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Hendricks' long wait over

by Julie Robenhymer / Edmonton Oilers

OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC - Matt Hendricks has been waiting 18 years to put on the red, white and blue for Team USA and finally earned the opportunity this year as a member of USA Hockey's Men's National Team at the 2015 IIHF World Championship in Czech Republic.

"When I finally got the call, I was ecstatic!" he said smiling. "You've got all the cliche answers - put the jersey on, represent your country - but for me it meant a little bit more. I've wanted to make one of these teams since I was 15 and was never able to make it, so to finally be able to wear the USA crest at 33 is really exciting for me. I take a lot of pride in wearing that jersey."

Photo by Getty Images.

Hendricks' closest opportunity came in 2001 when he was under consideration for Team USA at the World Junior Championship, but he suffered a broken leg at the summer evaluation camp in Lake Placid and, subsequently, had a slow start to his freshman season at St Cloud State University.

"I was definitely disappointed because I really wanted to make that team, but there was no blame to be pointed anywhere other than the way I performed, so it was a little easier to accept," Hendricks explained.

When USA Hockey started building this year's World Championship team it became apparent pretty quickly that things were going to be a little different this year.

"Normally, we have to wait and see where things fall with the NHL playoffs and then we start to target players that we think might be available and start building that way," explained Jim Johannson, Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations at USA Hockey. "What you saw this year was that that build didn't start in the NHL. It started outside with a lot of college guys and it was by design. Because of the unique and special players that make up that group, it made a lot of sense to start with that type of nucleus and say, 'Ok, now what can we build around this?" and I don't think we started the year with that being the plan, but things fell into place. These guys had terrific seasons and it just made sense. We have to be willing to put players in this setting to see how they do, but we also need to surround them with the right complimentary pieces to help them find success as a team."

For this reason, Johannson looked to the NHL for veteran leadership.

"JJ gave my agent a call and let him know that they were interested in having me on this team and that there were still some calls to be made and some meetings to be had but that my name was high on the list and wanted to know if I was interested," said the Blaine, Minnesota native. "It wasn't even a question. Of course, I was interested."

"He's a character guy and a real versatile player," said Johannson. "He's got value on every team he plays on and he's a guy that's been dying to put on the USA sweater. I know there are years he didn't get the call and was wishing he would have. Knowing that and knowing the group we were going to bring, he's the perfect fit for what this team needs from a leadership standpoint and he brings guys together. He's fun to be around, plays hard, plays honest hockey and he's proud to wear the USA…he's been waiting to do this for a long time and he deserves it."

Photo by Getty Images

Not only is this Hendricks' first international tournament, he's doing it with a pretty significant letter on his chest.

"This is the first time I've worn a C at this level, so that's exciting," Hendricks said. "It's a new learning experience, that's for sure. I consider myself a leader anyway, but to be the guy wearing that letter, it's an exciting thing, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and a lot I can benefit from as well. I'm dealing with a lot of young kids, which is a little bit different from where I've played the past few years, but there's some very talented kids and very respectful individuals in that locker room. I'm lucky to sit next to them."

Said Johannson, "He's a respected guy in the league and I think the respect is going to show very fast here with this group of guys. You become a team, but you also become a family here. We're all in this together for 21 days and Matt epitomizes what we want that experience to be for the players."

Now that he's here, he doesn't plan to alter his game from what he brings to the Edmonton Oilers, where he's played for the past year and a half of his 11-year pro career.

"My role here is similar to that in the NHL, to be the energy guy who plays for the team and doesn't really have any personal goals other than winning hockey games," Hendricks explained. "Guys that are role players and have niches such as mine, don't succeed on teams that aren't successful. High-end players make their hay on scoring goals and putting up points, but guys like me make our hay in the playoffs and winning hockey games and there's only one way to do that in my opinion and that's through hard work and grinding it out and playing with that energy that helps the skilled guys play better as well."

In USA's opening game against Finland, a 5-1 win for the Americans, Hendricks scored twice and was sure to scoop the puck up after his first one as a keepsake for his three-year-old son, Gunnar.

Photo by Getty Images

"I hate to put it this way, but I hope to be in the playoffs every year and not even available to play in this tournament. So, I'm hoping this will be the only time he'll get a game puck from Europe."

Starting with the exhibition game against Austria last week, Hendricks has been on a line with Dylan Larkin and Dan Sexton and they're the only line that hasn't been tweaked in the three games Team USA has played thus far at the tournament, including a 2-1 win over Norway and an impressive 4-2 win over Russia in addition to the Finland game.

"I've been impressed with Larkin's line," said USA head coach, Todd Richards. "I thought they did a really good job. For a young guy, Larkin is really responsible and plays a good 200 foot game. Matt Hendricks play a hard game, goes to the front of the net, battles and competes. Then you've got some speed on the wing too with Sexton. They came together quickly and meshed really well."

"Yeah…geez, playing with Larkin…That's kinda fun," Hendricks said with a big smile. "I get the puck a lot and I find myself in situations where he doesn't really need my help. I dodn't have to leave the front of the net. He's just making plays out there and getting it on net for me to try to catch a rebound or make a screen…I've played with some really skilled players and he's a lot of fun to play with."

The feeling is mutual.

"He's just a hard worker and a really great example of the type of effort you need to put in to be successful in the NHL," said Larkin. "I knew during the training camp in Austria that I wanted to be on his line and I'm really happy that it happened and that we've been able to find success and stay together. He just knows where to be and when to be there and the way we communicate as a line is really good."

While the goals and the points are nice and certainly help the team win, as far as Hendricks is concerned, he wants Team USA to be the hardest working team in the tournament.

"That's our captain saying that and I've got no problems with that," said Richards. "We have skill and we can make plays, but I like our competitiveness and our work ethic a lot. So, I agree with that 100% If we come into it with the mentality that we're going to work our way through a game, we'll have lots of success. If you come in thinking you're going to skill your way through a game, that's when you're going to struggle, so you have to make sure you have those in the right order and Matt is a terrific example of that."

As the only guy on Team USA this is married with kids, he's enjoying his time with all these young bucks too.

"It's a lot of fun having them around….some really good college stories being told, so it's pretty entertaining, but on the ice, their skill is amazing," Hendricks said. "It puts a smile on my face watching them in practice and seeing how easy things are for them stickhandling and shooting….just the way they play the game. It's so smooth. Then, seeing how happy these guys are to be where they are and playing on this team, it makes me a little more excited and raises my energy level and appreciation for the opportunities to play this game and be at this tournament."

Team USA is presently atop the Group B standings with 9 points for three wins and has four more games remaining in the preliminary round - Belarus on Thursday, Denmark on Friday, Slovenia on Sunday and Slovakia on Tuesday - all of which are available live on the TSN family of networks. The top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals.

"It's been well worth the wait and an absolute honor to wear this sweater," Hendricks said. "I really could not be more excited to be here. I just hope we can keep this going and keep improving every game and bring home a medal. That's the goal."

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