When coaches Ivan Hlinka and Slavomir Lener invited Milan Hejduk onto the Czech national team for the Nagano Olympics, many people were surprised. At the time, he was barely old enough to play professional hockey let alone represent his country in cutthroat international competition. In the end he became an Olympic sensation.
Nevertheless, he had made it into the lineup. Originally his role was to be that of a substitute-13th forward. However, Jan Caloun, who was to play on the right wing next to Pavel Patera and Martin Prochazka, was not doing all that well. The coaches opted for a change. From the quarterfinals on, Hejduk appeared next to them and stayed for good.
Hejduk made an impression on people on quite a few occasions. But his most famous moment was the time when in the finals against Russia, he isolated an opponent in front of the net and helped Petr Svoboda score the winning goal.
In the 1993-94 season he was named top rookie in the Czech league and in the summer he was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques (later the Colorado Avalanche). He only made the sixth round, which may also have been because he had torn his shoulder ligaments in the playoffs helping Pardubice progress to the finals. He then had to sit out the European Championship for under-18s.
He had more bad luck after making it onto the World Championship team. The tournament, held in Switzerland, ended quickly for him when in the opening match against Japan he suffered a broken jaw.
The injury came at a bad time. For a long time Colorado hesitated to lay claim to Hejduk. However, after the Nagano triumph they expressed a more serious interest in him, and he made the training camp. He also made his way onto the First All-Star Team and with his 48 points became the most productive rookie. However, his teammate Chris Drury walked away with the Calder Trophy in the end.
Hejduk was not disappointed. In fact, what bothered him more was another health problem, which he encountered during the playoffs. During the fourth match in the finals of the Western Conference against Dallas, he chipped his collarbone after a run-in with Richard Matvichuk. Colorado was leading the series 3-2 in games but ultimately did not progress into the Stanley Cup finals.
A winger with clever evasive skills and an accurate shot, Hejduk is not especially tall or broad. He never played too hard, but he entered the NHL like a whirlwind. He could assert himself mainly through his agility and his clever play. In the following season Colorado was without its greatest offensive pillars, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic, who were injured. But young players such as Hejduk and Drury did an excellent job of substituting for them.
In 2000-01 Hejduk finished second on the team in goals with 41 and was instrumental in Colorado's run to the 2001 Stanley Cup championship before an injury plagued 2001-02 season limited him to 62 games and 21 goals.
Looking put last season behind, Hejduk and the Avalanche were looking to take another run at the Stanley Cup. With Peter Forsberg back in the lineup after missing the entire 2001-02 regular season Colorado's went into the season with a lot of confidence. After a slow start, the team replaced head coach Bob Hartley with Tony Granato and after the change things began to go the Avalanche way. The Avalanche went on to capture another Division title, while Milan Hejduk captured his first Rocket Richard Trophy, leading all goal scorers with 50.
In 2003-04, much was expected of Hejduk and the Avalanche. After the off-season acquisitions of Teemu Selanne and Paul Karyia, many expected the Avs to be a Stanley Cup contender. Hejduk continued to put up strong numbers (35-40-75) yet his club was unable to build on its expectations, falling to the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Hejduk recently became the Avalanche's franchise leader in games played with 1020, adding to his already impressive NHL career.