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The legend of Larry: How Hendrickson became synonymous with local hockey

Local luminary, father of Wild assistant Darby and 2019 State of Hockey Legacy Award recipient left imprints at every level

by Phil Ervin / Wild.com

Larry Hendrickson's legacy

State of Hockey Award winner Larry Hendrickson

Larry Hendrickson left an indelible mark on the State of Hockey, and his legacy remains via the Hendrickson Foundation

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Larry Hendrickson lay helplessly in the throes of death.

A minister read him his last rites. By the second, Larry's risk of suffocating grew greater, his last breath closer.

"Nobody in the history of the hospital he went to had ever survived this type of break," his son, Danny Hendrickson, says today.

This is not how the legend of Larry ends. It's how it begins.

With a broken neck.

A vicious check from behind during senior league hockey in the 1970s nearly claimed Larry's life before it had a chance to get started. But he walked away a changed man, one dedicated to the euphoria of victory and the lessons only sport can teach.

Nine months stuck in a body cast and halo give a man time to reflect. It was during this time that Larry found his faith. Faith in God. Faith in the power of athletics, particularly hockey, to move mountains.

"He said, 'When I get out of this cast, I'm going to be in better shape than anybody that I know,'" Danny said. "But on top of that … he understands how precious life is. He could've been in a wheelchair or not even made it."

A curveball, Larry called it.

What followed was a journey that took Larry from strength and conditioning coach for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, Minnesota North Stars and University of Minnesota to decorated high school coach to philanthropist whose work has raised tens of thousands of dollars so people with disabilities can play hockey in Minnesota. People who have been thrown curveballs.

People like Larry.

His house became a revolving door of a who's who in State of Hockey lore. Herb Brooks, Neal Broten, Lou Nanne, Andrew Brunette -- all were frequent guests at the Hendricksons' Richfield home. A personality and bravado to go with a chiseled physique, abundance of energy and undying passion for inviting folks over to talk hockey strategy, philosophy and narrative -- complete with a Coors Light or Jack and Coke in hand -- made Larry the stuff of lore.


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He wore shorts in the winter. He loved big trucks and big dogs (120-pound Chesapeake Bay retrievers, specifically). A man's man if there ever was one.

When he did finally skate his final shift this past summer -- more than 40 years after having screws inserted into his dimples to help him survive that horrific neck injury -- an estimated 900 people attended his funeral. If you're a recognizable name in Twin Cities hockey circles, chances are you had some sort of contact with Larry Hendrickson. Few individuals have touched so many lives in such an intimate way, using hockey as a vehicle.

But that was Larry, who received the Wild's State of Hockey Legacy Award posthumously on Monday.

"He was a legend," said close friend and business partner Mike MacMillan, "and he has an unbelievable legacy." 

***

Everyone who knew him has a Larry story. Or 10.

Chances are it in some way involves his shirt (python-esque arm muscles bulging out from cutoff sleeves) or lack thereof (shirtless summer afternoons at the pool or the family's cabin near Duluth, waxing poetic about the greatest game ever created and the virtues of selflessness, excellence, discipline and confidence it can instill).

"They did not make a mold of Larry Hendrickson," Danny said. "He was a true original."

There's the day he snapped his neck and walked away with a new outlook on just about everything. He was in his late 20s then, so the tale gets passed on by Danny and his three siblings, including Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson. The time he worked out with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sipping Ham's on 1980 "Miracle on Ice" coach Brooks' porch in East St. Paul. The days members of that team spent working out in "Hendy's Garage," which is exactly what it sounds like, a set of weights and presses in the space Larry converted into a fully-functioning workout facility. How North Stars players would show up at the Met Center for practice to find Larry there, by himself, in the middle of a three-hour weights session of his own that would continue when he put players through the paces following practice. The time he threw his gloves and stick then ripped his shirt in anger to illustrate a point during a high school practice as head coach of Apple Valley High School. Near fistfights with opposing prep coaches. Sleeping at the rink so he could stay late and get up early to map out strategies for the next game, the next opponent, the next challenge. The pool parties turned existential discussions on the finer points of hockey and what it means to compete. 

"A lot of Larry sermons back there," said Wild Director of Player Personnel Andrew Brunette, who between being best friends with Darby and spending a year coaching at Benilde St. Margaret High School with Larry may have known the latter as well as anyone outside his own family. "He always had a point or had something he wanted to talk about or break down, and you spent the afternoon there listening to Larry.

