ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Before the start of the 2003-04 college hockey season, Matt Hendricks couldn’t highlight his hair to his satisfaction.
He knew what he wanted — a shade of white. What he got was kind of a yellow-orange-gold look.
“I didn’t want it so bold,” Hendricks said, smiling. “But, it’s fading out a little bit.”
Funny, his hair choice — in a very small sense — kind of reflected the choices he faced this summer, when he was trying to decide whether to come back and play his senior season for the St. Cloud State hockey team.
On one hand, he knew what he wanted — a chance to play in the National Hockey League with the Nashville Predators, who drafted him in the fifth round (131st overall) of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, and the chance at a major paycheck. Heck, for that kind of money, he wouldn’t have to mess around with his hair on his own.
But the more he thought about it, the more he thought that coming back to St. Cloud State made good sense.
“At the beginning of the summer, I was about 90 percent sure I was going to leave, that I wasn’t going to come back,” Hendricks said. “As the summer progressed, my views started looking more toward school and staying here for one more year. I knew we had a lot of guys coming back that worked real hard.
“I figured, I’m young, I’m only 22, I can make that jump next year,” Hendricks said.
It’s a jump Husky fans, and St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl, were worried about all summer long.
“You can’t replace players like that,” Dahl said of his wing, who entered the season with 87 career points in 116 games played — easily the most in either category among current Huskies. “You don’t replace a senior [like that].”
Dahl had something the Predators could not guarantee Hendricks — ice time. The Blaine High School graduate will play in all situations for the Huskies, something the Predators could not promise. In addition, teammates voted Hendricks, along with senior defenseman Ryan LaMere, co-captains.
“The step [to the pros] is big. Once you go there, you can’t go back,” Hendricks said. “I figured that I needed to mature, that I need to work on my game more. I need to get those leadership skills that I’m already working on.
“And, you know what? It worked out for the best. I’m real happy,” Hendricks said.
One other factor weighed on Hendricks’ decision. Nashville has a stockpile of young forwards, and even if Hendricks wound up playing in the organization, he might be buried behind other similarly-aged and skilled players.
“As a 22-year-old playing in the American Hockey League under a team that’s pretty thick with forwards, younger forwards my age, I’m going to be playing two out of every three games,” Hendricks said. “Coming back to school made it sound that much better, because I’m going to be playing in all situations.
“There, if I get stuck sitting every third game, I can’t really show them what I can do. I can’t prove my point. If I stay one more year in college and prove to them [the Predators] what I can do, I’m going to get that much higher on the totem pole,” Hendricks said.
Dahl said the extra year of college hockey will help Hendricks, much like it helped Ryan Malone. Malone played his senior season with St. Cloud State in 2002-03, and then made the Pittsburgh Penguins’ opening-day roster this fall.
“Malone said he’s just so glad now that he stayed for four years,” Dahl said. “It made a big difference for him this year — particularly since both Ryan and Matt did not play two years of juniors. They came [to St. Cloud State] straight out of high school, although Ryan was a year older coming out of high school. That was the same situation with Hendie — he was just straight out of high school.
“So, I think [the senior year] is critical to their well being,” Dahl said.
When Hendricks was drafted by the Predators in 2000 after helping Blaine win the Class AA state high school hockey tournament, he had the typical reaction: “Two years [in college] and you want to leave,” Hendricks said. “But there’s a lot more involved in that.
“Physically, I’m there,” said Hendricks, in the best shape of his career (205 well-muscled pounds). “Mentally, I need to be a better player. I need to work on my temper. I need to work on my all-around attitude, along with my mental game, which has gotten progressively better since I’ve been here.”
He’ll get plenty of opportunities. He is the Huskies’ returning offensive leader in almost every category, including goals (18), assists (18), points (36), shots (125), penalties (28) and penalty minutes (64). This season, he has three goals and five points in 10 games.
“I’m not out there by myself, I’m out there with four other [skaters],” Hendricks said. “Talent-wise, we don’t have a guy that can skate the puck from one end to the other end and score. But we have guys that can get the puck over the red line and work harder than any guy on any other team in this league, and get the puck to the net, which is the blue collar mentality that we have.”
In this case, the blue collar mentality comes with a head full of yellow-orange-gold hair.