ST. PAUL, Minn. — In a perfectly Minnesotan scene, 20 years ago when he got some of the biggest news of his hockey career, Darby Hendrickson was at a cabin on a lake.
On June 23, 2000, the National Hockey League held an expansion draft for its two newest teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild. Among the 26 names called by new Wild general manager Doug Risebrough that day was Hendrickson, who had spent 2/3 of the 1999-2000 with the Vancouver Canucks (and 20 games with their minor league team).
Hendrickson, now 47, has always been a thoughtful guy. And at the moment he got the news, while at the family’s cabin on Island Lake, outside Duluth, his thoughts were admittedly conflicted.
“I was definitely interested in either Columbus or Minnesota as an opportunity, but I’ll be totally honest. I really wanted to stay in Vancouver,” Hendrickson said this week. “I thought that team was on the rise. They left me unprotected, but if I ended up going back there, I was fine with that. And there was a part of coming home that you just didn’t know about. Are we going to win 10 games? I was a little bit unsure.”
In a most Minnesotan way to collect his thoughts, he went out in his fishing boat, alone, for a few hours to ponder life and the dramatic turn in the road of his career.
His name was well-known to Minnesota hockey fans, although he had not been spotted on a rink in the Twin Cities since the Minnesota North Stars left for Dallas in 1993. Two years earlier, as a senior at Richfield High School, Hendrickson had led the Spartans to what would be their final state tournament trip, and had been named Mr. Hockey after notching 61 points in 27 games.
As a Minnesota Gopher, he helped the team win a WCHA title as a freshman in 1991-92, was named the league’s Rookie of the Year, and grabbed a league playoff title as a sophomore before signing a NHL contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto drafted him in the fourth round prior to his senior season at Richfield.
Veteran joins the Wild
In addition to playing for Team USA at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, he had more than 300 NHL games under his belt for the Leafs, Canucks and New York Islanders — mostly in a third- and fourth-line role — before the Wild called his name.
“I’d played enough where I knew I could play in the league, but you had to re-prove it again to (coach) Jacques Lemaire and (executive vice president and general manager) Doug Risebrough,” Hendrickson said. “I wanted to get some more offense in my game, and I’m not saying I’d be a 30-goal scorer, but ... I thought in Minnesota I could get some confidence going.”
Upon joining his new teammates for the Wild’s first training camp, there was a special feeling of camaraderie. If you have been selected in an expansion draft, that means another team has left you unprotected, and the feeling of being a misfit or a cast-off became a kind of rallying cry for this new team.
And after seven seasons without NHL hockey in a hockey-crazed state, the non-Minnesotans on the team had no idea what they were in for when the doors of Xcel Energy Center opened for the first time.
“I still remember our first exhibition game. We played Anaheim and the building was sold out (and full) for warmups,” Hendrickson recalled. “Guys looked at me and Jeff Nielsen, because we’re from here, and were like, ‘what?!’ and we’re like, ‘yep, this is where we’re from.’ That moment still sticks out.”
1st home goal
In the Wild’s first regular season home game, Risebrough’s expansion pick of the hometown kid paid off in one of the most memorable goals in franchise history. Trailing the Philadelphia Flyers by a goal late in the first period, Hendrickson found himself alone at the left of the net, with the puck on his stick and no goalie impeding him. His goal was the first scored by the Wild in their home rink, and is still shown on many franchise highlight reels.
“With the pass that Maxim Sushinsky gave me, that one’s gotta be buried,” Hendrickson recalled. “At the time I didn’t think, ‘wow, I scored the first goal.’ I was just happy to get on the board. I’ve always tried to be humble about it because I was in the right place at the right time, with a good pass, in my hometown. I feel blessed.”
After being traded to Colorado in 2004, and a few seasons of pro hockey in Europe, Hendrickson retired in 2007 and has been a Wild assistant coach for the past decade. Looking back 20 years, he admits that any trepidation he had about coming home and playing for an expansion team proved to be unfounded.
“I don’t think apprehension is the word, but every thought like that I had turned out to be exactly the opposite, in time,” Hendrickson said.