"He always had his shirt off and sunblock on, blue shades and ball cap, and was just holding court. It was fun. Every time you spend some time with him, you leave and you feel better. Everything makes sense."

Larry's gone, but many, like Brunette, still talk about him in the present tense. His kids still call him Larry, though the terms "dad" and "father" get mixed in here and there, too.

There was also the day Larry first saw handicapped kids playing sled hockey and days later decided to start what's today known as the Hendrickson Foundation. The 6 a.m. phone calls to foundation volunteers and partners to gush about his latest idea for the organization, notions he was much too excited to wait to share until normal business hours. The way he spoke to disabled hockey players and told them how their participation in the sport was going to change their lives.

His boys have heard countless tales since their father's death June 15 of last year. So have daughters Julie Hendricks-Oss and Christine Krsnik. The same goes for Larry's wife, Saint Jane, as she's affectionately known in the family. And Larry's 12 grandchildren, all of whom were there to accept the legacy award on his behalf during the second intermission of Monday's Wild game.

"It's just amazing to see how many people he crossed paths with," Darby said. "I think there's a lot of fun stories we've been able to hear about what he did and who he was. It's fun when people share that or bring up a story or an event the foundation held that he was at. The biggest thing that stands out is just the difference he made in people's lives, and learning more and more about that even after the fact is tremendous."

Said Danny, with a laugh: "I think Larry's even cooler now that he's dead."

***

There's a picture in the Hendrickson family photo album of a middle-aged Larry and Schwarzenegger standing side-by-side. The actor and future California governor has flow that would likely land him on the All Hockey Hair Team, and Larry's mustache is straight out of Magnum P.I.

The story goes Schwarzenegger was in Minnesota for a local newscast taping. Naturally, the body builder needed a place to work out. Not many people lifted weights at the time, but a contact at the station knew about Hendy's Garage. So the guy who made sure Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig were in good enough shape to upset the Soviets brought some dumbbells down to the station and threw around some weight with the Govinator.

It wasn't Larry's last brush with fame. 

The son of a Minneapolis Star sportswriter, Joseph Hendrickson, and Lorraine Hendrickson, Larry grew up in Minneapolis and attended Washburn High School. He won a state football championship and played in a pair of state hockey tournaments.

Knee injuries cut his playing career short, but Hendrickson soon caught the coaching bug while earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota and his Master's from St. Thomas. In the meantime, he married Jane, his high school sweetheart. 

Following his neck injury scare, Larry delved into all the cutting-edge methods of building, honing and nurturing one's body for athletic competition.

Through his days coaching the Junior-A St. Paul Vulcans and Richfield High School, he became close friends with Brooks. When the latter was tabbed to lead the 1980 Olympic team, he brought on Hendrickson to put the club through workouts.

Many of them, including Mike Ramsey, lifted their first weight in Hendy's Garage.

Larry pushed them. Hard.

"He was a guy that didn't mix words," Ramsey said. "He told it like it was, you know? He wore his colors on his sleeve, and if he didn't like where you were, he was going to tell you. He didn't sugarcoat anything."

It was his close relationship with Brooks that had a profound impact on Larry's general worldview -- coaching, relationships, pretty much every aspect. Intense, yes. Over-the-top? At times, undoubtedly. But always with the intent of maximizing the potential of those in his charge.

"Larry was a Herbie disciple," Danny said.

He was also ahead of his time when it came to conditioning. While most players skated all season and took summers off, Larry was studying proteins and amino acids and how to reduce body fat while increasing muscle mass.

He was a living example of it. Broten remembers coming to practice during his North Star days, walking through the weight room to hang up his coat and seeing Larry bench pressing or squatting. He'd usually already been there a couple hours.

Then when the skate was over, the 3-4 players assigned to lift that day would do so. And Larry would be right there with them.

"I can just picture going through that door in the Met Center and getting ready for practice and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, he must have done 500 dumb bell curls,'" Broten said. "His biceps were huge."

It did take a toll. Larry had nine surgeries on his hand as a result of carpal tunnel, which doctors said came from his constant weight training. Jane estimates he had close to 30 different medical procedures throughout the course of his life.

***

Like an Old-Testament prophet, Larry rent his garments asunder, throwing his gloves one direction, his stick another and tearing his sweatshirt in anger to reveal a Metallica t-shirt, sleeves cut off, biceps popping out on either side.

"This guy's here!" Larry screamed, pointing at one of the gloves several feet away on the ice. "And this guy's over here!" His other massive arm directed toward another piece of his abandoned wardrobe. Larry's point was every man on his Apple Valley team was playing for himself, and the result was a complete lack of communication and resulting breakdowns in chemistry.

