On a night commemorating the career of the man known for his magical hands, the Colorado Avalanche delivered a sendoff that was nothing short of magical.
In front of a sellout crowd of 18,046, the Colorado Avalanche raised the jersey of Milan Hejduk to the rafters on Saturday evening, joining alumni Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, Adam Foote, and Raymond Bourque. Of the preceding names to have had their numbers retired by the organization, Hejduk is the only player to have played his entire career for the Avalanche, amassing 1040 games throughout a fourteen year span.
Sakic spoke highly of his former teammate, citing Hejduk’s puck-handling skills and his ability to make his linemates better players. Of Hejduk’s eleven straight seasons of scoring at least twenty goals, Sakic said, “In any era, that’s tough to do.”
The current Avalanche roster sat on the bench during the ceremony, looking on as Sakic reminisced about Hejduk’s accomplishments, highlighting the Stanley Cup victory they shared in 2001. To the surprise of Hejduk and delight of everyone in attendance, the Stanley Cup emerged onto Pepsi Center ice, carried by Alex Tanguay and Peter Forsberg, Hejduk’s linemates from that season. The Pepsi Center faithful showered applause upon the former “AMP” linemates as they carried Lord Stanley towards center ice for the first time in nearly seventeen years.
Addressing the sellout crowd at Pepsi Center, Hejduk shared anecdotes of life growing up in the Czech Republic and from his international playing career. He also reflected on the milestones he achieved during his career playing in an Avalanche sweater, from scoring his first career goal in his first NHL game against the Ottawa Senators, to scoring the very first goal at Pepsi Center, to winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy in 2003, which was on hand during the ceremony.
Hejduk also spoke of his brief tenure as Avalanche captain, succeeding Adam Foote in 2011. “Being named captain in 2011 was nothing short of a privilege,” Hejduk said of his captaincy. “To follow iconic Joe Sakic and Adam Foote was not an easy task, but I was so proud to wear the Colorado Avalanche uniform, especially with a “C” stitched on my jersey.”
He thanked several members of the Avalanche staff past and present, as well as several of his former coaches and teammates. Hejduk also thanked Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, Semyon Varlamov, and his successor as captain in 2013, Gabe Landeskog, the only active members of the roster who played alongside him. “There’s plenty of young talent, and the future is very bright for the organization,” Hejduk said of the youthful core now representing the franchise.
Hejduk was accompanied on the ice by his wife Zlata and their sons, Marek and David. He thanked Zlata for her patience with him throughout his career, especially on game nights where he was slow to leave the locker room, which he called, “impressive”. This elicited a laugh from the crowd, especially when Hejduk joked that his sons also, “are very capable of sitting fully dressed in the locker room when all of their teammates are long gone, so I guess I deserve it!”
“I feel strongly about giving back to this community through all the charities and coaching the next generation of young hockey players,” Hejduk said, referring to his continued involvement in youth hockey around Denver. His youth hockey team, the Colorado Thunderbirds, skated Hejduk’s retirement banner onto the ice alongside his sons in a gesture of respect towards their head coach prior to the banner being raised to the Pepsi Center rafters.
Lastly, Hejduk expressed his gratitude to the sellout crowd in attendance. “Thank you for welcoming my entire family here, a place we now call home,” he said, amid a chorus of cheers. “Thank you for your great support, and for this tremendous honor!”
As much as the night belonged to the Avalanche’s past, reflecting on arguably the career of the greatest right wing in Avalanche history, the Avalanche of the present had a tall task ahead of them. The third-youngest roster in the NHL went up against its most bitter division rival, the Minnesota Wild. The backdrop of the evening couldn’t have been set up any better: the salute to the legendary hometown hero before facing off against the hated villains who, as many Avalanche fans are painfully aware, have dealt the Avalanche several tough losses in recent years.
Saturday night’s affair, however, would prove to be a different story.
The Avalanche would set the tone with a solid start in the opening period, using its speed to create some early chances against goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Minutes after canceling out an early Minnesota power play, Avalanche rookie Tyson Jost would beat Minnesota’s Ryan Suter to a loose puck, feeding it to linemate Colin Wilson behind the Minnesota net. Wilson found Gabriel Bourque in the slot, who fired the puck over Dubnyk’s shoulder to give the Avalanche a 1-0 lead, scoring his first goal of the season.
After nullifying another Minnesota power play, the Avalanche went on the offensive again, courtesy of the top line. After a shot attempt by Mikko Rantanen was thwarted by Dubnyk, Rantanen would corral the puck and send it to Nathan MacKinnon, who slid it to an unguarded Patrik Nemeth. With plenty of time and space, Nemeth rifled a shot under Dubnyk’s blocker for his third goal of the season, giving the Avalanche a 2-0 lead as Dubnyk slammed his stick against the post in frustration.
