I have a confession to make: I am a bandwagon Colorado Avalanche fan.
Living in rural Iowa, every young sports fan in the state eventually reaches a pivotal crossroads in their life: choosing what team to root for. Living in a state with no major professional sports teams means most people simply adopt a local city (usually Chicago) as the de facto sports market to follow. If you’re a hockey fan in Iowa, chances are you’re a Blackhawks fan. And, I must admit, living near Waterloo (home of the USHL’s Black Hawks), I briefly flirted with this choice, most notably marked by the sweet Chicago Blackhawks Starter jacket I got for Christmas in kindergarten.
But I was also a contrarian. I loved rooting for teams others around me didn’t support. I decided the Hawks weren’t for me, and I’d rather pick my teams a la carte.
Enter the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche.
I intently watched the finals that year, intrigued by the idea of two new teams in the NHL battling for the Stanley Cup. And while the Panthers awesome (at least, to a first grader) tradition of throwing plastic rats onto the ice after goals seemed great, the Avalanche were just so fun. Patrick Roy was a brick wall. Peter Forsberg could seemingly do whatever he wanted with the puck. Joe Sakic was Joe Sakic. When Uwe Krupp scored the Cup clinching goal well past my bedtime, I became a lifelong Avalanche fan. I jumped right onto that bandwagon, and loved the stars on that team.
But one player took a lot longer for me to fully appreciate. Milan Hejduk.
He didn’t lay people out like Adam Foote. He didn’t deke and dangle like Forsberg. He didn’t have the intense stoicism and focus that we loved from Joe Sakic. He was a quiet, calm winger a lethal shot that made everything he did look easy. Because of that, he was easy for me to overlook as a young kid. I was a much bigger fan of the bizarre antics of Patrick Roy than the quiet production of Hejduk. But that’s what I appreciated most from him as I grew up.
Milan Hejduk was the quintessential hard-working, productive player that the hockey world loves. If he were Canadian instead of Czech, he’d probably be Don Cherry’s favorite player. But, even as he ended his career as an Avalanche legend, I always felt that he never got his moment in the sun. He is second all-time to Joe Sakic in games played, goals, points, goals created, power play goals, game winning goals, goals on-ice for, and point shares in Avalanche history. He is third all-time in Avalanche assists. Fourth in plus/minus. Second in shots, if that’s your thing. He had the benefit of playing with incredibly talented teammates, but was also overshadowed by them at times.
I was too busy watching/worshipping Joe Sakic. I was too busy rooting for Adam Deadmarsh and Ian Laperriere as they beat up some poor opponent. I was too busy watching Rob Blake deliver punishing hip checks. I was too busy watching Patrick Roy do... whatever Patrick Roy was doing that night. Really, the only thing that ever made me take notice of Hejduk was when he delivered the greatest goal celebration of all time.
I know, it seems strange to talk about somebody that played at such a high level for so long as being underrated or under-appreciated, especially by a fanbase that largely figured out just how special Milan Hejduk was long before I did. But he was such a talented force on the ice in much the same way that Joe Sakic was that Hejduk remained in his shadow.
When Joe Sakic retired my freshman year of college, I started to fully appreciate what Milan Hejduk had always brought to the team. He wasn’t a guy that asked for the spotlight. He simply loved what he did, and was damn good at it. He didn’t need the approval and attention of others to know he was doing great things, something that took me way too long in life to learn.
Which is why Milan Hejduk is my favorite Avalanche player of all-time.
I have no doubt that he will be incredibly humble throughout tonight’s ceremonies that will culminate in #23 forever hanging in the rafters of the Pepsi Center. But I look forward to the hockey world giving Milan Hejduk the attention that he never asked for, and celebrating a tremendous career that took me far too long to appreciate.