The thought crossed Michal Handzus' mind last season that his playing career may be nearing its end.
Handzus had turned 36 in March 2013, was in the final year of a contract with the San Jose Sharks, and was being made a healthy scratch on a consistent basis after producing two points and a minus-9 rating in 28 games. He understood the reality of his situation.
“I always have a confidence in myself, but in those times, sometimes you start to worry,” Handzus said recently. “I was 35, 36; you start to worry that’s it. You always find a confidence that you can push through. I had a long career. I had been down before, and I dusted myself off and picked myself up. That was my mindset then, too.”
Handzus eventually did that, but it was the Chicago Blackhawks that first revived his career. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman believed Handzus still had something left to give a team and could help the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup.
Nearly a year has passed since Handzus was acquired by the Blackhawks. Since then, he has played a key role in the playoffs, won a Stanley Cup, signed a new contract and was selected to Slovakia’s Olympic team for the fourth time.
Handzus realizes none of that likely would have happened if he hadn't got out of San Jose.
“It’s been great, for sure,” Handzus said of coming to the Blackhawks. “I know I hadn’t played well in San Jose. I don’t know if it was the right fit or something. It just didn’t work the way I hoped and they hoped.
“It really helped me to come here and play with great players, play in a great system. Coaches put a lot of confidence in me. It’s been great so far.”
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville didn’t expect a whole lot out of Handzus when he arrived in Chicago. Quenneville envisioned Handzus as a bottom-six forward who could help out in a few different areas.
Handzus became more than that as last season unfolded and was made the second-line center throughout the playoffs. He had 11 points and a plus-7 rating in 23 playoff games.
“I thought last year when he came here, he came here with kind of low expectations, almost like a fourth-line utility guy,” Quenneville said recently. “We knew what he was capable of defensively, could help us on the PK, depth, center, faceoffs. Did a lot more than we anticipated because of how well he played and moved up the lineup a little bit for us. Came to be a really effective position for us. Commend him on that.”
Handzus hasn’t been able to keep up that consistency this season. He has 11 points and a minus-1 rating in 41 games. He has continued to play a vital role on the penalty kill and still has Quenneville's trust.
“And this year, his role, maybe his role has been fluctuating ... maybe production-wise it might be a little bit off, but [his] effectiveness [is] under the radar,” Quenneville said. “Handzy is very predictable in how he plays. We like his contribution.”
Handzus could find himself in a similar role for Slovakia when Olympic men's hockey play begins this week. Handzus was expected to be selected because Slovakia doesn’t have many NHL players. He also played in two previous Olympics and missed one due to injury.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Handzus said. “I’m allowed to play for my country. I’ve played in a lot of World Championships, but the Olympics are the Olympics, for sure, so it’s a lot of fun.
“The only thing is, I kind of know how everything goes, especially from the ice. I know the games. I know the system. I know what to do. When you go the first time, you’re kind of overwhelmed with everything. Other than that, it’s always exciting and something new. It’s a different country, different city, different village. It’s going to be a different experience.”
It’ll be one more experience Handzus can reflect on once his career is over. As worried as he was last season about his career coming to an end, he’s now concerned only about the present.
“I think you’ll be reflecting when you’re done with hockey,” Handzus said. “I think you’re trying to worry about the moment. I set goals before the season to play well here [in Chicago] and play well in the Olympics if I get there.”