Matt Hendricks’ departure is no surprise but no less a shame


Matt Hendricks, right , exits the team's practice facility with his equipment during breakdown day at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in May. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Washington Capitals lost their second-line center to free agency — and to no one’s surprise. Mike Ribeiro signed a four-year, $22 million deal with Phoenix, and the Caps are again without a No. 2 center. The Caps also said goodbye to Matt Hendricks, who’ll get about $1.85 million per year for four years in Nashville.

Ribeiro is the bigger name, but the loss of Hendricks is the bigger shame.

Hendricks is not a scorer — except in shootouts, where his prowess earned the affection of Caps fans. But of course that’s not a reason to keep a guy. You keep a guy such as Hendricks because of his complete willingness to go after anyone on any team at any time.

Hendricks is not a hothead, and he seldom loses control. He’s not the biggest guy on the ice — I’m amazed how small he is out of all that equipment — and he’s not the best, either. But he was the toughest, scrappiest guy on the Caps’ roster, the one who’ll send an opponent into the boards after he has taken a swipe at Alex Ovechkin or Nick Backstrom or gotten too close to Braden Holtby.

In a key victory over Winnipeg in April, he scored what may end up being his most memorable goal as a Cap. The goal was sweet, but what followed was sweeter: He ran smack dab into a Jet, sending him flying, then did what I guess — for lack of a better word — we’ll have to call a dance. I asked him whether that was his favorite goal ever, and he laughed and said yes because he got to hit someone afterward. Would you rather have the goal or the hit? The hit, he said, still laughing.

In addition to his gritty play on the ice, that’s another thing the Caps — and Caps fans — will miss: Hendricks’s laughter, his jokes and jibes. He had a way of loosening up the room when times got tough, and he also was not afraid to stand up and light a fire under a player or the team as a whole. He had earned the respect of the room.

The phrase “blue collar” is applied too often in sports and often incorrectly. But Hendricks really was a guy who had to work hard for everything he got. He didn’t glide from the draft to the NHL in one graceful movement. He spent six years grinding it out in the minors, including a year playing for — and impressing — Bruce Boudreau, who loved his style of play. So when Hendricks found himself without a team for the 2010 season, Gabby invited him to the Caps’ training camp. At 29, Hendricks was essentially auditioning. And he got the part.

This free agency period was Hendricks’s chance to make some money, and he couldn’t afford to pass it up. At 32, he had to think about putting a little more in the bank before his playing days end — especially because that end can come in the blink of an eye. He leaves with kind words for Washington, where he found his true hockey home and where he loved to play.

That’s hardly surprising. Hendricks always knew what to say. I’m not going to lie: I’ll miss him, and so will other reporters. The Caps’ locker room is a mix of elite stars who mystically appear for interviews and then disappear into the nether regions of Kettler and Verizon and guys such as Hendricks, Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer, who stand and deliver.

I will miss seeing Hendricks — Matty or Hendy, in Caps-speak — after practice because he always greeted me before I had a chance to even say hello. That’s not typical athlete behavior, even among hockey players. He was unfailingly polite, but he was more than that: He was genuinely friendly. He kidded. He laughed. And he was honest. He was a guy you would go to if you wanted to know what was wrong with the team or what was happening with another player. He was analytical without being critical of his teammates.

He also was willing to talk after losses. He was not ebullient then, of course, but he came in the room and answered questions, which is not something you can ever take for granted. Again, he was unfailingly polite, even when you could tell he was about ready to explode, having to dissect the same loss over and over again. I have great respect for the guys who stand up after difficult games and answer questions.

Those are selfish, journalistic reasons for missing Hendricks. Fans will have their own reasons. He is that rare free agent who will draw almost no fan ire for taking a bigger paycheck in another town. He will make far more money elsewhere than the Caps would be able to pay him with their salary cap restrictions. He understood that and bore no ill will against the team that gave him a chance to be an everyday player.

I think Caps fans will join me in wishing Hendricks well in Nashville, whether he’s scoring on the shootout, dishing out hard hits or joyously dancing. Especially dancing.

For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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