CENTENNIAL, Colo. – Milan Hejduk still laces up his skates every day and heads out onto the ice, where his notoriously quick wrists continue to send puck after puck skittering into the net.
Only now he spends his time mentoring his 10-year-old twin sons, not rookie NHL players.
“I feel like they’re at the age now where they need me more now than ever,” said Hejduk, who announced his retirement Monday.
The announcement put an official end to his stellar 14-year NHL career with the Quebec/Colorado franchise that included the 2001 Stanley Cup. He played another six seasons in his native Czech Republic.
In addition to coaching youth hockey, Hejduk is also hitting the slopes and the links aplenty, so walking away from professional hockey, he said, “wasn’t that difficult, really.”
“It feels like I was retired for a while,” said Hejduk, 38, who hadn’t played this season after being limited by injuries to a career-low 29 games during the league’s truncated season a year ago. “It was almost preparation for retirement.”
Hejduk said he actually thought about calling it quits before last season but was nine games shy of 1,000 NHL games, so he returned in 2013 and finished his career with 375 goals in 1,020 games.
Only two Czech-born players have registered more points in NHL history: Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias.
“I was lucky enough to play for one organization, the Colorado Avalanche and I had a blast. It was awesome. I had a great time,” Hejduk said at the team’s practice facility as the sound of pucks hitting the boards and skates shaving the ice could be heard below.
Former teammate Joe Sakic, now the Avalanche’s executive vice-president of hockey operations, said Hejduk had incredible hands: “His release, along with his hockey sense and vision, made him one of the premier goal scorers in the NHL during his prime.”
Sakic said nobody knew much about Hejduk when he first arrived at training camp in Colorado Springs in 1998.
“Guys just looked at each other and commented on how good his hands were,” Sakic said. “Great hands. Elusive skater. Very shifty. … We knew right then he was going to be a special player.”
Hejduk was a grinder and never was much of a talker.
“He wasn’t a rah-rah guy,” Sakic said. “He came to work every day. He prepared. Nobody worked harder than him on the ice. Milan was a competitor. I’m sure he’s instilling that with his boys and his hockey teams. He didn’t say much, but a great sense of humour. He is a great guy to be around. He’s just a perfect teammate, did whatever was asked of him, made everybody around him better.”
Hejduk said he’s not surprised Sakic and goaltender-turned-coach Patrick Roy have turned around the Avalanche’s fortunes this season.
“As a hockey fan now, that’s what you’re really looking for is to watch an exciting hockey team and that’s what the Avalanche are,” Hejduk said.
Hejduk and his wife built a home in the Denver suburb of Parker that has a rink nearby, and the couple plan to continue making Colorado their home while visiting Europe for a couple of months every summer.
Hejduk said he doesn’t really miss the NHL.
“Basically I’ve been out of the game since late April,” he said. “So, not really, because I’m spending more time with the family and enjoying stuff that I couldn’t do before. Plus, not being totally out of hockey. Like I mentioned before, I’m basically on the ice every day just having fun with the kids. That’s probably eased the pain a little bit.”