ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - Last year, Matt Hendricks was on cloud nine to finally have the chance to wear the red, white and blue for USA Hockey at the 2015 IIHF World Championship in Czech Republic, and to have that "C" stitched on his jersey was even better. Helping the team win a bronze medal was icing on the cake.
Now that he's back and once again wearing the "C" for Team USA at this year's event in Russia, the 34-year-old from Minnesota is hungry for more.
"I want to finish better than we did last year," Hendricks said. "It's definitely a goal of mine, but there are a lot of hills and valleys we have to go through before we get to the really tough games so we have to set ourselves up to be in a position to be playing in them first."
He also has a better idea of what it takes to win, from knowing how to play the angles on a wider sheet of ice to developing team chemistry.
"When I look back on last year, I think we found success because we came together as a team," he said. "It's just a matter of trying to include everyone and let them know that it's ok to talk and not be so quiet. Sometimes when you first walk into the room it's like they're a bunch of mice, so you just have to get everyone talking and let them open up a bit and be themselves."
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With 10 players who have less than 10 NHL games under their belt and three more coming off their rookie season, he knows that this tournament will be a big learning curve for most of them and that leading this team will need to be a group effort, including from some of the younger guys.
"We're a real young team and as a group, we don't have a lot of NHL experience and we need to bridge the gap a little bit," said Hendricks. "Like [Connor Murphy], he's still a young guy but he's a veteran on this team and I told [Dylan] Larkin, 'You know all these young guys. It's time to step up a little bit and lead the way for them.' It's going to take a group effort in every aspect if we want to go home with a medal."
Head coach John Hynes, has no doubt that Hendricks is the right man for the job.
"It was a fairly easy decision. He was the captain of a bronze medal team and he did a great job last year, so when we knew he wanted to come back, we felt like he was the right guy for that role again," he explained. "The energy and the mentorship he brings on and off the ice is really important to us."
His energy and fun-loving attitude shows itself often during practice. Like during Team USA's second practice when they were working on special teams and the coaches sent a group of typical penalty killers, including Hendricks, over the boards for a quick turn on the power play. Some tic-tac-toe passing and a quick goal later, Hendricks yelled out to assistant coach David Quinn, who is in charge of the power play, "Quinner, you're a hell of a coach!" which earned more than a few laughs from his teammates.
"I just wanted to make sure the coaches were paying attention in case they were looking for a new unit. I wouldn't mind some time on the power play," Hendricks explained with a smile. "It was perfect…happened just like we planned."
For everything he brings to the team both on and off the ice, his USA teammates love him.
He's the ultimate pro and he's such a good guy in the locker room," said Murphy, one of the assistant captains. "He's so approachable and easy to talk to. You can ask him questions about different guys he's played with and learn a few things through the stories he has to tell. He's great. We're very lucky to have him."