By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – St. Cloud State hockey coach Craig Dahl is not surprised that Matt Hendricks is leading the Florida Everblades in scoring just 26 games into his rookie season.
Dahl, who watched Hendricks score 112 points over 153 games in four college seasons, would have been more surprised if Hendricks did not strive in the ECHL.
“I bet most of his goals are seven or eight feet from the net,” said Dahl, who will see Hendricks for the first time as a pro Wednesday when Florida plays Pensacola at Germain Arena. “He’s willing to take a stick to the head to get a goal.
“He just worked so hard all the time. He really wants to win and do what it takes to win.”
Hendricks is not the flashiest but is one of the hardest working players for Florida this season and has taken a stick to the head, being slashed in the jaw against South Carolina on Dec. 10. He missed a few shifts but came back with a face mask.
“It’s a simple equation to success, I think,” said Hendricks, 23. “You work hard, you stay focused for 60 minutes and it’s all going to pay off in the end.”
The end results for the 6-foot, 205-pound forward have been good thus far. His 27 points, 14 assists and 13 goals lead the team. Hendricks was also tied for third in overall scoring among rookies through Friday.
“He works hard,” Florida forward Brad Church said. “Everything he does is hard. He works hard, shoots hard, skates hard and that’s why he’s having success right now.”
THE HARD WAY
Hendricks has done things his way throughout his hockey career. And his decisions have not always been conventional.
A three-sport star at Blaine (Minn.) High School, Hendricks was drafted by the Twin City Volcans junior team before his senior year. Most top high school players go to juniors so they can dedicate themselves to their sport full time a few years and then move on to the college or pro level.
“It was a tough decision for me to make,” Hendricks said. “I wanted to progress my hockey career. … But I had other interests and plans on my mind. I played quarterback for a very prestigious program and I wanted to play baseball and I knew that we were going to be very good (in hockey) and I wanted to win a state championship and we did.”
Hendricks stayed in school and led Blaine High to the Minnesota Class AA 2000 state hockey championship. He also guided the football team into the state playoffs where it lost to Cretin-Derham Hall, which was led by former Fort Myers Miracle and current Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Hendricks also played catcher himself and helped his team reach the state playoffs.
“I think if I had went and played juniors I would have been a little better prepared for my first year in college, but it’s a give and take. I got a chance to play with my best friends and I won a state championship. I don’t regret it.”
The Nashville Predators had seen enough in Hendricks to select him in the fifth round, 131 overall, of the 2000 draft. Dahl had also seen enough of Hendricks to recruit him to play at St. Cloud, where he started as a freshman.
“He fit in good,” Dahl said. “We had a very good team his freshman year. We were rated No. 1 in the country for seven weeks and were one game away from the Final Four. He played on our third and fourth line.”
Hendricks’ first collegiate goal came on Dec. 9, 2000, against Wisconsin. It was set up by then St. Cloud senior and current Blades teammate Keith Anderson.
After sophomore and junior seasons of scoring 39 and 36 points, respectively, the Predators believed Hendricks was ready to make the jump to the pro level and offered him a contract.
Hendricks again agonized over whether he should stay or go. He took a number of laborious summer jobs while thinking. He laid concrete, husked corn on a farm and finally worked at a sod farm. In the end, just like in high school, he decided to stay.
“For both myself and my parents, a degree is important,” said Hendricks, who is only a few credits short of earning a biology degree with an emphasis in wildlife management. Hendricks, an avid outdoorsman, would like to work in a fishery department when his playing days are over. “It was a tough decision to stay another season, but I thought it was better for me. I didn’t perform in the stat department and maybe that hurt me. I learned lot about leadership on a team that was not successful.”
Hendricks also figured he would play more in college than as a rookie with the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. Hendricks did play a lot of minutes his senior year, but a chronic ankle injury limited his production. He estimated he may have played only 10 out of 37 games without pain and scored just 14 goals and 25 points.
Hendricks eventually did sign with the Predators after his senior college season was over and was shipped to Milwaukee. He played in only one game over three months as the Admirals went on to win the 2004 AHL championship.
ON TO FLORIDA
Hendricks did not see much of a future for himself in the Nashville organization and asked for a release from his contract, which was granted. Both Dahl, who has a working relationship with Florida general manager Craig Brush, and former St. Cloud teammate Anderson talked to Hendricks about the Blades.
So far it has been a good fit. Hendricks has had some learning pains like how to deal with long road trips and adjusting to the pace of a pro game.
Of course Hendricks has had some good tutors. His agent, former NHL No. 1 draft pick and 10-year veteran Brian Lawton, has taken many young Minnesota hockey prospects under his wing. He’s worked each summer with such NHL players as Bret Hedican and Mark Parrish.
“Brian Lawton, he’s brought me a long way,” Hendricks said. “He got me into camps, getting me into his trainer, working out. I learned if you go to the net and get your stick on the ice it’ll give you five goals, 10 goals extra a season.”
Using that formula Hendricks set his goals before this season started.
“I looked at 30 and 30, that was my goal — 30 goals, 30 assists,” Hendricks said. “I’m on my way so far.”