Long in the tooth, not fleet of foot: Jets got locker-room MVP Hendricks back

Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel flew in a luxurious private jet to their new home in Columbus. Mark Stone was greeted by an over-the-top spectacle that included a drumline and Vegas showgirls after he was shipped to Sin City.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/02/2019 (1442 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel flew in a luxurious private jet to their new home in Columbus. Mark Stone was greeted by an over-the-top spectacle that included a drumline and Vegas showgirls after he was shipped to Sin City.

And Matt Hendricks? Well, just hours after learning he’d been traded to Winnipeg, the 37-year-old Minnesotan loaded up his pickup truck, jumped behind the wheel and hit the highway for a solitary, seven-hour trek north.

“Easy drive. The roads are nice and clean. Quick jaunt,” Hendricks cracked Tuesday.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Matt Hendricks only played a few playoff games during the 2018 run.

No, it may not have been the travel mode of choice for today’s typical athlete. But it perfectly sums up a player who is as meat-and-potatoes as it gets. There’s nothing flashy about Hendricks, a 15-year pro with 603 NHL games under his belt.

There may have been some raised eyebrows, and perhaps even a few snickers around town when news broke Monday afternoon that Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff had sent a seventh-round draft pick to Minnesota in exchange for Hendricks.

After all, what could one of the oldest, slowest players in the league, with just two assists in 22 games this year, possibly bring to a young, skilled group such as the Jets that has Stanley Cup aspirations?

To understand, you have to go well beyond the stats sheet. And accept the fact that there’s more to building a winning hockey team than simply stockpiling the most talented players available.

“He’s exceptionally strong in a couple of areas and one of them is setting a certain tone and culture of how you want your room to operate,” coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday in response to my question about why his team needed Hendricks at this point.

Call him a character player. Call him a “glue guy.” Whatever the term, it’s clear there’s a certain intangible this current group believes is missing from the one that set a franchise record last season with 114 points, then made it all the way to the Western Conference final.

Hendricks, of course, was part of that team, even if his on-ice contributions were minimal. Five goals and eight assists in 60 regular-season games, and no points in five playoff games during the team’s deep run, in which he was a healthy scratch a dozen times.

“He’s just the best, absolutely the best in-room player that you could have. So they got a gem. He’s my favourite player of all time,” his coach in Minnesota, Bruce Boudreau, said Tuesday.

According to Cheveldayoff, captain Blake Wheeler and alternate captain Mark Scheifele both mentioned Hendricks by name in meetings earlier this year regarding where the team might possibly improve.

“It’s flattering, those are two of the best players in the National Hockey League,” said Hendricks.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Matt Hendricks back on the ice with the Jets during a skate at Bell MTS Place Tuesday morning.

Maurice shared similar sentiments as well with Cheveldayoff, believing Hendricks’ departure over the summer to play with his hometown club had left a void that hadn’t been filled.

“Matt is a leader. What is unique about him is that he leads from a low-minute position. He has no problem reaching out to the entire spectrum of our locker room, whether it’s a 22-minute guy or a six-minute guy and helping shape that person’s day, about being positive and being excited,” said Maurice.

Prior to the trade deadline, the Jets had the youngest roster in the NHL. And it’s clear this talented team has struggled to find its way at times, including a 3-5-2 stretch heading into action Tuesday night — against the Wild, coincidentally — at Bell MTS Place.

“At the end of the day, are you a person the organization wants other players to follow? And do you have the ability and the skill set that can identify a guy that needs help and reach out and have the respect of that player, so he has all of those things here?” said Maurice.

No doubt Maurice and company are hoping bringing back the man affectionately known as “Hendy” will help get the good times rolling once again.

“I don’t think I’m going to have to do a whole lot. Just come and be myself, bring a lot of joy, a lot of excitement to the rink every day. Just be a small piece of that puzzle that we’ve talked about in the past. Know my role, stay in my lane and do what I can to help,” Hendricks said.

To be clear, Hendricks isn’t under any illusion about playing time. He was a healthy scratch Tuesday night, and there’s likely a lot more of them to come as long as the Jets stay healthy in their forward group. Who knows when NHL game No. 604 will come, or how many more will follow?

“I’m going to come to the rink every day and work as hard as I can and do the best I can out there. If that warrants opportunity to play then obviously I accept it. And if I get into a game and perform well I want to stay in the lineup. But if that stuff isn’t happening and guys are performing better than me, then I’m going to have their back 100 per cent. For me it’s more important to win, that’s really why I wanted to come back to Winnipeg,” he said.

Last year’s playoff victories over Minnesota and Nashville, followed by a disappointing defeat to Vegas, has only increased the passion, he said.

“I don’t think anyone in this room was happy the way the season ended for us last year,” he said. “I think, for the most part, it’s the same group, except for a few guys. It’s a hungry team, it’s a hungry organization that wants to win now.”

John Woods / The Canadian Press files Jacob Trouba can't stop Matt Hendricks (as a Minnesota Wild player) during a tilt in December.

Cheveldayoff was the busiest GM at the trade deadline, bringing in five new faces in Hendricks, Kevin Hayes, Nathan Beaulieu, Par Lindholm and Bogdan Kiselevich. They are essentially taking the spots of Nic Petan (traded to Toronto), Brendan Lemieux (traded to New York), Mason Appleton and Tucker Poolman (both sent down to the Manitoba Moose).

That made for quite a scene Tuesday in the dressing room, as all the new faces mingled with the old ones.

“The challenge is getting them into the culture and excited about it. Finding them enough to be excited about,” Maurice said. “Where that challenge is mitigated is that program isn’t a whole lot different than the five guys that may have held that spot prior. We were doing the same thing with them. They were new players and we were so very, very young.

“Now, let’s shift our focus here, we can get a little older for a couple of months and we’re going to have to buy a few more razors for the locker room and away we go.”

And the hope is the most grizzled face of all will play a key part.


Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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