DENVER --Milan Hejduk could speak only a few words of English when he joined the Colorado Avalanche as a rookie for the 1998-99 season, and he had a few doubts about his ability to make the transition from his native Czech Republic to North America and the National Hockey League.
Little could Hejduk have known then that he would develop into one of the NHL's top forwards, win a goal-scoring title, help the Avalanche win a Stanley Cup and be named team captain for the 2011-12 season.
The 6-foot, 190-pound right wing, now in his 14th NHL season, will become the first player in Avalanche history to play 1,000 regular-season games Monday when Colorado faces the Dallas Stars at the Pepsi Center. He will join Joe Sakic as the second player in Quebec/Colorado franchise history to play in 1,000 games (Sakic played 508 games with the Nordiques and 870 games with the Avalanche).
Avalanche forward Milan Hejduk is set to become the 30th player in NHL history to skate in 1,000 games while spending an entire career with one team and the ninth Czech-born player to play in 1,000 games. (Photo: Getty Images)
"It's a big number," said Hejduk, who will be honored in a pre-game ceremony. "I didn't think I would ever get there, but it's gone pretty fast. This is it, right? I came to the NHL when I was a little older; I started at age 22. It's a lot of games. I guess you go game by game and you don't think about it much when you start playing. You're happy to play your first NHL game."
Hejduk made his NHL debut Oct. 10, 1998 against Ottawa and had a goal and an assist in a 5-3 loss. A fourth-round selection (No. 87) in the 1994 NHL Draft, Hejduk finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy in 1998-99 after leading all rookies in scoring with 48 points. He played a pivotal role when the Avalanche captured the Stanley Cup in 2001 and he won the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy in 2002-03 with a league-leading 50 goals.
Hejduk, who has three assists in eight games this season, ranks fourth in franchise history in goals (371), fifth in assists (426) and fourth in points (797). He has 34 goals and 42 assists in 112 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
"I never expected a career like this, so I'm pretty happy," Hejduk, who will turn 37 on Feb. 14, said. "I'm pretty happy I've played for one organization. It's pretty special. I've stayed healthy and shown a decent level of play, so the team wants to keep you."
Hejduk scored 20 or more goals in 11 consecutive seasons to tie Sakic's franchise record before ending with 14 goals last season to match his total as a rookie. He's no longer a prolific scorer and is on a one-year contract that probably will be his last. But he is a valuable team leader and one of the Avalanche's most respected and liked players.
"He's been just a great pro, the consummate professional, a great teammate," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "He's somebody that, when young players come into this organization, they should look at him and model themselves after him. He's prepared, he's fit, always in good shape. He just goes about his business in the right fashion every day. It's a great accomplishment for a great person.
"When you look at all the player movement now in the League, the ability to stay with one club is pretty impressive. His game on the ice has been impressive enough, but I think one of the main reasons why he's stayed with this organization is because of the type of person that he is."
Hejduk will become the 30th player in NHL history to skate in 1,000 games while spending an entire career with one team and the ninth Czech-born player to play in 1,000 games.
"It is special, especially for a Czech player," Avalanche defenseman and fellow Czech Jan Hejda said. "We are a small country in Europe, and it's always nice to see somebody play 1,000 games in the best league in the world. We all know each other as professional hockey players. It's a big deal."
"He's been just a great pro, the consummate professional, a great teammate. He's somebody that, when young players come into this organization, they should look at him and model themselves after him. He's prepared, he's fit, always in good shape. He just goes about his business in the right fashion every day. It's a great accomplishment for a great person." -- Avalanche coach Joe Sacco on Milan Hejduk reaching 1,000-game mark
Hejda, who joined the Avalanche as a free agent before the 2011-12 season, lives about a five-minute drive from Hejduk's home in a Denver suburb and they drive together to practices and games.
"He's a great family man, spends a lot of time with his kids," Hejda said.
Hejduk and his wife Zlatuse have 8-year-old twin sons, Marek and David. They have split offseasons between Colorado and the Czech Republic, and Hejduk is having a home built in the Denver area.
"I asked him one time if he ever thought of testing the [free agent] market and he said, 'No, I love it here too much,'" Avalanche center Matt Duchene said. "That's a pretty cool set-up. I watch him every day and try to pick up things from him."
Despite his impressive numbers, Hejduk has played under the radar throughout his career because the spotlight always shined more brightly on former Avalanche stars like Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy.
"You look at the stars that came through this organization, guys that were here before him and were kind of the face of the franchise," Duchene said. "But when you think of the Avalanche, Milan's name is definitely one that pops us. When I talk about the old teams and the championship team in '01, I always mention Hedgie [Hejduk]."
Hejduk called that Stanley Cup-winning team his most memorable hockey moment, but he also was a member of three Olympic teams. He won a gold medal in 1998 and a bronze medal in 2006.
"A lot of good memories," he said. "But I think when you're done with your career is when you can kind of look back. When you're still playing, you still focus on the next game and the next game. You just try and prepare for the games."