Justin Hodgman hoping for rebirth season with Komets
He's returning to Fort Wayne after seven-year absence
About the only person who doesn’t think Justin Hodgman’s return to the Komets is a big deal, is… well…
“It’s not different than any signing,” Hodgman said. “They are always equally as important. Mine may be more significant to the fanbase, but it’s not compared to what we are trying to do as a team. I don’t want that to be any more of the focus.”
And he’s serious, not just spouting the locker room line of humbleness. He understands how everyone else is excited, and of course he’s looking forward to playing in front of the Fort Wayne fans again, rekindling some memories of the three championships he helped the Komets win in 2008, 2009 and 2010. But his return is all about the present and his future. He’s extremely excited to see what the team can accomplish this year, and he really cam’t wait to be able to play in front of his children about 50 games this season.
In other words, Hodgman’s return is truly not about him. He’s hoping it turns out to be a lot bigger than that.
Though he had always said he’d return to play in Fort Wayne some day, ask him why now and he’ll spend 20 minutes talking about his children, Braelynn, 8, and Zayden, 6, and could go longer if the questions didn’t veer into other areas. He loves getting up to take them to school in the mornings and pick them up in the afternoons, and going to her volleyball and soccer games and his baseball and hockey games. He loves seeing them face-to-face every day instead of only on FaceTime or on occasional visits over the past few seasons when he was playing overseas.
In the past, they sometimes went with him to Europe, but that changed as they grew old enough to start school. No long-distance relationship is ever easy, especially with your own children.
“It’s the main reason I’m back here, to be with the family which I haven’t always been able to do,” he said. “I’ve always felt terrible that I couldn’t do more.”
Even when he came home, he always had to adjust back into the family routine established by his girlfriend Nicole. She set the rules and maintained the order, and it was his job to help. It was always an adjustment, especially since he always had to leave again. That part never got easier.
So he’s enjoyed the world out of this extended summer, the first time in six years he didn’t have to take off early to prepare for the season and leave everyone behind. Besides training, most of what he’s done has been doing things with and for his children and Nicole. He’s loving being a full-time family man and all that requires, the routines, the sacrifices and the new things that always pop up.
And now he can’t wait to play in front of them on a regular basis, something that hasn’t happened for a few years. At age 29, he’s revitalized and incredibly motivated. He’s got the fire back, but not too much.
“There are things that I need to change about my game,” Hodgman said. “When family is there, you don’t want to be as much of a jerk. I need to stay off the refs first and foremost because I should have been my whole career, but I get so emotional, I can’t help it. Getting on the refs doesn’t help anything. I’ve been getting carried away. I want to be better at that in front of the kids.”
But he’s still Hodgy, the ornery, aggressive, opportunistic and always talkative center who was always in the middle or the cause of the action. The Komets plan to play him on their top line, probably with Shawn Szydlowski and Gabriel Desjardins. There are still the expectations and pressure to produce, but Hodgman says that will be a good thing. After all, where has he ever performed better? Where has he ever had more fun playing?
He’s no longer the 19-year-old kid who scored in triple overtime to win a cup, but he’s a veteran who has learned a lot about the game and himself. Now he wants the responsibility of being part of team leadership. He wants to share his experiences to help others get better.
“I feel the pressure, but I welcome it,” he said. “I’m super-excited to play in front of these fans again. They always make me feel welcome very time I step on the ice. There’s an entertainment aspect to this sport, and I’m excited to play for them again.”
He kind of needs that inspiration, too. Since he played four games with the Arizona Coyotes early in the 2014-15 season, Hodgman’s hockey luck has been marred by injuries and he’s bounced all over the world from the American Hockey League to Sweden, the Czech Republic and Finland, five teams in three seasons. He hasn’t been able to settle in and find the confidence in his game and play to the level he expects. He knows the skills are still there, but his passion and focus need a boost. He’s sure he can find a high level again.
He needs his family and his fans, and to rediscover what makes him who he is as a player.
“I fell somewhat out of love with the game over the years, traveling to this country and it not panning out, dealing with this and that, injuries and such,” he said. “Not woe is me, but it’s been a tough go for the last little while, and the biggest thing I’m looking for this year is to feel the energy from the possibilities of how well this team can perform, and playing in front of this city and these fans has always given me the most ridiculous jolt ever. I’m just hoping that playing here and playing in front of the kids is going to bring back that love I have for the game.”
And everyone, Hodgman included, understands that could be a big deal.
For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.