It was one of the coach's first practices during his second stint at Apple Valley. By the end of the following season, they were raising a state championship banner together.

"We looked at each other like, 'OK, this guy's serious,'" said former NHLer Erik Westrum, one of eight NCAA Division I players from that Eagles roster. 

Larry trained some of hockey's top players. But he took just as much, if not more, pride in imparting his wisdom at the high school and youth levels. His 1976 Richfield team made the state finals. Separate stints at Apple Valley brought a 1981 state tournament appearance and a 1996 state championship. He also coached at Shattuck-St. Mary's, Benilde-St. Margaret's and Buffalo High Schools.

There were times Westrum says he found Larry sleeping in his truck at the rink, where he'd spent the entire night going over strategy and break-out plays. Other times, he was at the Westrums' house hatching game plans with Erik's father Pat, Apple Valley's co-head coach and another dear friend of Larry's.

"If we didn't bring the same intensity he brought," Erik Westrum said, "we were in trouble."

There are manifold layers to the Larry Hendrickson school of hockey philosophy. But its basic tenets encompass unbridled work ethic, unrivaled dedication, a passion so stark it could often rub people the wrong way, but tempered by a deep love and respect for every player he coached and thus dealt with using the utmost positivity.

"'Big team, little me,' he thought that was a really stupid saying," Danny said. "He would say, 'Big team, big me.' You need everybody to feel like they're important to get the best impact out of each individual and team. He wanted the stars to feel important, and he wanted the fourth liners, and all the players in programs with disabilities, to feel important.

"Nobody's bigger than the team, but everybody matters."

This was the meat of many a conversation at the Hendrickson household, whose regular guests included Brooks, players from the Miracle on Ice team, future NHLers and, later, members of the Hendrickson Foundation.

Danny, Darby and their sisters grew up around hockey immortality. Both brothers went on to play at the University of Minnesota, and Darby played 10 NHL seasons (three-plus with the Wild) before joining the coaching ranks.

"Just a fun house," Julie said. "Constant weightlifting going on … just a lot of action. A lot of testosterone."

Video: This is Our Ice: Hendrickson Foundation

They also saw a dad who loved fiercely, be it the kids on his home team with Saint Jane or the ones he was coaching. He once picked up an opposing coach by the front of his shirt when Larry thought the other team was taking cheap shots at Westrum.

Pat Westrum had to hold him back.

Larry's gone. But the lessons have been passed down to the next generation of Minnesota hockey.

"There's so many … shiny things in the room people can get attracted to, and they're not necessarily the right way to coach or be led," said Erik Westrum, now the head coach at Southwest/Christian Richfield. "Whether you want to use the term blue-collar or old-school or whatever it is, those are things that are more important than ever. Kids today can be distracted by social media, video games, and there's this attitude in society where multiple people know better than the next guy.

"I was blessed with being coached by Larry to have him implement [discipline]. … For me, he was a father figure, too. I was lucky enough to have, kind of, two dads in that way."

***

The Schwan Super Rink at Blaine's National Sports Center is jam-packed.

Through the main doors and to the left, there's a locker room full of sleds from a Minnesota Wild Sled Hockey team game that just wrapped up. One sheet of ice, the Minnesota Warriors -- a team of previously wounded and/or disabled military veterans -- is squaring off against a similar team from Duluth. And in Rink No. 4, a standing-room-only crowd is pressed up against the glass to see some Minnesota greats mix it up with local celebrities in a charity contest.

Joe Mauer. Jordan Leopold. Lee Stecklein. Hannah Brandt. Keith Ballard. Wes Walz. Ryan Carter.

Brunette's here. So is Westrum. Danny and Darby, too, of course. Broten's serving as an honorary coach. Even local broadcast personalities Dave Schwartz and Paul Fletcher have joined the party.

The third rendition of the Hendrickson Foundation National Hockey Festival lasted three days and featured more than 40 special, blind, sled and military hockey teams from all over the United States and even a group from Winnipeg. The Feb. 23 celebrity game was the main event. Proceeds from the weekend-long hockey extravaganza will go to Minnesota Disabled Hockey, which oversees the Wild Blind Hockey, Special Hockey and Sled Hockey programs as well as the Warriors. 

Families. Kids. People in wheelchairs. Beers. Hugs. Laughs. Cheers. Tears of joy. This is the house that Larry built.

