All the way back in 1998, my wife Annie and I were season ticket holders for the Colorado Avalanche, because at that time we didn’t have four kids in little league sports, and we still had something that resembled a life. It turns out kids are a pretty significant time suck- who knew?
Anyway, we went to a pre-season game down at the old McNichols Arena, and the contest featured mostly rookies and players that were on the borderline of making the big club. And during that game, there was a guy that stood out head and shoulders above the rest. I remember it like it was yesterday- I told Annie, “I don’t know who that Hedge Duck guy is, but he is going to be one hell of a hockey player”.
Fast forward to over 17 years later. Milan Hejduk played 14 seasons in Colorado, and is second in almost every Avalanche career scoring category to some dude named Sakic. In over a thousand games with the club, he scored 375 goals, and picked up 430 assists.
He also was on the All-Rookie Team in 1999 (I was right, thank you), scored 41 goals on a stacked Avs team that won the Stanley Cup in 2001, played in three All Star Games, won the NHL goal scoring title in 2002, and played on three Olympic teams for his native Czech Republic (gold medal in 1998). Other than that, he had a pretty average career.
But as good of a hockey player that “Hedgie” was, he might be a better human being. I’ll explain…
Milan got his first taste of Dawg Nation in 2014, when he presented a signed picture with a special message to our own Cody Beekman, who was paralyzed in an auto accident. He followed that up in 2015, when he met Cody again, surprising him with dinner and a few beers. And since then, he has always been available to sign merchandise for auction items, and participate in some of our Dawg Nation events, like a bubble hockey tourney last year.
But on the second weekend of this January, the man took it even a step further. He happily agreed to make himself available to play on the highest bidding team in our inaugural Dawg Nation pond hockey tournament at Copper Mountain. A team called “5280” shelled out $830 for his services (all going to our charity), and he made it well worth their while, leading them to the championship in the highest division. And he wasn’t a former All-Star smiling for the cameras and mailing in a half-hearted performance. He played hard. The competitive juices were flowing, for sure.
Then on Saturday night, during our big reception at the tournament, even after spending the entire day playing three hockey games, and playing with a bunch of kids in our Pups vs. Pros exhibition, he was still right there, signing every autograph, and posing for every picture. The Avalanche donated a suite for one of their games as a silent auction item, and Milan sweetened the pot by agreeing to come to that game and spend the evening with the winners. Are you kidding me? Is that above and beyond, or what?
But wait, there’s more. A couple of days after the pond tourney, a group of Dawgs went to the hospital to pay a visit to Dave Repsher, a Flight For Life nurse who had been badly burned in a helicopter crash, and was the recipient of our weekend’s festivities (over $80,000- not too shabby). In that group was Milan Hejduk.
Now, a lot of athletes participate in “charity” functions, but in many cases, there is an appearance fee involved- sometimes a pretty hefty one. It’s a very common practice.
Boys and girls, Hedgie did not take one thin dime, Euro, Koruna, or whatever the hell the currency is in the Czech Republic. Zilch.
But for me, there is one thing I’ll always remember about the pond hockey weekend, and our friend Hedgie. Wait, I take that back. There are two things. The first is that I’m writing this article two days after the tourney ended, and I still can’t feel my freaking ears. I was dumb enough to be stationed on an open platform above the pond all weekend, and it was colder than a mother in law’s heart. The second thing is a lot more important.
Friday night, our hockey tournament was in big trouble. The ice on the Copper Mountain pond broke down badly during play, and was completely FUBAR, if you know that expression. The only possible way we were going to be able to play games as scheduled Saturday morning would be to flood the pond with hundreds of gallons of water, and pray to L. Ron Hubbard it would freeze, even though snow was falling to insulate the ice.
Our only source for water was in the Zamboni garage, which was about 50 yards from the pond. We needed volunteers to mule that water in containers ranging from puck buckets to trash cans. So at 11:00 PM, our president, Cappy Richardson, went into the bar next to the pond searching for bodies. Guess who was the first to jump up to help. Yep, our man Hedgie, along with our other two pros at the event, Aaron MacKenzie and Derek Armstrong.
So these three hockey players, who had done plenty already, plus another dozen half-drunk heroes, put down their beers, labored with buckets that were at least 50 pounds, and helped to save our collective asses. The ice set up well enough, and we were able to avoid complete disaster. The rest of the tourney went right on schedule. You the man, L. Ron Hubbard.
Milan joked later on that he had never had a job- his first paid gig was as a hockey player. “Is that what work feels like? I hate that!”
This is reason number 439 why hockey players are the best people in the world. That’s no joke- I believe that with all my heart. I’ve seen it so many times in my five years with Dawg Nation.
This column was originally going to be a sit down interview with Milan Hejduk, and we’ll do that sometime in the future. I can’t wait- we actually have two things in common (No, really. Shut up.) We’re both hockey dads (he has twin boys- gee, I wonder if they’re any good), and we both love English Premiere League football (that’s soccer to you common folk). He’s a Manchester United guy, but I’ll try to look past that.
But I thought this time it was more important, in this age of the poorly behaved athlete, to point out at least one who not only received the gift of huge talent, but also has some huge character to go with it.
You’re part of the family now, Hedgie. You’re a Dawg forever.