Every story for every jersey number has a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
Janne Laukannen was the beginning for number 23 in late 1995, while Brent Severyn served as its middle act in 1997. When a kid named Milan Hejduk from the Czech Republic put on the number 23 for the first time in 1998, few had any idea that this number would forever be immortalized in Colorado Avalanche lore.
Achieving such a feat would be no easy task. However, the great ones always make the impossible look easy.
Here’s where the story of the number 23 took a magical turn.
Milan Hejduk (1998-2013)
Much like his predecessors in Laukkanen and Severyn, Hejduk’s arrival to the Colorado Avalanche in the fall of 1998 was one of little fanfare. Some observers may have seen his unusual looking (and likewise unusually sounding) name during training camp and asked, “Who is Milan Hejduk?!”
Hejduk was born on February 14, 1976, in Usti nad-Labem in the former Czechoslovakia. Yep, the greatest right wing in Avalanche history was born on Valentine’s Day. Hopefully this fact will help those out there in Avalanche Territory who feel that February 14 is a cursed date for the franchise breathe a little easier.
Hejduk began his playing career with HC Stadion Teplice in the Czech U18 League. He scored 117 points (66G/51A) in 32 games with the club during the 1991-1992 season, resulting in an eye-popping 3.66 points per game average at the tender age of sixteen. He would join HC Pardubice of the Czech Extraliga in the 1993-1994 season, where he earned Rookie of the Year honors. Scouts for the Quebec Nordiques took notice of the promising youngster and made him their fourth round selection (87th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.
Hejduk would continue playing for HC Pardubice through the 1997-1998 season. He was part of the Czech men’s Olympic hockey team who captured the gold medal during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, along with some other fellow by the name of Jaromir Jagr. Hejduk would also add a bronze medal from the IIHF World Championship later that same year. A few months later, Hejduk made a beeline straight to North America for his NHL debut for the team that drafted him four years earlier. However, he would not be skating in the province of Quebec for the Nordiques, nor would he participate in their most heated rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens. Hejduk instead would skate in a new city, participate in a new rivalry, and endear himself to countless new fans who were abuzz with hockey fever as names like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, and Patrick Roy had become the talk of the Mile High City.
After signing a two-year contract with the Avalanche on July 16, 1998, Hejduk made his debut in the burgundy and blue against the Ottawa Senators on October 10 in the 1998-1999 season opener. He assisted on Sakic’s game-opening goal for his first career point, and, at the 3:00 mark of the third period, scored his first career goal, beating Senators goalie Damian Rhodes. Fittingly, the tally would prove to be the game winner, the first of many Hejduk would score for the Avalanche throughout his career.
Hejduk would play all 82 games in his rookie campaign, scoring 48 points (14G/34A) in the regular season. His solid play earned him a nomination for the Calder Trophy where he would finish second to fellow Avalanche teammate Chris Drury. During his first taste of postseason action for the Avalanche, Hejduk scored 12 points (6G/6A) in sixteen playoff games.
Hejduk’s sophomore campaign was even more impressive as he scored a whopping 72 points (36G/36A) through the 82 game regular season and his first-ever nomination to the NHL All-Star Game. On March 26, 2000, Hejduk would score the game-winning goal in a 3-2 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars at Reunion Arena. His goal celebration was likewise impressive.
To put this goal celebration in perspective (excluding the 2001 Stanley Cup victory), Avalanche fans wouldn’t see such an exuberant a goal celebration until Gabriel Landeskog’s “Landeskoging” goal against the Anaheim Ducks in 2012.
Hejduk would add 9 points (5G/4A) during the 1999-2000 postseason, where Dallas would get the better of the Avalanche once again. After signing a four-year contract with the Avalanche on September 06, 2000, Hejduk and the Avalanche vowed to ensure they would not suffer the same fate again the following season. Hejduk would earn his second All-Star Game nomination (which was held in the friendly confines of Pepsi Center that year) and improve upon his point total, scoring 41 goals and adding 38 assists for 79 points in the regular season, and a career high 23 postseason points (7G/16A). His postseason assist total led all skaters in that category. The Avalanche, of course, would “win one for Ray” and complete “Mission 16W” for the franchise’s second Stanley Cup championship. Mission accomplished.
After missing some time during the 2001-2002 season, Hejduk rebounded with a bang in 2002-2003, notching career highs in goals (50), assists (48) and points (98), a NHL Second All-Star Team nod, was awarded the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy while again playing through all 82 regular season games, and led the NHL in +/- (+52). He went the regular season distance again during the 2003-2004 campaign, scoring 75 points (35G/40A), but even with a roster bursting at the seams with talent, the Avalanche were eliminated in the Western Conference Semifinals by the San Jose Sharks. Hejduk would also become a parent in 2004, as he and his wife, Zlata, welcomed twin sons Marek and David into the world.
