When it comes to hockey, there is a fire that burns deep down inside of every player and fan. We all notice it and are incredibly proud of it. How is this fire ignited? How does it stay lit? I believe it comes in stages all throughout life. Hockey gives you different avenues and opportunities to continuously feed that flame. One person who proudly carries a relentless burning torch of passion for the game of hockey is Milan Hejduk.
Hockey’s flame was set ablaze inside of Milan at the very young age of five years old. He began playing youth hockey in his native country of Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic. While he was starting to hone his skills on the ice, Milan’s father was a bench boss of a local Czech junior team at the time. That allowed Milan to be around the rink daily. He loved to be around all the guys in the locker room. Milan would even do little things like tape the player’s sticks for them.
As the fire continued to grow inside of Milan, so did his skills. He was really starting to make some noise, especially on the score board. All throughout youth hockey Milan could score with the best of them. But as with every good story, it isn’t always sunshine and yellow brick roads.
We all know in hockey, the further you climb the ladder the tougher the game becomes. In his teens, Milan was a little bit slower at growing than a lot of his opponents and it took a toll on Hedgie’s body and psyche. He was starting to wonder if he could still make it further in the game or if this would be it for his competitive hockey career. Soon though, the comforting support of both his mother and father came to his aid. “I just tried to focus on what they said to me and how much they supported me.” So with the loving support of his parents, he stuck with it and overcame the intimidation that was plaguing his mind. Once again the fire inside grew much stronger and brighter.
Ask any hockey player that reaches the junior level and they well tell you, breaking into the juniors is an extremely exciting time for a young gun. Bigger games, new opponents and exciting opportunities. Especially when you’re eighteen years old and your name has been dropped into the prestigious NHL draft bucket. Hartford, Connecticut at the 1994 NHL entry draft in the fourth Milan Hejduk’s name is called as the 87th pick overall by the Quebec Nordiques. Elated as can be, a young Milan still realized there was more work to do. But as the narrative goes, this was just more gasoline added to an already strong burning flame inside this man’s heart.
Milan would spend the next four years playing in Europe for HC Pardubice. Sharpening his game and getting ample amounts of playing time, even being named the Czech rookie of the year. Milan found solace in the fact that he didn’t go straight to playing in the NHL. “I feel like it was better for me to go play in Europe after getting drafted. I got way more playing time on top lines. I feel like if I had gone straight to the NHL I may have not gotten the same chances to play right away.” It gave him a chance to continue to grow as a player, and even partly credits this time to his eventual lengthy career in the big leagues. But nothing could compare to what would come next in Milan’s journey.
It’s an incredible honor to represent your country in any capacity. Milan was awarded that very honor in 1998 by being chosen to represent the Czech Republic at the Nagano Olympics. The team was considered a major underdog going into the tournament. But Milan couldn’t care less especially when he could look across the locker room and see Czech legends Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek. He was truly in the presence of incredible players and he was loving it. “It was crazy seeing great players like Jagr and Hasek in the locker room. And then to step out on the ice and you realize that you are playing against Wayne Gretzky.” He realized this was his chance to really shake things up, and that’s exactly what he did! As history shows, that very Czech team went onto win gold.
Winning gold on an international stage brought about a fresh contract with the Colorado Avalanche, a new home and more kindling for the now raging forest fire deep down inside Milan. Coming to new country, playing in the big leagues and trying to learn a language is a huge mountain to climb all by yourself. “Everyday I was going to practice and then right after I would go to an English class to learn the language.” But it always helps to have a friend going through the similar thing.
As Milan was breaking into the league, an American player by the name of Chris Drury was making his way into the league as well. Both Milan and Chris found comfort that they were going through the same thing. As luck would have it, they had found themselves in a supportive and accepting locker room full of highly talented and humble veterans. “All the veterans in the room were great, so I just tried to do what they were doing. Just follow their lead. It also really helped to have such great coaches. Bob Hartley, Brian Trottier and Jacques Clautier were all so great.” Not only were the players supportive, but Milan had an incredible lineup of coaches with years of experience and knowledge.
With all of the support, acceptance and knowledge, Milan was able to fuel this raging flame for an illustrious fifteen year career in the NHL with numerous achievements including winning the Stanley Cup, winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, being the only Avalanche player to play in over 1,000 games in an Avalanche sweater and just recently having his #23 retired to the rafters of the Pepsi Center.
Nowadays “Hedgie” is still living in Colorado with his beautiful wife and his two talented sons. He is still feeding his now uncontrollable wildfire by taking the role of bench boss just like his father before him. He is now coaching his two sons youth hockey team. He is completing the circle of Hejduk Hockey life by bestowing all that he has learned onto the next generation of players. “Coaching, for me, is very different. You see what’s happening in the game but you can only tell the players what to do and it’s up to them to do it. It’s pretty challenging but I do enjoy it.” And still after all of these years he is gaining a new love and perspective of the game of hockey.
Not only is Milan teaching the next generation to play the beautiful game of hockey, he is giving back to the community that has shown him such love and support by joining forces with Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation. By making appearances at Dawg Nation events, hanging out with his fans and has even proudly become a board member of the foundation. “It’s such an amazing group to be apart of, to see such good group of people doing great things for the game of hockey and the people in and around it is a blessing for everyone involved.” He continues to do incredible things in the hockey community through Dawg Nation.
Getting to see Milan play was always precious to me but getting to chat with him about the game is something I’ll never forget. It’s truly clear to see that immense fire inside Milan is still and will forever keep burning. And as soon as that fire is started it is almost impossible to put that fire out.
Well it seems that we are out of time for this one. Until next time, keep your skates sharp and your stick on the ice. See you next time on the bench.