As Milan Hejduk walked down the aisle from concourse to ice level and passed in front of the Colorado bench, making his way to the ceremony setup at center ice, what struck me was that the team had a secondary goal in all of this.
Beyond the obvious.
Beyond the honoring of a man who played all 14 of his NHL seasons with the Avalanche, got to hold the Stanley Cup aloft in 2001, won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer in 2002-03, served as captain near the tail end of his career and remained in Denver with his family after his retirement.
Hejduk walked past the Avalanche and eventually greeted the two in uniform he played with — Erik Johnson and his successor as captain, Gabe Landskog — before joining his family, wife Zlatuse and sons Marek and David.
You could tell. The Avalanche players mostly — and that’s a hedge; it might have been all of them — were into this. It was not a perfunctory duty. They were being reminded of this franchise’s glory years, and not just the two Stanley Cup triumphs.
Of when the bus door opened in St. Louis and the unloading could seem like a Hall of Fame roll call.
Of when Forsberg, returning after dealing with his foot issues, was the Hart Trophy winner and helped set up so many of those 50 Hejduk goals in 2002-03.
Of so much more.
This is what the Avalanche is trying to get back to, or at least to the degree possible in the salary cap age.
The youngest current Colorado players, teenagers Samuel Girard and Tyson Jost, were born in 1998, the year Hejduk collected a gold medal as part of the Czech Republic’s Olympic team in Nagano, where the championship was decided in a shootout with Dominik Hasek and Canada’s Patrick Roy in the nets. Hejduk was a young fourth-liner, but the experience helped convince him he could make it in the NHL — a dream he, like so many kids in Europe, had embraced for a long time.
Hejduk’s father, Milan Sr., played in the Czech elite league in his native Pardubice before suffering an injury and heading to Usti-nad-Labem to join a second-level team. His wife, Blanka, a tennis coach, went with him and that’s where Milan Jr. was born.
After retiring, Milan Sr. got into coaching. His young son would hang around the rink.
“When I started to play hockey,” Milan once told me. “I was 5 years old or so. I spent a lot of time in the rink, and right next to that, there were tennis courts, and my mother was a tennis player. So I spent my time on tennis and hockey.”
At age 16, Milan left home, to return to his parents’ native city of Pardubice and play for one year with a junior team, then for the next five seasons in the top Czech league. The Avs drafted him after his first season in the top league.”I didn’t know how long it would be before I came over,” he said, “but I thought it might be two or three years.”
It was four.
That September of ’98, Hejduk finally joined the Avalanche and never left.
My first interview with him was as goaltender Petr Franek acted as translator. It was Bob Hartley’s first training camp as the Avalanche’s head coach, and the notable rookies were a pair of 1994 draft choices who had finally signed — Boston University star and Hobey Baker Award winner Chris Drury and Hejduk. It wasn’t long before Hartley said what goes through my head every time I see Hejduk: “He has magical hands.”
Eye-popping stuff: Drury was a third-round choice and their fifth pick in that draft, while Hejduk went in the fourth round and was Colorado’s sixth choice.
This waves off salary cap complications that would have, and actually did, come into play after the 2004-05 lockout and dark season. At some point, the Avalanche couldn’t keep everybody, and even two of those honored with jerseys in the rafters — Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote — departed and then returned. But it still begs the question: What if the Avalanche had kept Drury, rather than trading him away in 2002?
We’ll never know.
The 38-minute ceremony Saturday night was touching, with the terrific surprise of having Sakic introduce Hejduk’s linemates from that 50-goal season, Forsberg and Alex Tanguay, as they carried the Stanley Cup onto the ice. (Unfortunately, that season didn’t end well, with the seven-game loss in the first round to the Wild that preceded Roy’s retirement.)
Plus, having the Hejduk-coached U-13 Colorado Thunderbirds carry the banner onto the ice underscored how he and his family have remained here.
So what of the team that then went out and beat the Minnesota Wild 7-2 for its fifth consecutive win?
That sent the Avs into their bye week at 22-16-3, for 47 points, and in the Western Conference’s second wild card spot. The wins equal their total for all of last season, and they’re only one point short of the 48 they put up in the horrific 2016-17.
That’s stunning progress in the reboot, and what I wrote at the Christmas break two weeks ago pretty much stands, though the Avalanche since has leaped into a playoff spot and Tyson Barrie (hand injury, likely out another four weeks); plus J.T. Compher and Semyon Varlamov (lower body injuries) were out at this latest break.
The road ahead might be perilous.
In the space of five weeks, the Avalanche will have gone through the Christmas break; the five-day period away from the ice before practicing Friday and playing at Dallas Saturday; and then the break for the All-Star Game weekend.
The bye seems more of an unnecessary contrivance, more a throw-in during CBA negotiations than a necessity, and the Avalanche plays 34 games in 68 days to finish out the season.
The six road games spanning the All-Star break will be a major test of legitimacy. The major “problem” the Avs have now — and this is a good “problem” — are raised hopes and even expectations. Turning a playoff berth the be-all, end-all could even be counterproductive.
It’s hard to imagine Sakic making a move for short-term benefit only that could negatively impact the long run, but my point is, the thought that that sort of temptation might be possible this season illustrates just how far the Avalanche has come.
This much we know: Whenever that next home Avalanche playoff game is, there will be six jerseys and numbers overhead.
Including the one representing the guy with magical hands.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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