Minnesota wouldn’t let the Avalanche out of the first period without reminding them that they weren’t going to go away quietly. Positioned at the top of the crease, Avalanche goaltender Jonathan Bernier snuffed out a point shot from Minnesota defenseman Jonas Brodin, but Eric Staal snapped the rebound past Bernier, getting Minnesota on the board and cutting the Avalanche lead in half with seconds remaining in the first period.
Tensions began to rise in the second period. With Minnesota’s Matt Cullen already assessed a slashing penalty against Erik Johnson, A.J. Greer and Marcus Foligno would briefly tangle up with each other, both receiving matching roughing minors. On the ensuing power play, a short-handed shot attempt by Minnesota’s Daniel Winnik deflected off the Avalanche crossbar. Alexander Kerfoot collected the loose puck, streaked into the Minnesota zone and zipped a shot towards Dubnyk. Carl Soderberg got his blade on the puck and re-directed the shot just inside the left post, giving the Avalanche a 3-1 lead on his eighth goal of the season and first of the contest.
The Avalanche’s top line continued to frustrate Dubnyk. After a pair of point-blank saves on both MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, Dubnyk froze, believing he had collected the puck in his catcher. However, the puck wound up sliding to a waiting Rantanen, who lifted the puck past the prone goalie for his fifteenth goal of the season, extending the Avalanche’s lead to 4-1. Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau would challenge the goal, but the ruling on ice was upheld, and Minnesota lost its timeout for the balance of the game.
As was the case in the first period, Minnesota would strike again in the waning seconds of the second period. With Avalanche defenseman Anton Lindholm serving an interference penalty, former University of Denver Pioneer Jason Zucker would fire the puck on net. Staal collected the rebound in the slot and fired a high shot over Bernier’s shoulder, reducing the Minnesota deficit to two. The Avalanche would carry a 4-2 lead into the second intermission.
The nightmare for Dubnyk and the Wild continued in the third period. Zucker would get penalized for interference after sliding into Bernier. After Dubnyk denied two shot attempts from Avalanche winger Nail Yakupov (and giving Soderberg a few body shots with his catching glove and stick in the process), he was unable to deny Soderberg again on the doorstep of his crease. Soderberg tucked the puck underneath Dubnyk for his second goal of the game, putting the Avalanche up by a score of 5-2 and restoring his team’s three-goal lead.
The powder keg exploded shortly thereafter: Kerfoot bumped Dubnyk in the crease while attempting to establish position. The enraged Dubnyk sent Kerfoot down to the ice, pummeling the young Avalanche center with his blocker as he lay prone on his stomach amid a chorus of jeers from the crowd. The Avalanche skaters raced to protect their rookie, while Minnesota responded in defense of its goaltender. Dubnyk was assessed a four minute roughing minor penalty, while Kerfoot was given a two minute goaltender interference penalty, further riling up the fans in attendance already incensed with the lack of earlier intervention from the on-ice officials. MacKinnon would turn those jeers into cheers, scoring on the Avalanche’s man-advantage, giving his team a 6-2 lead and ending Dubnyk’s night in the crease, as Minnesota backup goaltender Alex Stalock came on in relief of the besieged netminder.
Tempers flared again later in the period, as Staal took exception to a strong check delivered to him by Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov as he attempted to enter the Avalanche zone. The pair locked up briefly before Zadorov decisively tackled Staal down to the ice. Both skaters were assessed matching double-minor penalties for roughing.
The Avalanche didn’t let Stalock escape the crease unscathed, either. After collecting a zone clearing attempt by Bourque, Wilson raced down the left wing boards into the Minnesota end. With Stalock coming far out of his crease to challenge the shot, Wilson threaded a pass through the slot between Foligno and Minnesota defenseman Gustav Olofsson to Jost, who raced into the zone on the rush with Wilson. Stalock could only watch helplessly as Jost buried the shot into the wide open net for his third goal of the season, giving the Avalanche a 7-2 lead, which would be the game’s final score.
Soderberg was named first star of the game for his two-goal outing in the contest. Rantanen and MacKinnon were named second and third star, respectively, for their identical three point stats (1G/2A/3PTS) during the game. The Avalanche also extended their season-long winning streak to five games as they headed into their league-mandated “bye” week. The victory, combined with a loss by the Anaheim Ducks to the Calgary Flames, secured the Avalanche sole possession of final Western Conference wild card position.
The final chapter in the Milan Hejduk story, co-authored by the hands of the young Avalanche roster, was certainly deserving of a happy ending.
It was more than that. It was magic.