ST. PAUL — Like many Minnesotans, Darby Hendrickson doesn't think spring when he sees the first robin in the backyard, or when there's finally open water on Lake Minnetonka.
When he first flips the calendar over to March, and the state hockey tournament is on the immediate horizon, it could be 10 below with 10 feet of snow, and in Hendrickson's mind, it's spring.
On an early March day this year, with the Minnesota Wild practice wrapping up inside the team's new rooftop practice rink in downtown St. Paul, Hendrickson — a Wild assistant coach for the past eight seasons — and team TV analyst Kevin Gorg waxed nostalgic about their high school glory days. Gorg led Burnsville to a state title in 1985, while Hendrickson won the Mr. Hockey award in 1991, after helping Richfield get to the big show.
The Spartans were one-and-done that year, falling to Duluth East in the opener, but for Hendrickson the biggest thrills came earlier. In the Section 6 title game, to qualify for the state's final one-class tournament, the Spartans beat rival Edina before 15,000 fans at a sold-out Met Center, in what was the final game of legendary Hornets coach Willard Ikola's career behind the bench.
Special times in St. Paul
As a young boy, Darby had gotten a taste of the state tournament when his father, Larry, was Richfield's coach and led the Spartans to the state title game at the St. Paul Civic Center in 1976. Thirteen years later, Darby and younger brother Danny were back in that legendary rink with the clear boards, this time as participants.
"I remember our first practice on that Wednesday, just passing the puck with my brother and realizing that dream had come true," Darby recalled. "We'd made it."
A year later, as a college freshman at the University of Minnesota, he was named the WCHA's top rookie. After two high-scoring seasons and one conference title with the Gophers, Darby skated for Team USA in the 1994 Winter Olympics, then set off on a NHL career that spanned parts of 11 seasons. Hendrickson skated for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Islanders and the Vancouver Canucks during that seven-year stretch that Minnesota lacked a NHL team. But when the upstart Minnesota Wild participated in the 2000 expansion draft, they arranged a homecoming, picking up Hendrickson from Vancouver to be a part of their first roster.
He made a memory etched in the minds of Wild fans everywhere right away. The NHL officially returned to Minnesota on the night of October 11, 2000, when the Wild played their first home game versus the Philadelphia Flyers. With a little less than three minutes to play in the first period of that first game, Hendrickson took a cross-ice pass from Maxim Sushinsky and slapped a low shot over the goal line before Flyers goalie Brian Boucher could cover the post. For a kid from the Minneapolis suburbs, it was a moment of which dreams are made.
Back behind the bench
After three full seasons with the Wild and a brief stint with the Colorado Avalanche, Hendrickson finished his playing career in Europe, then came home to Minnesota once again. For the past nine seasons -- under four different head coaches -- Hendrickson has been an assistant coach with the Wild and draws rave reviews from all that work with him.
"I think everybody on the team trusts him. He talks to everybody. His work ethic is extraordinary and he's there for us all the time," said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau. "For me, he's like that mother that you know you need. He's constantly working with video. I don't think that you could get a better assistant than him."
For the Wild players who are from outside Minnesota, he serves as a kind of guide to the local hockey scene. And for the rare Wild player who grew up here, having a Mr. Hockey winner on staff lends Hendrickson instant credibility.
"He's been a really great coach for all of us," said Wild forward Nick Seeler, who is also a former Gopher. "He's from Minnesota and played here so he has those roots and connections with the Minnesota guys. You don't get that everywhere you go, and he's always willing to help, so guys are thankful to have him."
Larry Hendrickson was a larger-than-life name in Twin Cities hockey circles, with a big personality and a resume to match. Two decades after coaching Richfield to the state title game, the elder Hendrickson did one game better, coaxing the school's (so far) only state hockey title out of Apple Valley in the 1996 finale. Last summer, just a few months after watching his grandson Mason win a state title with Minnetonka, Larry passed away of heart failure at 75. Today, Darby's brother Danny is one of the driving forces behind the Hendrickson Foundation, which was started by Larry and raises money for special programs like sled hockey, blind hockey and warrior hockey for disabled veterans in Minnesota.
Parenting is primary
In March of 2018, while the rest of the Hendrickson clan was in Minnesota watching Mason and the Skippers drive toward that school's first hockey title, Darby was on the road with the Wild, keeping one eye on the ice in Vancouver, while monitoring his son's team back in Minnesota. The Skippers beat Centennial that Friday night to advance to the title game. That same night, the Wild won 5-2 in Vancouver, and were packing up for a Saturday night game in Edmonton. Hendrickson didn't know it, but he wouldn't be on the plane to Alberta, which he learned from Boudreau and then-general manager Chuck Fletcher.
"Bruce and Chuck pulled me aside and said 'What if you flew home to see your son in the championship game?' It was amazing," Hendrickson recalled. "My family didn't know it, and I just showed up at Tom Reid's with all of the parents before the game. It was pretty cool to just be a parent and be in that atmosphere."
Just another reason that memories of early spring in Minnesota make Darby Hendrickson smile.