The Colorado Avalanche have only ever known two captains – Joe Sakic and Adam Foote – but when Foote decided to hang up his skates and retire at the end of last season, the team began a search for the third captain in franchise history. But it was clear there was only one choice – Milan Hejduk.
Earlier this week the Avalanche announced that the 35-year-old would be the team’s next captain, which despite coming 17 games into the season seemed to be a decision that earned fan and player approval. Hejduk takes over a young, skillful team that has struggled to find an identity and remain consistent this season. With 17 points in 18 games, many expected a better start from the Avalanche but hope Hejduk can lead the team to back to the playoffs after they failed to qualify last season.
Hejduk is a home-grown product – drafted 87th overall by the Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft – and spent time with HC Pardubice of the Czech league in his native country while the Nordiques were packing up and moving west to Denver. In 1998 he joined the team and within just a few seasons won a Stanley Cup – the franchise’s second since their 1995 move – and has since played more games in an Avalanche jersey than anyone else, competing in 928 contests.
So why has it taken him over 12 seasons to earn the honor as Colorado’s captain?
As we mentioned, there were two future Hall of Famers who preceded him as captain and over the years Hejduk has shown doesn’t fit the mold of the typical team leader. He is a soft-spoken voice in the locker room and prefers to lead by example to teach the younger players. Colorado is the youngest team in the league with an average age of just over 26, so Hejduk has plenty of knowledge to pass down.
“[Foote] did a great job, but he was more vocal than I am or Joe [Sakic] was. When something needed to be said, he said it,” Hejduk said about his former teammates. “If something needs to be said, I will say it, definitely. No question about that.”
Hejduk served as an alternate captain the last three seasons, always conducting himself in a positive way both in practice and in games. His teammates listen to what he says, which makes what he does say that much more important but he typically lets his play do the talking. In 18 games this season, Hejduk has 13 points and has shown throughout his career that he is an all around threat on offense, though he lacks a little of the defensive skill set.
Next season he will become an unrestricted free agent but we doubt, after being named captain, that he will be going anywhere and will probably finish his career with the team he started it with. That has become quite a rarity in this day and age.
Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.