Hendricks completes first USO tour before the holidays

With the NHL lockout measured by months now, players have found new ways to stay in shape and in touch with fans, including ways to reach out to the military community for ways to help veterans and their families.

Matt Hendricks sits inside a Warthog fighter jet at Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan. The plane is used specifically for troop ground cover. Submitted photo
Matt Hendricks sits inside a Warthog fighter jet at Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan. The plane is used specifically for troop ground cover. Submitted photo

For Washington Capitals forward and Blaine native Matt Hendricks that meant a chance of a lifetime to be part of a USO tour.

The tour met troops in Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Germany.

After a refueling stop in Ireland, they landed on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis off the coast of Bahrain for the first meeting with the troops.

Hendricks was part of a tour that included Washington Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, singer Kellie Pickler and comedian Iliza Shelsinger.

“It was a great group of people,” Hendricks said. “We did a lot of meet-and-greets along with five shows.”

Those shows included signing many autographs and posing for as many photos as the troops wanted.

USO Hendricks banner
Matt Hendricks, holding the right corner of the USO Tour banner, during a stop at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan after finishing a vehicle rollover training exercise. Photo submitted

Hendricks talked with some troops at the Transit Center in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, some of whom were either on their first deployment while others were making a sixth deployment into Afghanistan.

“It was an honor just to be asked and I’d be honored to go again, but we need to find a way to get more hockey players over there,” he said.

He got a little flak from the crowd about the NHL lockout, Hendricks said. “A lot of people asked when we were going to start playing but it wasn’t too bad at all,” he said.

He noted how many Minnesotans were at the different events and was amazed by how many recognized him. “They were excited to see me and we were there to say thanks and help them out any way we could,” Hendricks said.

The USO tour members were thanked for their support, which was followed by a comedy set by Shelsinger.

Hendricks and the Nats pitchers followed with messages of teamwork and support. Hendricks’ message revolved around how every job is important on a team and how tough it is to be away from friends and family for long periods of time.

Outdoor Classic
What: Third annual Blaine-Coon Rapids outdoor girls’ hockey game
Where: Coon Rapids Ice Center
When: Jan. 12. JV at 1 p.m.; varsity at 3 p.m.
New this year: Proceeds raised will go toward the Minnesota Warriors hockey team which is a program set up for disabled military veterans. The Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Coaches Association is a strong supporter of the group which helps returning veterans be part of another team.
The programs will hold a silent auction with items donated by former Blaine standout Matt Hendricks, USA Hockey and Minnesota Warriors. Special apparel will be sold, concessions will be available, a colorguard for the National Anthem, special helmet decals and members of the Warriors will take part in an honorary puck drop.
Coon Rapids’ boys hockey will host an outdoor game Jan. 19.

Hendricks and the group flew from the Persian Gulf to the former Soviet Union nation of Kyrgyzstan, where Manas is the entry and exit point for troops heading into northern Afghanistan.

From there they headed to Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan to see troops on the front line.

After that they made two stops in Germany – Stuttgart followed by Landstuhl Regional Medical Center – before heading back to the United States.

Hendricks and his wife, Kim, have worked with Defending the Blue Line, a program to help military families participate in hockey, and the Wounded Warrior Project in the Washington D.C. area.

Hendricks has been nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy twice in 2009 and 2011. Each NHL franchise nominates a player for the award who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the sport. The winner is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.

Hendricks jumped that the opportunity to thank military personnel and hopefully bring some relief in a war zone around the holidays.

“It’s nothing I’ve ever done before, but we’ve done a lot with the military and now its addictive and we really enjoy doing what we can,” he said.

His father was a Marine in Vietnam for more than two years and was excited for Hendricks to have the opportunity.

“To hear their stories and how our programs have helped them is special,” Hendricks said. “It’s a good feeling to have kids play hockey and even better to see how excited they get when they come to games and meet us.”

Hendricks remembers how much of a thrill it was to see an NHL game at Met Center growing up.

“Those are some of my fondest memories growing up – going up to Letterman Sports to get autographs from Neil Broten,” he said.

One bonus from the lockout has been the chance to see his twin 13-month-old boys grow up even more.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do than play hockey, but the silver lining is to be with my twins and family over the holidays, which has been great,” he said, balancing workouts, scrimmages and family life in Minnesota instead of D.C.

Hendricks has taken part in some organized scrimmages at Ridder Arena with other NHL players after off-ice workouts with others. “At the beginning [of the scrimmages] it was everyone getting to know each other, but now we’re all just trying to stay mentally focused and physically in shape,” Hendricks said.

The way the 2011-12 season ended for Hendricks and the Capitals in a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden after knocking off the Boston Bruins only helps fuel the drive to get back at it with his teammates.

“[Our season] stopped a lot quicker than we wanted, but we had a real tough opponent against Boston and we deserved to win that series,” he said.

The Capitals forced a seventh game after tying Game 6 with six seconds left in regulation. “To have an opportunity to win it in Game 7 was all we could ask for,” Hendricks said.

The Capitals fired coach Bruce Boudreau 22 games into last season, making way for Capitals legend Dale Hunter, who went 30-23-0-7 for a second-place in the Southeast Division.

Hendricks said there was a learning curve with Hunter. “Bruce liked to talk with the guys either one-on-one, formal or informal about anything before or after practice,” Hendricks said.

“He’d just ask general questions to see how we were doing, whereas Dale is a very quiet guy and allowed his assistants to do the talking and when he did, it was all business. His style of play was similar to Bruce, but I was fortunate in that Dale liked my style more and I had more ice time.”

Hendricks added more playing time thanks to his spot on the top checking line which played against the opposition’s top-scoring line in addition to penalty killing duties. He also was called on for more key face-offs in the Capitals end of the rink.

While prospects of an NHL season look bleak, Hendricks and his teammates are still looking to help out where they can.

Jason Olson is at [email protected]