When you hail from a place like Spring, Texas, you’re bound to soar to great heights. The only question for Olympic speedskater Chad Hedrick was how he would get there.
The one thing he knew for sure was that it would involve skates. It was only a matter of which kind.
Blessed with athletic ability and a fiercely competitive nature, Hedrick was a natural at everything he tried. Including hockey.
“Chad was a pretty good skater, and hockey came fairly natural to him,” recalled Hedrick’s father Paul.
“Since he was a little kid he was always picking up my hockey sticks and any kind of ball he could find and would play hockey.”
At a time when most toddlers are still figuring out how to walk, Hedrick was wheeling around his father’s roller rink, negating the family’s need for a full-time babysitter while dad attended to business.
It wasn’t long before the family put his passion for hockey and his ability to move around the rink together. While hockey was relatively new in Texas, Hedrick began playing when he was 7 years old. It wasn’t long thereafter that he met Kevin McLaughlin, a native of Houston who grew up playing with the Dineen brothers, Gord and Kevin, both of who enjoyed stellar NHL careers.
McLaughlin had recently returned home following a college career at Union College and Miami (Ohio) University, ready to help usher in a new era of hockey in Houston.
“Nobody in Houston knew how to set up a breakout or any of that stuff. So when Kevin came and explained the game to us, it made sense,” said Hedrick.
It didn’t take long before McLaughlin saw something in Hedrick, something more than just a skinny player who could skate like the wind. Even at a young age, Hedrick displayed a mental toughness and a fierce desire to win that if molded could lead to amazing results.
That’s when McLaughlin began to play games within the game with Hedrick, forcing him to go beyond the comfort level of simply skating fast and scoring goals. If Hedrick scored three goals, McLaughlin would drop him back on defense, or tell him he had to win three faceoffs before he could attempt another shot on goal.
“I made life more challenging for Chad because I knew that he could handle that,” said McLaughlin, now the senior director of youth hockey for USA Hockey.
“It was easy for Chad to be the fastest skater and score goals, but his competiveness and his desire was different than other kids. I knew I could ask for more from him than I could from other kids because of his competitive spirit.”
Sometimes these added challenges ruffled the feathers of both father and son, but ultimately they saw the method behind the madness.
“The reason that Kevin and my dad bumped heads a little bit was because they had the same philosophy. They could sense that they could push me to the next level without me breaking down,” said Hedrick.
“They helped instill in me an attitude that if I can’t win I don’t want to play. That attitude has helped take me to the next level. It doesn’t matter if I go bowling or speedskating. In everything I do I’m there to win. My whole idea is I’m cheating myself if I’m not there to win.”
In order to find games of any kind for his club, McLaughlin had to take his teams beyond the Texas borders to faraway hockey hotbeds like St. Louis, Denver and Detroit. Initially they received little respect from local teams who viewed Houston hockey as a novelty. But when Hedrick, along with teammates Jamie Benard and Teddy Iacenda, hit the ice, it didn’t take long for them to prove these Houston boys could play.
“We did all right, playing in St. Louis and places like that,” said Benard, who went on to play college hockey at Fredonia State in Upstate New York.
“We’d have a line or two that could compete well with other teams, but when it got to our third or fourth lines we were a bit weaker.”
On and off the ice, Hedrick and Benard remained inseparable, pushing and challenging each other to be their very best. Sometimes the competition became so fierce that a friendly game of tennis would end up with bloody noses and ripped T-shirts.
“I never met anybody in my life that hated losing more than him,” said Benard, who remains close with Hedrick. “It wasn’t just hockey. It was everything, even playing cards or playing golf.”
As the boys grew, outside influences would impact their lives, but not their friendship. Benard’s family was relocated to Dallas, and Hedrick would make the flight for practices and games.
Eventually it became clear that his best path for success was not hockey, but rather in the competitive world of roller skating.
“There came a point in my life where I had to really decide what I wanted to do, and whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision, I made the decision to be a speedskater,” Hedrick said.
Judging from his trophy case, it turned out to be the right choice. He won his first national championship on roller skates when he was 16, and switched to Rollerblades and won his first inline world championship a year later in 1994.
Using a self-taught style called the double push, Hedrick would eventually win 50 world championships, a mark that no one in the sport’s history has come close to matching.
Still, something was missing. Despite the sport’s popularity in certain circles, inline skating had no chance of becoming an Olympic sport. Chad knew he had to follow other inline skaters such as Olympians Derek Parra and KC Boutiette and make the jump to the ice.
Competing in his first race, Hedrick finished 27th and was laughed at by international competitors for his unique style. Less than a year later, Hedrick enjoyed the last laugh as the world champion.
“It was really funny because he went from people laughing at him to these guys realizing that he was for real and trying to duplicate what he did,” said Paul Hedrick.
“Chad didn’t like to lose, but more importantly, he couldn’t accept losing. He willed himself to win.”
It was that will to win that would eventually propel Hedrick to the Olympic medals podium in Torino, Italy. With a gold medal in the 5,000 meters, a silver in the 10,000 meters and a bronze in the 1,500 meters, Hedrick joined Eric Heiden as the only American male long track speedskater to win three medals in a single Olympics.
Now a husband and father of a baby daughter, Hedrick is approaching the Vancouver Games with the same dedication that took him to the pinnacle of the speedskating world. Only this time, he plans on enjoying his Olympic experience a little more.
“I feel like I’m just as strong, and more experienced, but at the same time recovering from races is a bit more difficult than it used to be,” said the 32-year-old. “I’m really concentrating on a couple of events instead of spreading myself thin and trying to conquer the world.
This being my last Olympics I want this to be a memorable experience. My goal is not only to perform well, which I’m working really hard for, but also to enjoy it.”
And when it’s all over and Hedrick hangs up his competitive skates, the smart money says he’ll return to hockey, perhaps as a power skating coach or as an adult player. His love of the game has never died, but was simply shelved while he devoted himself full-time to becoming an Olympic champion.
“Don’t think for one minute that when I go to a hockey game or watch hockey on TV that I don’t think ‘what if?’ ” Hedrick said.
“It’s a tough thing to swallow because I knew my talent and love of the game. If it were my choice I would’ve done both, but as we all know in this world you can’t be the best at two sports these days. It’s just too tough.”
Someday Hedrick hopes to return to his native Texas, join a men’s league and pick up where he left off. When that day happens, look out. Once again the ultra-competitive adult hockey player with the million-dollar smile will show the hockey world what could’ve been.
“I’ve asked myself what am I going to do for exercise once this is over,” he said. “For me to get back involved in hockey would be something that I’d be able to enjoy and bring back some history of when I was young.”
That’s another thing about a spring. Once it uncoils, it always snaps back into place.