Column: From rec league to the American league

Gander native Derek Hender, 46, gets first taste of pro hockey as emergency backup puckstop

Robin Short
Published on November 23, 2013
Derek Hender (centre) served as the backup goalie for the AHL’s Texas Stars during a Nov. 1 game against the Iowa Wild. The 46-year-old from Gander has since served as an emergency backup for the Milwaukee Admirals.
— Photo courtesy Derek Hender

Rare is the time a hockey player celebrates the highlight of what otherwise is an inauspicious career at 46 years old.
Even more extraordinary that it comes in the American Hockey League. And the guy’s from Gander.

Earlier this month, Derek Hender became one of the oldest players to suit up for an AHL game, when he signed an amateur tryout agreement with the Texas Stars. At 46, Hender is a year younger than Chris Chelios was when the latter joined the Chicago Wolves in 2009-10 as a 47- and 48-year-old, the oldest player to toil in the American Hockey League.

Imagine, Derek Hender — born and raised in Gander, graduate of the old St. Clare’s School of Nursing, rec goaltender supreme — mentioned in the same breath, if only fleetingly, with the recently-inducted hockey Hall of Famer.

Hender and his wife, the former Paula Mooney of Kilbride, today live in Des Moines, Iowa, where he no longer practises nursing, but rather is a 9-to-5 executive with Fresenius Medical Care.

Hockey isn’t big in Iowa — the state has produced one NHLer, goaltender Scott Clemmenson of the Florida Panthers — though there are pockets where it’s played and has something of a cult following (the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Teddy Purcell of St. John’s played two years in the United States (Junior) Hockey League in Cedar Rapids).

In Des Moines, just as he did in New Orleans where he moved after leaving Newfoundland in 1992, Hender found himself a game in a local rec league. And on a Tuesday evening every second week, he skates with a group of front office officials with the Iowa Wild, the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate in Des Moines.

It’s with the Iowa AHL team, as well, that Hender is partially employed, as the head of off-ice officials on game nights.

So it was in early November when the Texas Stars — farm team of the Dallas Stars — were in Des Moines for a pair of games that Stars goalie Cristopher Nilstorp was injured. Unable to secure a goalie from the ECHL, Central Hockey League or any other minor pro outfit, Stars’ GM Scott White put the call out to the Wild looking for a name, any name.

Before Minnesota moved in, and the Stars moved on to Texas, Dallas used to house their AHL club in Iowa. Hender also worked as an off-ice official at those games, and had come to know White a little bit.

So when the Wild mentioned this local goalie, this local rec league puckstop named Hender, White had an immediate connection.

“That’s when (the Stars) called and asked if I’d be available for practice, and guaranteed to be available that night as a backup,” Hender recalls.

“Of course, it took me about an eighth of a second to say, ‘Yup, I’m there!’”

On Friday, Nov. 1, Derek Hender experienced life as a professional hockey player, if only for a day.

He went to practice that morning, met with the equipment guys, completed a physical, signed his ATO and took part in the visiting team’s 11 a.m. morning skate.

“I went out and had the snot beaten out of me,” he laughed.

“The velocity of the shots, the amazing releases they have. It’s sickening.”

That afternoon, Hender was back at the rink for 5 p.m., where his equipment was dried and hung, his green and white No. 35 HENDER jersey waiting for him in his own locker room stall.

“The guys ensured I went along with them for the pre-game meal, involved me in conversation,” he said. “Aaron Rome (a veteran of 201 NHL games), who probably is one of the most intimidating-looking guys on the ice, was probably the coolest guy in the locker room.

“He looks like he could tear your head off, but he came over and introduced himself, was standing next to my stall, chatting about kids and asking me where I’m from, what I do for a living. Awesome guy.”

For whatever reason, the Stars asked Hender to keep his big moment hush-hush, so outside of family and the closest of friends, few knew he would be dressing in an AHL game.

It’s why, he said, he ensured he made his way through the corridor from the dressing room and on the ice surface with his mask on the top of his head, a la Patrick Roy.

“Going out the runway, it didn’t feel much different than going out for a league game,” he recalls, “until you realize there are 9,000 people staring back at you. I’m thinking, there are a few less people in the stands than my whole hometown.”

The Wild won 4-2 and Stars netminder Josh Robinson suffered his first career AHL loss.

There was a moment, Hender said, when he thought he might be pressed into service when an Iowa player crashed into Robinson and into the Texas goalpost.

“He was a bit shaken up,” Hender said of Robinson. “My heart stopped a little bit for a brief moment.”

Since then, Hender has suited up for another game, this time for the Milwaukee Admirals in Des Moines last weekend.

Same thing led to this most recent circumstance: Admirals’ goalie Magnus Hellberg pulled his groin the night before in Chicago. Rather than dress Hellberg and run the risk of having to play him if backup Scott Darling went down, the Admirals placed a call to the Wild and, ultimately, Hender.

“That was even more fun,” Hender said of the Milwaukee experience. “I didn’t have any butterflies and I knew what to expect. The guys in locker room were phenomenal ... a blast. A couple guys were giving me the gears the whole night.”

Hender expects to receive his Texas and Milwaukee jerseys in the mail any day now, and he’s already gotten the official scoresheet from his first game with the Stars.

As for any cha-ching, Hender is tight-lipped.

“Let’s just say I got paid more than what I would have done it for.”

Which is, needless, to say, nothing.

Dollar signs cannot be placed on some things, like priceless memories.

Hender not the only Newfoundlander in Des Moines

Derek Hender jokes that he’s born again, but not in a spiritual sense.

You see, Hender quit playing hockey after his minor days. Didn’t play in high school in his native Gander, or later in St. John’s when he was attending nursing school.

It wasn’t until he moved to New Orleans for work and landed a position as an off-ice official for the former New Orleans Brass of the ECHL that he regained his interest in tending goal.

“I only started playing again in my late 20s,” he said.

“I got the itch from being around the rink watching the Brass, and then I landed a game with a bunch of Canadians and guys from the northern U.S.

“There were lots of Canadians in Louisiana, and a fair number of Newfoundlanders between nurses and oil industry people.

“We had an all-Canadian, but mostly all-Newfoundland softball team. They were from all over, from St. John’s to Labrador.

“We had great Christmas parties, I can guarantee you that.”

Twelve years after landing in New Orleans, Hender and his wife, born and raised in Kilbride, left for Des Moines, Iowa.

“One of the last calls I made before I left Louisiana for Des Moines was to check out the hockey situation (in Iowa),” he said.

One day, in the locker room following a skate, Hender met a chap who looked a bit familiar.

His name was Rob Rose. He played hockey for Iowa State University (an NCAA Division II school), and one more thing ... Rose hailed from Gander.

“Didn’t know he was in Des Moines ... not a clue,” Hender said.

Rose coaches the Des Moines Oak Leafs. Soon Hender became involved, and today is the high school team’s goaltending coach for Rose.

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor.

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