Indoor home rink keeps Plymouth-bound Marek Hejduk on ice during pandemic
The coronavirus outbreak hasn't stopped Plymouth-bound hockey player Marek Hejduk from skating and pursuing his NHL dream.
Hockey rinks are closed but the 16-year-old son of former Avalanche forward Milan Hejduk still laces up his skates with his twin brother David and steps onto a miniature ice rink complete with a Zamboni inside their home.
Built in 2012 in Parker, Colorado, about 25 miles southeast of Denver, the rink is 85 feet long by 40 feet wide ("about the size of a neutral zone," Milan says).
Attached to the rink is a locker room complete with a shower, restroom, kitchen, weight room and a sleeping area where friends can stay overnight. The Zamboni carries a water tank but doesn't collect snow like the NHL-sized machines. A blade cuts the ice and the ice chippings are shoveled into a pit.
"Now that everything is shut down and nothing is really going on, we're using the rink way more often, every day, multiple times," said Marek, who will move to Michigan in late August to begin a two-year program with the U.S. under-17 national team development program at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth.
"Over the years, we would play two-on-two, three-on-three, just two nets and lots of skating, shooting, passing. It's been absolutely amazing, working on things whenever we want. I'm just glad we could enjoy it with our friends."
Milan Hejduk got the idea of building an indoor rink from his home builder, who had a similar rink in nearby Cherry Hills, and from his former teammate Adam Foote, who built an outdoor rink with a refrigeration unit underground.
Foote's two sons, Nolan and Cal, both played for the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets and were first-round draft picks by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nolan was dealt to the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline this year.
"We didn't think the rink would lead to anything somewhere down the road but obviously it didn't hurt with extra time on the ice," Milan said. "I love hockey. They love hockey. It was just another facility they could utilize with their friends."
The indoor rink, which stays open from October to May, is quite a contrast to the rinks that Hejduk played on while growing up in Usti nad Labem in the Czech Republic.
"We used to flood a hard-surface tennis court between our apartment buildings in the winter," Hejduk said. "It was very similar to what kids would do in Minnesota or Michigan, skating on ponds. Here in Colorado, it's not nearly as cold."
After spending his entire 14-year career in Colorado and retiring in 2013 with 375 career goals in 1,020 games and a Stanley Cup title in 2001, Hejduk began coaching his twin sons in the Colorado Thunderbirds' minor hockey system, which has ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation for three consecutive years.
"Milan deserves a lot of credit for developing the skills of that '04 group," said U16 Thunderbirds coach David Clarkson, a former NHL forward who scored 114 career goals with the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets.
"He was a gifted player, a kind, respected person who never raises his voice. He wanted to make sure they had the freedom to play the game. Marek is very skilled. He sees the ice really well and he has that burst of speed. David plays the game the right way too. He's got those leadership qualities and he has a future in hockey too."
Marek, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound center, had 45 goals and 48 assists in 46 games last season and David, a 6-foot, 180-pound defenseman, had eight points in 17 games. Both were selected in the ninth round of last year's Western Hockey League bantam draft (Marek by Portland, David by Everett). David will be eligible for the United States Hockey League draft on May 3 but could wind up with the Thunderbirds again.
Seth Appert, the coach of the NTDP under-17 team, says he's looking forward to training camp with Hejduk and the 22 other players in late August. An orientation camp in June might be postponed because of COVID-19. The first tournament is the World U17 Hockey Challenge in Prince Edward Island in November.
"As I told them on Zoom last week, making the team was the easy part," Appert said. "Now it's time to work. What they signed up for is not a normal high school experience. Normal high school kids can work kind of hard and have girlfriends, stay up late and play video games, eat chips, whatever.
"They're going to be held to a different standard now and this offseason is going to be hard because there may not be personal trainers and all these gyms to go to. It's going to be a little bit old school. The guys who put in the work in the next five months will be successful in the fall."
Until then, Milan and his wife, Zlata, plan on renting a place in the Plymouth area and they have their Colorado home for sale so they can cut down on the one-hour drives for practices and games with the Thunderbirds.
It's not lost on Hejduk that his family will be spending more time in the state where the Red Wings and Avalanche fought to the finish in one of the game's most intense rivalries with the teams combining to win five Stanley Cups in seven years.
"Every time we played the Wings, it was like a holiday here (in Colorado)," Hejduk said. "Fans expected more than than an ordinary game, especially in the playoffs. The momentum in those series could shift in a matter of seconds. A bad decision, a bad mistake and all of a sudden the other team had the momentum.
"I played on a line with either Joe Sakic and Alex Tanguay or Peter Forsberg and Chris Drury. Sometimes we would match up against (Steve) Yzerman's line or (Darren) McCarty's line. They were not only skilled but their compete level was phenomenal. You learned quickly that every shift mattered, winning those battles."
Marek has watched tapes of those battles against the Red Wings and says he's learned to appreciate how much work his dad put into the game at home and at the rink.
"My dad has been truly inspiring," Marek said. "There might've been a bit more pressure on me being the son of an NHL player but the positives outweigh the negatives. I'm just excited for this change. Hopefully, the coronavirus dies down and we can start the season full strength and on time. I can't wait."