Radko Gudas Credit: Courtesy Washington Capitals

Standing over six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, Capitals defenseman Radko Gudas would be an intimidating figure even if he were serving ice cream to puppies. The 29-year-old Czech Republic native has built a career out of striking fear and drawing ire in the hearts of opposing teams and their fanbases.

Gudas, one of the NHL’s toughest, meanest, and most physical players, arrived in Washington from division rival Philadelphia Flyers before this season in a trade for defenseman Matt Niskanen, whom he had injured during a collision in 2017. With 20 fights and 19 games suspended in his eight year NHL career, Gudas had become somewhat infamous with Capitals fans. But when he dropped the gloves against the New York Rangers in just his ninth game with his new team after a questionable hit on Czech teammate Michal Kempny, he quickly endeared himself to local fans.

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And that’s been the story all year for Gudas, as fans and teammates have begun to embrace the man who was once their hated enemy.

“I’m really happy how Washington fans have gotten behind me even though I was in the same division for so long. The transition here has been nothing but great,” Gudas tells City Paper. “I’ve been enjoying every minute of it. I’m happy I’m in the room with the guys who are on my side now.”

Gudas isn’t the only one glad that he no longer faces off against the Caps four times a year. Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who skates with Gudas as his defensive partner many nights, recalls past clashes and collisions with him.

“It is always not easy to play against him. You know he’s going to hit you if you’re gonna put your head down,” Orlov says with a laugh and shake of his head. “I’m … I’m kind of glad he’s on our team now.”

And so are the Capitals, who find themselves in first place in the NHL thanks in large part to Gudas’ stalwart and reliable defensive play. Ravaged by injuries to their defensive corps and handcuffed by salary cap troubles, Washington has already dressed eight different defensemen this season, including two rookies with a combined total NHL experience of two games between them.

Add that to the fact that rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov has played eight games already this season, and suddenly the Caps finds themselves in desperate need of veteran leadership on defense. It’s getting that from Gudas, whom the coaching staff has trusted with the most defensive zone starts and penalty kill time on the team, and many of its most difficult coverage assignments.

Even still, Gudas struggles to overcome the perception that he is only a “goon,” one that has followed him internationally and has even landed on his grandparents’ doorstep in Liberec, Czech Republic. “A Czech newspaper, they wrote some things about me they probably shouldn’t have. Called me some names, called me an idiot,” Gudas says. “My grandma and grandpa didn’t know what was happening. It was hard for them to read that in the Sunday news.” But for Gudas, it’s just par for the course. “It’s not weird; it’s Czech,” he laughs. “After a couple world championships, they started liking me.”

Indeed, winning has a way of soothing old wounds, and the Capitals and their fans are certainly glad Gudas is on their side now.

“When he joins your team, you see him the opposite way,” Orlov says. “He’s funny. He’s a good guy. I can’t say anything bad.”

With each passing game, it gets increasingly harder for Capitals fans to say anything bad, either.