Hejduk would sign a one-year contract with the Avalanche on August 05, 2004, and once the NHL locked out its players later that summer, he returned to HC Pardubice for the season, who would go on to win the Czech Extraliga championship. After the NHL lockout ended, Hejduk would sign a five-year contract with the Avalanche on August 06, 2005. He would score 58 points in 74 games that season (24G/34A), but was a part of the bronze-winning Czech Republic men’s hockey team in Torino, Italy, that year. Hejduk rebounded during the 2006-2007 season with a 70 point campaign (35G/35A), including his best single game effort on December 09, 2007, where he would score six points (3G/3A) as the Avalanche decimated the St. Louis Blues in a dominant 9-5 victory. While this season marked the first season that Hejduk would don the assistant captain’s “A”, it would also be the last time the Hejduk would reach the 70 point total in his career. His wizardry with the puck, however ensured he would remain a consistent scoring threat for the Avalanche as the cast around him began to evolve in the coming seasons.
Hejduk signed a one year extension with the Avalanche on September 24, 2009. Longtime captain Joe Sakic had just retired earlier that summer, and new third-overall pick Matt Duchene was slated to make his debut in the upcoming 2009-2010 season. This was akin to a changing of the guard, but there was Hejduk, a model of consistency in what had become some years of change for the Avalanche at that time. Hejduk would earn his third and final NHL All-Star Game nomination, and he would also make his final trip to the postseason as well. His last postseason goal came on April 16, 2010, in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the San Jose Sharks in a 5-6 overtime loss.
On May 11, 2011, Hejduk would sign another one year extension with the Avalanche, opting to remain with the club for the upcoming 2011-2012 season. On November 14, 2011, Hejduk succeeded Adam Foote as captain of the Avalanche, becoming the third player in Avalanche history to wear the cherished “C”. Now a seasoned vet, the Avalanche became his team to lead, with players like Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Chris Stewart, and Paul Stastny poised to write a new chapter in Avalanche lore. The kid with the funny name who could barely speak a word of English back in 1998–whom Avalanche fans affectionately nicknamed, “The Duke”–led his team in his own quiet but effective way. He would play in all but one game for the Avalanche during the 2011-2012 season, yet managed 37 points (14G/23A), his lowest point totals since his rookie season.
Hejduk signed what would be his final contract with the Avalanche on May 18, 2012. Prior to the start of the now lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, he relinquished his captaincy to Gabriel Landeskog, who received Hejduk’s vote of confidence for the role. Again donning his assistant captain’s “A” for the season, Hejduk would score 11 points (4G/7A), his lowest point totals of his career. On February 04, 2013, Hejduk played in his 1000th game for the Avalanche, and is the only player in combined Avalanche/Nordiques franchise history to have achieved this mark while only wearing the Avalanche logo.
Hejduk scored his final goal for the Avalanche on March 18, 2013, in a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, and recorded his final assist on March 27, 2013, in a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames. His final game in an Avalanche sweater took place on April 27, 2013, a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
This would not be the end of the road for the number 23, or for Milan Hejduk. No, this story deserves it happy ending, and certainly an ending happier than a career-ending loss to the Minnesota Wild!
In September 2017, the Colorado Avalanche announced that Hejduk’s number 23 would be retired on January 07, 2018 against the Wild. His number would become the sixth number to be retired in Avalanche history, joining former teammates Sakic, Forsberg, Roy, Foote, and Raymond Bourque. It was sure to be the “can’t miss” game of the season, and the retirement ceremony, along with the game itself, lived up to the billing.
In his remarks, Sakic marveled at Hejduk’s goal-scoring prowess. When reflecting on Hejduk’s eleven straight seasons of scoring at least twenty goals, he said, “In any era, that’s tough to do.”
Hejduk himself was affluent in his praise for the Avalanche organization and what playing his entire career in Denver meant to him. His respect for the captaincy he inherited from Sakic and Foote was evident as he addressed the sellout crowd in Pepsi Center that evening. “Being named captain in 2011 was nothing short of a privilege. To follow iconic Joe Sakic and Adam Foote was not an easy task, but I was so proud to wear the Colorado Avalanche uniform, especially with a “C” stitched on my jersey.”
Forsberg, along with Alex Tanguay, Hejduk’s former “AMP” linemates, presented Hejduk with the Stanley Cup, the first time in nearly seventeen years it graced Pepsi Center ice. His Colorado Thunderbirds, in a show of respect to their coach, skated his retirement banner along with the ice, led by his sons. The Avalanche faithful gave their longtime fan favorite one final sendoff for the legend that grew out of the twenty-two year old who couldn’t speak a word of English upon his arrival back in 1998. Now, there weren’t any words that were better suited for the moment than the cheers of appreciation from the fans who, for over fourteen years, were witnesses to Hejduk’s unparalleled puck-handing and his impeccable scoring ability.
The current-era Avalanche would settle for nothing less than the happy ending this occasion deserved. A start-to-finish performance by the Avalanche resulted in a crushing 7-2 defeat to the Minnesota Wild. Carl Soderberg was first star of the game with his two-goal effort, while Mikko Rantanen and Hart Trophy
w inner finalist Nathan MacKinnon would finish as second and third stars of the night, respectively, with both skaters scoring a goal and two assists on the evening.
Every story has an ending. For number 23, there couldn’t be a happier one.
(Thank you to eliteprospects.com and avalanchedb.com for providing statistics and drafting information used in this article!)