Oduya relishes stint with team in Thailand

Johnny Oduya led the Farangs, an amateur team in Thailand, to their first championship. Courtesy of Naz Brown

The puck scored by Patrick Kane to win the Chicago Blackhawks the 2010 Stanley Cup may have gone missing, but at least they didn't lose the trophy itself.

That's the issue the Flying Farangs of Bangkok, Thailand encountered after winning their own tournament for the first time in 18 years on Oct. 27. At some point in the early hours of the following day after the team took pictures with the trophy, drank beer out of it and even accidentally broke one of its handles, the Farangs misplaced the Land of Smiles Ice Hockey Classic trophy.

Farangs general manager/coach/player Scott Murray believes Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya, then a Farang playing in Thailand because of the NHL lockout, may be responsible for the missing trophy. Oduya, like the rest of the team, says he doesn't know where it is.

The thing is Murray nor anyone else on the team really cares if they see the trophy again. Without Oduya, the Farangs, an amateur team with players of various ages and hockey backgrounds, understand they would never have won the tournament or been given the priceless experience of skating beside an NHL player. That's all that matters to them.

"It was just cool," Murray, a Canadian native, said by phone recently from Thailand. "We had been there so many times and never won it. We felt like idiots. It was euphoric. We had Oduya. We had a professional on the team. Here, he was (Wayne) Gretzky. In the arena, it was Johnny this and Johnny that."

Yet, there is still the humorous tale Murray tells of where he last saw the trophy.

"Four in the morning, Oduya said, 'Murray, find the trophy for me. I never had a trophy before,' " Murray said laughing. "He was so happy. It was so funny to watch this guy win the tournament. The last thing I remember is he had broken the handle and was staggering out with the trophy. We still don't know where the trophy is."

Coincidentally enough, the Farangs thought Oduya might have been missing when they sent a group to pick him up at the airport for the first time.

The Farangs assumed someone was playing an elaborate prank on them when tournament organizer Scott Whitcomb, who is originally from Wisconsin, was contacted through email by someone claiming to be Oduya's friend. The email said Oduya, who is Swedish, was going to be vacationing in Bangkok and was hoping to find somewhere to train during the NHL lockout. Whitcomb recommended the Farangs.

"The funny thing is we didn't believe he was coming," Murray said. "We sent two Swedish guys to pick him up at the airport. We think it's some game. Then someone took a picture of his Blackhawks bag and put it on Facebook. 'He's really here.' The next morning at the 8 o'clock skate he was there. We didn't know what to do. 'How to keep this guy busy?' "

Oduya took care of that aspect. He trained and competed as if he was with the Blackhawks. He took advantage of being able to use the ice whenever he wanted and practiced with the team.

Oduya also worked out off the ice with teammate and personal trainer Henrik Olofsson at The Aspire Club in Bangkok.

"I was quite amazed by just his work ethic," said Olofsson, who has also trained Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen. "If you're a professional athlete, chances are you're going to have a work ethic. I think Johnny was showing more in-depth understanding and was sincere in his interest. We could spend three hours just talking about training and the methods and science with what happens in our muscles.

"He really worked hard, and there wasn't anything else but just the joy of the game. He was firing on all cylinders even though it's just a game of amateurs in Southeast Asia. That was amazing to see."

Oduya definitely didn't dial back his game. One of Murray's biggest obstacles was simply finding players who could receive Oduya's passes. Murray said he only had three players capable of doing that.

Oduya played at another level, but he treated his teammates the same as he would if he had been playing with them in the NHL. He respected them, joked around with them on and off the ice and enjoyed their camaraderie.

"It's pretty easy," Oduya said. "Hockey players are all kind of the same breed. It doesn't matter where you go in the world. If you find hockey players, the mindset is pretty much the same, usually tremendous guys. It was very easy to fit in and find some new friends."

It was no big deal to Oduya, but it was a huge one to his teammates.

"He just showed up and was one of the guys," Murray said. "He's used to playing with (Jonathan) Toews, (Brent) Seabrook and (Duncan) Keith. He was very gracious about the whole thing. He was the epitome of a professional. He was just an amazing guy.

"It was nice to see him excited about this. Most of us thought this was going to be a rinky-dink thing for him, but he seemed to love it. It was nice to see a professional athlete not jaded. We all had a good feeling being around him."

Oduya also left an imprint on the hockey community.

"I think it's great for the sport and all the Thai hockey players here and the community here," Whitcomb said. "Johnny was just first class, just a great guy. He helped out and helped the local Thai kids. It was neat. I think all the guys who played and got to play with a professional player, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Oduya felt the same. He credited his strong play at the start of the NHL season to playing in Thailand. He leads the Blackhawks with a plus/minus rating of plus-10. He also enjoyed playing in a different country and meeting new people.

Plus, the Land of Smiles Ice Hockey Classic championship was the first trophy he won as a player in his career.

"It was fun," Oduya said. "There were some tough games, but pulled it off at the end. I guess I was really happy. I hadn't won anything.

"It was a great time. It was something I'd go back in the future and do. I don't know when."

As for the missing trophy, Oduya said the finger was being pointed at the wrong person.

"I have no idea," Oduya said. "It got lost somewhere, I think afterwards. Last I saw, I think one ear fell off or something. Somebody came home with one ear. I don't know who it was. That was pretty much it."

That's a good enough story for the Farangs.

"It's still around somewhere," Olofsson said. "I'll see if I can find it."