lot of money. But I can tell you this: If we have Marty Havlat on our team, we're a better team by quite a bit tomorrow than we are today.'

"And I can tell you, the Minnesota Wild are a much better team having Marty than they were on (June 30). Big shot, great speed, incredible skills. There's not a lot missing there. If he's not the shooter, he can find somebody with a pass. He's a pretty complete player, and he's got a lot more bite than people would imagine.

"The question has never been whether he was a good player or not. It's only, 'Could he stay healthy?"'

Last season, after three consecutive years of injuries that included four shoulder dislocations and three operations, Havlat played a career-high 81 games, scoring a career-high 48 assists and 77 points to lead the Blackhawks. He then scored a team-high 15 points in the playoffs, including a flurry of clutch goals, such as his overtime winner 12 seconds into Game 1 vs. Calgary for the Blackhawks' first playoff victory in seven years.

"It was very important, for the team and for myself too, just to know everything's fine and that I can show everybody that I'm healthy and the shoulder injuries are behind me," Havlat said. "I felt great all last season, and once I realized that I didn't have any problems, that there was no pain, I just played hockey."

Havlat desperately wanted to remain a Blackhawk, but when it didn't work out, his agent, Allan Walsh, called Fletcher moments after free agency began July 1.

"Before July 1, when we started talking about what if, the what-ifs had Minnesota at the very top of the list," Walsh said. "Any player in the league who came into Minnesota saw the full house, the crazy fans. You saw a community that loves its hockey. It was valuable for Marty to be in a place where hockey was on everybody's mind.

"But Marty also looked at what Chuck had done in Anaheim and Pittsburgh and really believed in Chuck and (owner) Craig Leipold's vision for the future."

Added Havlat, "I had other options, but for the first time, I could choose, and this was my choice."

Havlat signed a cap-friendly six-year, $30 million deal ($5 million a year -- $2.5 million less than Marian Gaborik is getting with the Rangers) in exchange for a no-movement clause.

"Coming off the last deal ($6 million annually) gave him the financial flexibility," Walsh said. "There are guys who have to go sign in markets where they know they're not going to a winning team ... but they're going to the team that's going to pay them the most money because it's their turn.

"Marty wasn't in that position. He wanted to be in Minnesota."

Though he had a career-best season last year, Havlat did so while playing on a shutdown line with Dave Bolland and Andrew Ladd. This year, he will get first-line minutes and responsibilities for one of the rare times in his career.

"He's willing to do anything for you if it means the team's got a better chance of winning," Dudley said. "You don't look at (Bolland and Ladd) as of yet as top-tier offensive players, so if Marty's playing with somebody like (Mikko) Koivu, could he conceivably get much more goals and points and be a true star? No question."

Havlat, who has signed a purchase agreement for a downtown Minneapolis condo, said he will accept whatever role or linemates that coach Todd Richards offers him. He also wants Wild fans to know that he's not here to replace Gaborik.

"He had great years here, and he's a tremendous player," Havlat said. "But I think I'm a different player than him. I play a different style of hockey than him."

Asked in what ways, Havlat smiled and said with a wink: "I'll leave it up to everyone else to see. I think everybody who watches hockey, they know if I'm the same or not.

"I'll just say this: It's not about one guy. We need everybody to be successful. I'm here to help. I play the game for one reason -- to not have an empty feeling in April, to battle for the Stanley Cup -- and we need everybody for that."

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