He first got the idea after attending the 2011 USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival in Blaine. He'd been invited by his friend, McMillan, who brought on Hendrickson to serve as a player development coach and later an assistant at Buffalo. Seeing players who'd lost use of their legs flying around, playing the game that had defined his life, moved Larry. He thought back to his days in that body cast. His curveball. Their curveballs.

A light went on, McMillan said. "You could just see it in his eyes."

That was on a Saturday. By Monday morning, the Hendrickson Foundation was born.

It started with a call to U.S.A Disabled Hockey Director Toni Gillen. "How can I help?" Larry asked. The answer came soon after when Hendrickson and McMillan started up an official nonprofit to raise funds for the different arms of Minnesota Disabled Hockey. Its mantra: "Hockey changes lives."

"These people zero in not on what is different about them but what is the same," Hendrickson is quoted as saying on the foundation website. "With time, they've forgotten they are different. After I met the people, how their lives were affected, it's one of the greatest joys of my life."


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Larry got on the phone. Started fundraising. Put together events. Asked for money. Got it.

"It took a few decades of him going through all these wonderful hockey experiences to finally circle back," Danny said. "It truly was the thing that kept him going at the end. I think it's the one project or team that he was the most proud of in his passing."

Gillen remembers her phone buzzing at 6 a.m. "Do I have an hour to talk?" she'd ask herself, knowing full well Larry would spend 20 minutes asking how Gillen and her family were doing before diving into his next hair-brained idea.

When Gillen started out in her role, Minnesota lagged behind most other states in terms of disabled hockey offerings. Hendrickson's efforts, along with significant funds from the Minnesota Wild Foundation, helped the group grow to include 13 special hockey teams (more than 200 athletes). The sled and Warrior programs have seen significant growth, with the Warriors adding teams in Duluth and St. Cloud in recent years. The blind hockey team was a first this season.

"He was the partner we needed," Gillen said. "He was probably the most influential person as far as our growth went and really getting the name out there."

Even as his health declined and Larry handed executive director duties over to Danny, he spent his days attending sled, Warriors and special hockey practices and continued to fundraise. "He would have a party at his house every year and hand out a $10,000 check to every program," Gillen said. "It was amazing."

A couple of years ago, Larry's gigantic heart started having complications. He was treated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester but received word this past spring he had a condition that "wasn't going to get better," Darby said. "It was hard for all of us to get that news, but he handled things as good as you can."

Video: 2019 SOH Legacy Award ceremony

Larry died June 15, 2018. Two days later, his family gathered at the Richfield pool to celebrate Father's Day.

Larry's legacy continues to expand, which is why the Wild honored him at Monday's Hockey Is For Everyone Awareness night -- an appropriate time for a fitting tribute. The organization has also nominated Larry for the NHL's Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, which recognizes an individual who has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society through the game of hockey.

The Hendrickson Foundation plans to keep expanding, with more big-ticket events like the festival. The 2022 national disabled hockey festival is slated to come back to Minnesota, as well.

"The vision will outlast the visionary," Danny likes to tell anyone who will listen. "That's certain. You need an original crazy person to think of something like starting the Hendrickson Foundation, and Larry was that guy … his passing has actually created a lot of awareness. 

"When you lose a leader and lose a giant, everybody that he chose to be part of this foundation team wants to step up, wants to give more, wants to have his legacy live on."

It also lives on in his family. Darby is in the stretch run of his eighth season as a Wild assistant after becoming one of the most popular players in franchise history. The former Mr. Hockey Award winner works with Minnesota's forwards and is relied upon heavily by coach Bruce Boudreau for his one-on-one, individual tutelage.

Darby was on the ice at the second intermission Monday night along with Larry's 12 grandchildren, his children and their spouses to receive the State of Hockey Legacy Award. Saint Jane was there, too, smiling her way through the night and hugging complete strangers who said they knew her husband.

"He would've loved this," she said from the family's suite.

Earlier in the day, Darby stepped away from game preparations momentarily to recall the summer days he and Larry spent at the family cabin in Duluth. Darby and his wife bought one adjacent, and dad helped him put in a weight room.

After tough losses, Larry was known to leave his son 3-minute voicemails of encouragement.

"Just thinking back to those memories on the lake, staying up late talking about philosophy, hockey, just life, those are unbelievable memories," Darby said. "I had that for 20 years. I feel very thankful for that; even though you still want to see him and hear his guidance and wisdom and you seek that, you just try to take what you learned and pass that on."

Larry the legend is gone. But the legend of Larry continues.

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