MILWAUKEE — When you feel you’ve wasted two years of your life, what tack do you take? If you’re ever going to be the Most Outstanding Player of a national championship tournament, you have to change course and make up for lost time.
That’s the exact approach taken by North Dakota junior forward Matt Henderson. In the fifth year of turning his hockey career around, Henderson led his team to a 6-4 win over Boston University in the NCAA title game at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
The night before the championship game, Henderson did some talking to himself. “I’m going to leave no stone unturned; I’m going to leave my heart on the ice.”
It was no small one that he left out there. “Matt has the biggest heart in the league (WCHA),” says freshman teammate Aaron Schweitzer, who like Henderson is a member of the All-Tournament Team.
Henderson assisted on North Dakota’s rally-starting first goal and scored twice in a five-goal second-period explosion that lifted the Fighting Sioux to their sixth national championship.
A six-point weekend (four goals, two assists) put him at the top of the tournament scoring list.
The period of adjustment for Henderson came after his senior year at White Bear Lake High School in Minnesota. “I threw away two years of high school. I was King Crap. I wasted two years of my life,” Henderson recalls. “And now, I’m going to make it up,” he promised himself as he began a two-year stay with the St. Paul Vulcans of the United States Hockey League in 1992.
He righted his hockey career impressively by being named a league all-star in 1993-94. But, there was nothing secure about his hockey future. With only a month remaining before the start of the 1994-95 academic year, Henderson didn’t feel he had a bona fide offer to play college hockey.
“Amherst was just going Division I, and Illinois-Chicago. [UIC's] program ended, so I guess I made the right decision there. I wanted to stay close to home and play in the WCHA, the best league in the nation.”
Still, no offers. He called St. Cloud State and was told they already had a lot of players. He also considered playing Division II or III.
“With one month left before school,” says Henderson, “(UND coach) Dean Blais called. He said ‘We heard you can play. If you want, you can come up and try out. If you make the team we can give you some (scholarship) money.’”
“I can look back now and smile.”
Henderson’s first year at UND wasn’t all smiles; his relationship with Blais, the coach of his last, best D-I hope, wasn’t rosy. “We didn’t see things eye to eye,” Henderson says.
“He wanted the seniors to make the team go. He thought I (as a freshman) was too big for my britches.”
“I wanted more, he got complacent,” recalls Blais, who was in his rookie season as coach. “I told him, ‘Get on board or get out of town.’”
Henderson agrees, “I think I was (complacent). It was “a slap of reality in the face.”
Henderson’s quest to wipe out two “wasted” years should be considered complete. In Milwaukee, he competed in a national event loaded with five Hobey Baker finalists, including teammate Jason Blake.
The Hobey winner, Brendan Morrison of Michigan, and runner-up Chris Drury of Boston University, came to Milwaukee amid fanfare, acclaim and attention. Henderson leaves Milwaukee as the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player and as a national champion.
To Henderson, that’s all right. “I’ll take the national championship.”