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Hejduk honored by awarding of Colorado captaincy

by Rick Sadowski
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Milan Hejduk admitted to feeling a little nervous when he was summoned into Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco's office before practice Monday morning.

"I was thinking, 'What's going on?' I had no idea," Hejduk said.

The Avalanche are struggling with two wins in their past nine games after getting off to a hot start, so a personnel move or two wouldn't have come as a surprise, but the meeting turned out to be a pleasant one when the 35-year-old right wing was named team captain.

Following in the footsteps of Joe Sakic and Adam Foote, Hejduk will wear the coveted "C" for the first time Tuesday night when the Avalanche play in Pittsburgh to open a two-game road trip.

Hejduk, who is from Usti-nad, Czech Republic, is the 10th captain in Quebec/Colorado history and joins former Nordiques star Peter Stastny as its second European-born captain.

Milan Hejduk
Right Wing - COL
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 12
SOG: 55 | +/-: -1
"This is obviously a big honor," Hejduk said. "It's a great thing. I really love it. It was really a surprise for me. It's a really big accomplishment. I've been in the League for a long time and this is really cool."

Hejduk and Paul Stastny -- Peter's son -- served as alternate captains for the first 17 games this season. Stastny will continue to wear an "A" and Sacco will choose a second alternate on a rotating basis.

"He's certainly very deserving of the opportunity," Sacco said of Hejduk, who is in his 13th season with the Avalanche and is the lone remaining member of the 2001 Stanley Cup championship team. He ranks third in franchise history in games played (927), fourth in goals (364) and points (769), and fifth in assists (405).

"Like I said all along, there was a process in place, and it had to play itself out and it did," Sacco said of his decision to wait this long before anointing a captain. "Milan is a leader by example, both on and off the ice. The way he conducts himself, the way he prepares and practices, the way he prepares for games … he's been an Avalanche now for 13 years, he's won a Stanley Cup and he's a product of the system here. He's what we want our young players to strive for."

A fourth-round pick (No. 87) in the 1994 NHL Draft, Hejduk could only speak a few words of English when he joined the Avalanche as a rookie in 1998. Management hired a tutor to help him learn the language, which he also picked up from teammates and from watching television.

"It took me a while," he said. "Every day you come to the locker room and the guys start talking and you have no idea what's going on. The coaches are explaining drills and you have no idea what's going on. You try to be in the back of the line to watch what the other guys do. But I think it makes you stronger mentally when you go through something like this."

Hejduk led all NHL rookies in scoring in 1998-99 with 48 points in 82 games. He finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy, behind then-teammate Chris Drury and Ottawa's Marian Hossa. Since scoring 14 goals that season, Hejduk has produced 20 or more goals in 11 consecutive seasons to tie Sakic's franchise record. He had a career-high 50 goals in 2002-03 to win the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal-scorer.

Hejduk has played in three NHL All-Star Games and in three Olympic Games, winning a gold medal in 1998 and a bronze medal in 2006. Only two Czech-born players, Jaromir Jagr and Patrick Elias, have amassed more points than Hejduk in NHL history, and only Jagr has more goals.

Modest and soft-spoken, Hejduk said he would model his captain's style after Sakic and lead by example.

"I'd like to be something like Joe was," said Hejduk, who leads the Avalanche with 7 goals this season and is tied for second with 12 points. "Obviously those are big shoes to fill. Footie did a great job, too, but he was more vocal than I am or Joe was. When something needed to be said, he said it. If something needs to be said, I will say it, definitely. No question about that."

It's no surprise that Hejduk's teammates welcomed his appointment. Now the team's elder statesman, Hejduk commands a great deal of respect and admiration in the locker room.

"The way he represents himself, day in and day out … for the six years that I've been here and for the 13 years that he's been here, he's kind of the perfect example for guys to follow," Stastny said. "He does everything the right way. He has a lot of respect in the locker room. To me, it was a good decision. He's quiet, but around the guys he opens up. He's not the most vocal guy, but when he does say something, people listen."

Matt Duchene, who called Hejduk "one of my closest friends on the team," said the new captain isn't always as serious as he appears to be in public.

"He's one of the funniest guys on the team," Duchene said. "It's funny because when (the Avalanche's) dads were here (earlier this month), my dad said he was surprised by how light-spirited Hedgie was because he's so serious on the ice. He works real hard on the ice, but he's a bit of a goofball sometimes, which is awesome. It's great to have a guy who can really relate on all levels. I'm really happy for him and I'm sure this will give the team a bit of a boost."

Hejduk and his wife, Zlatuse, have 7-year-old twin sons, Marek and David, and the family splits the offseason between Denver and the Czech Republic. An avid golfer and tennis player, Hejduk is active in several hockey clinics and charities. He was nominated last year for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the Colorado chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
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