"Eighteen years ago, I never could have envisioned I would be standing here tonight in front of you, trying to deliver this acceptance speech."
Deep in the belly of the Denver Marriott City Center on Tuesday night, another of the Colorado Avalanche's many legendary players was speaking to the sellout crowd at the 52nd annual Colorado Sports Hall of Fame banquet.
"In the fall of 1998, I landed here in Denver for my first NHL training camp. The beginning wasn't easy. I could not speak any word of English, and it made life pretty difficult, as you could see."
Milan Hejduk, the Avs' sixth inductee into the state's record books, stood at the podium and recounted his first experience in the city he now calls home as former teammates Brett Clark, Ken Klee, and Pierre Turgeon, as well as his family, looked on.
"The Avalanche organization was very helpful. They provided me with an English tutor who worked with me after every practice, literally for several months," Hejduk continued. "I had a lot of fun learning the language, and I'm really proud to say that just a few weeks ago I became an American citizen."
The 40-year-old spent his entire career with a single franchise, from being drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft to retiring with a legacy left behind after the 2012-13 season.
The Usti, Czech Republic, native led all rookies in regular season (48) and playoff scoring (12) in his first season and also paced them in assists (34) and game-winning goals (5-tied). He finished third in Calder Trophy voting.
This kind of play typified Hejduk's next 13 years in a burgundy and blue sweater, which included winning a Stanley Cup in 2001, representing Colorado at three NHL All-Star Games (2000, 2001 and 2009), reaching the 20-goal mark in 11 consecutive seasons (1999-00 to 2010-11) and serving as the third team captain in the organization's history (2011-12).
"My third season was a special one. Right from the very start, we were all focused on the same objective. We ended up winning the President's Trophy with 118 points, and we secured home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs," Hejduk said in his speech. "It turned out to be a key factor for winning the Stanley Cup. It doesn't get any better than winning the Stanley Cup at Pepsi Center in front of our own fans. It's something I will always remember."
By the time Hejduk hung up his skates, he owned a variety of different spots in the franchise record books. He sits second in game-winning goals (59), fourth in goals (375) and points (805), fifth in assists (430), is the all-time leader in overtime tallies (nine), is second in regular-season games played (1,020) and was the first player in Avalanche history to reach the 1,000-game mark. He also brought home the club's first Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goalscorer after putting away 50 markers during the 2002-03 campaign.
"I was surrounded by outstanding athletes, future Hall of Famers like Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Adam Foote, Peter Forsberg. They were tremendous athletes," Hejduk continued. "A couple years later we added Rob Blake and Ray Bourque. All these guys were phenomenal athletes and also great human beings. They showed me the way to success, and I just followed in their footsteps."
With his induction into the 2016 class, Hejduk joined former teammates Roy, Sakic, Foote and Forsberg and former Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix as Colorado Sports Hall of Fame honorees.
"Obviously, it's a huge honor to be part of this. It's 52 years of history, a lot of great names, and I'm just really humbled to be part of this," Hejduk said before the event. "It's a huge honor. If you go down the list of names that have been inducted over the years, it's a privilege and an honor to be part of this group."
The Class of 2016 also included legendary Trinidad Junior State College coach Jim Toupal, former Denver Rockets and Nuggets basketball star Ralph Simpson, long-time Eaton baseball coach Jim Danley, track and field standout and educator Rhonda Branford-Green-the first African-American female to be inducted-and storied Colorado Rockies all-star third baseman Vinny Castilla.
Being recognized for his local achievements is particularly special to the former captain as he loves Colorado and the United States so much that he became an American citizen.
"The last missing [piece of the] puzzle of our family [was me] becoming an American citizen. I feel like Colorado has been home for a long time. This is just being official, being a citizen, but this has been home for a long time," he said. "We love the people here. We love the whole state. We like the weather. When I played, the team was always great and the organization was always first class. So why not stay here?"
The Colorado Sports Hall of Fame also honored local athletes Nikia Davenport, Special Olympics Colorado; Mallory Pugh, Mountain Vista High School; Paul Roberts, Lyons High School; Adrianna Culbert, Colorado State University; Wesley Berg, University of Denver; Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies; and Christian McCaffrey, Stanford University. The Denver Broncos were also commended for winning Super Bowl 50.