Dan Marrazza
Tuesday April 5th, 2016

Years before Radko Gudas joined the Philadelphia Flyers and became one the most feared men in the NHL, he was a Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick playing for the Norfolk Admirals in the American Hockey League. Back then, the Admirals ran an in-game video promotion where players answered questions with the name of a teammate. They were once asked: “Which of your teammates is most likely to scare a child?”

One after another, each Admiral answered: “Gudas, Gudas, Gud-dy, Gud-dy, Gudas.” 

On and on, Gudas’ name was chosen, until finally the man himself was asked. This led the young Czech defenseman, who only 5' 11" but with a prominent forehead and a thick, dark, Superman II villain-esque beard, to deviously shift his eyes into the camera, nod and answer: “Me!”

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Given his frightening, heavily-bearded persona, the Lightning marketed Gudas with “Fear the Beard” t-shirts way back in his AHL days.

These days, nobody fears Gudas simply for his cartoon villain look anymore. Children and adults alike, now everybody’s afraid of him for his on-ice actions.

“It’s low on your body, it catches your leg,” says Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ian Cole, a recent victim of Gudas’ patented submarine hip check. “If you miss the guy when you’re coming in ass-first like that, there’s nothing you can really do about it. That’s a reason you don’t see more hits like that. It’s because even if you land it, you both usually go down. Unless I was in a bad position, I wouldn’t even try to go for what he went for.”

Or as Sabres forward Marcus Foligno described him in February, after Gudas took himself out of position in order to injure Buffalo rookie Daniel Catenacci with a brutal—some say unnecessary—kamikaze check: “The guy’s an idiot.”

On a sunny March morning at the Flyers’ practice facility in suburban New Jersey, a gloomy Gudas answers questions about his reputation in subdued fashion, almost like a kid who’s been called into the principal’s office knowing he’s guilty of his crimes and knows it’ll get only worse if he doesn’t pretend to be remorseful.

“It’s hard,” Gudas says. “It’s a really fast game out there. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s the right decision or not. I know there were a few weeks there where I didn’t make a couple right decisions and got kicked out of games. I went over all the hits and talked with the league and the team about it. I think I’ve figured out the right balance. Knock on wood, it’s working so far.”

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Make no mistake, despite his understated nature on this day, Gudas is a quintessential hockey villain. He is not a bad person. He is, however, colorful, with a zany personality as irreverent as his open-ice hits. He once belly-laughed in the face of a rival who sucker-punched him in a scrum.

Gudas doesn’t subtly rub people out along the boards. He makes contact with high-speed crashes and smashes that allow him to remain the center of attention, despite his five goals in the last month being his only tallies since early in the 2014-15 season. Opponents’ cheekbones, chins and knees are occasionally casualties. He’s been called dirty on more than one occasion.

He’s had kooky nicknames: “Bamm-Bamm,” after Barney and Betty’s son on The Flintstones, and for his caveman-like appearance and extraordinary strength. “Road Kill,” because it sounds like “Radko” and is also what his victims end up looking like.

After he runs over an opponent, Gudas usually has a blank look on his face that silently screams “Who, me?” as everyone on the other team tries to exact revenge. He favors Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses and Czech beer, but regularly attends Broadway shows and has a soft spot for anything science fiction.

“I don’t want to sound nerdy, but I really like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings,” Gudas said. “I’ve read all the books. I like to use my imagination a lot.”

Although it might be better left to the imagination, Gudas’ 210-pound physique is built like a fire hydrant and covered by wispy mane of back hair, like how it was when stick blades were the only waxed surfaces in NHL dressing rooms. You could definitely picture him in a dressing room filled with the Clarkes, Schultzes and Duponts of the 1970s.

That Gudas became a Flyer when the Lightning dealt him to Philadelphia last spring seemed prophetic. If he was to be one of the most feared, one of the most hated men in hockey, what better team to do it with than the Broad Street Bullies?

Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

The thing is, Philadelphia, embracing speed and agility over brashness and brawn under general manager Ron Hextall, is no longer the kind of team what it once was. Same goes for the NHL. Where players like Gudas used to be despised by opposing fans but loved by their own, he inspires mixed reactions among those in the stands.

On one hand, Philadelphians leap to their feet and roar in approval when Gudas takes someone’s head off. On the other hand, they gasp in terror when he flies over the boards, unsure if he’ll do something inexplicable that’ll cost his team big. He’s just too volatile, too reckless, too undependable, too much of a wildcard, according to a number of Philadelphians.

Gudas’ rap sheet includes:

3/26/2016: Drove Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan into the boards from behind, head first. Doan left the game, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.

2/16/2016: Ejected for an elbow to the head of New Jersey Devils forward Bobby Farnham

2/11/16: Ejected for a hit to the head of Sabres rookie Daniel Catenacci, a period after clipping Marcus Foligno in the knee.

2/2/16: Received five minutes for clipping Lucas Lessio of the Montreal Canadiens after a hip check landed too low.

12/2/15: Suspended three games and fined for clocking Mika Zibanejad of the Ottawa Senators in the chin with a rising forearm.

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And that’s just the last three months, with the rest of Gudas’ three-year NHL career littered with about one or two similar incidents per month.

In Gudas’ defense, compared to his amount of incidents, he’s rarely been suspended—just once in his entire career. He has, however, pitched a tent and set up a permanent campsite on the borderline.

“You know what, he plays on the edge,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol says. “Has he modified his game? Maybe a little bit. A lot’s been made of it. I don’t think it’s something we have to worry about too much.”

“They don’t have the biggest problem with me playing this way” Gudas says of the organization as a whole. “It’s picking the right time and the right moment. That’s what’s going to help me stay in the league.”

What Gudas is now is what he’s been taught to be. His father, Leo, had a similar disposition back in the 1980s and ‘90s, when he terrorized a handful of European professional leagues after getting drafted by, but never playing for, the Calgary Flames.

Finland, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic—Leo Gudas, with a similar short, stocky build and temperament identical to his son’s, was hated everywhere. Radko, who was born in 1990 and cites Prague as his hometown, lived in them all, picking up the local language—he speaks six of them—and his father’s mannerisms in the process.

The methods that earned Leo Gudas a living eventually earned his son the attention of Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who gambled on Radko with a third-round pick in 2010 after the younger Gudas went undrafted his first two years of eligibility.

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“I got drafted with a few other Slovakian and Czech guys,” Gudas says. “There’s a few of us and Stevie Y. comes over to meet us for the first time. When he got to me, I go, ‘Radko Gudas.’ He goes, ‘All right, I remember your dad … I’m glad you’re on our team.’ And then he’s just looking at me. I’m thinking: ‘Wow, even Stevie Y. knew what my dad was like.’”

By irritating and instigating his way from obscurity into an NHL lineup, Gudas has made all of hockey aware of the family reputation. And while the Flyers occasionally grow frustrated with his propensity for recklessness (“My dad was way more reckless,” he says), they’re generally pleased by his presence in their lineup.

It’s the Gudas conundrum. He’s everything that the Flyers were back when they won championships. At the same time it’s as if Gudas is a Broad Street Bully of yesteryear who’s arrived in a gentler future after being cryogenically frozen, struggling to adapt to the modern world like an Austin Powers on skates.

The more extreme Gudas is, the more effective he is, but also the more dangerous he becomes. This leaves everybody afraid: Opponents, afraid he’ll badly injure them; the NHL, afraid he’ll soil the league’s reputation; the Flyers, afraid he’ll make a poor decision and cost the team a playoff spot; media and fans, afraid his presence reveals that the league is less progressive than many around the sport want to believe it is.

But that comes with the territory, along with still scaring the occasional child.

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