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Avs ink Hejduk to one-year deal

by Rick Sadowski
Milan Hejduk is cautiously optimistic that 13 will turn out to be a favorable number for himself and the Colorado Avalanche.
The 35-year-old right wing is returning for a 13th NHL season after signing a one-year, $2.6 million contract on Wednesday that with incentives could net him $3 million, the amount he earned this past season.

"It was always my intention to play for the Avalanche as long as I can and as long as they're interested," Hejduk said.

The Czech Republic native would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1, but he plans to finish his career in an Avalanche uniform. Hejduk and his wife Zlatuse have twin boys, Marek and David, and the family spends a good portion of the offseason in Colorado.

"I've been playing here for such a long time and I like everything about it here – the city, fans, people, the organization," Hejduk said. "Last year was not really a good year for us, but it's still fun for me to play hockey and to play here. I really didn't want to play anywhere else."

The Avalanche owned a 19-10-4 record on Dec. 19 and were competing for first place in the Northwest Division when the season turned into a disaster. Colorado won only 11 of its final 49 games, finished with the second-worst record in the NHL (30-44-8) and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.

"It was a hard year for everybody," Hejduk said. "The first half of the season was decent, pretty good. After Christmas, we absolutely fell apart. But still, even losing so many games, you try to find things to enjoy. Being with the guys in the locker room and on the road and all the practices, I still enjoyed it.

"It was a bad season last year, but I think this team has quite a lot of potential if everybody gets healthy. I think it's going to be a different story. I'm still pretty positive for next year. Definitely we want to bounce back and have a better season than we had last year and hopefully make the playoffs. That's going to be the main goal."

Hejduk had what he called a "decent" season, finishing as the Avalanche's third-leading scorer with 22 goals and 56 points in 71 games. He has 20 or more goals in 11 consecutive seasons, matching Joe Sakic's franchise record.

"To break any of Joe's records would be unbelievable," Hejduk said. "That would be nice. We'll see what happens."

Hejduk didn't know for certain that he wanted to play at least one more season until after the Feb. 28 trading deadline passed.

"I was waiting to see how my health was going to be and if the team was interested or not," he said. "I had a decent season and health-wise I was OK. I had some indication that the team would still be interested in me and possibly signing me.

"I felt better this year than last year physically, which is a good sign. I made my decision based on that, too. It was a big part of it."

Now that Adam Foote has retired, Hejduk is the Avalanche's elder statesman and the last remaining link to the 2001 Stanley Cup championship team.

"Right now there's nobody near me in the age group I'm in," he said. "That's kind of funny."

Hejduk was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the fourth round (No. 87) in the 1994 Entry Draft and he made his NHL debut with the Avalanche in 1998 – three years after the Nordiques moved to Denver.
Looking back, Hejduk never could have envisioned playing this long, and for the same team.

"No, definitely not," he said. "I'm taking it as a bonus. It's not as easy … I'm 35 years old now, so there's not that many guys this age who are playing."

Hejduk ranks third on the Quebec/Colorado all-time list for regular-season games played (910). He's fourth in goals (357), fifth in assists (400) and fourth in points (757). He has 34 goals, 42 assists and 76 points in 112 playoff games.

He finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy voting after scoring 14 goals and a rookie-leading 48 points in 82 games in 1998-99; had 7 goals and 16 assists in 23 playoff games in 2001 when the Avalanche their its second Cup; and he captured the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer with 50 in 2002-03.

"Milan has been a big part of our organization throughout the past 12 seasons," Avalanche GM Greg Sherman said. "He's been one of the top goal scorers in the NHL over the last decade and we look forward to having him back next season."

Hejduk also has played in three Olympics and was a member of the Czech Republic's gold medal-winning team in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. He won a bronze medal at the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
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