08 January 2008

On the eve of his 200th NHL game, revisiting Moose's entry into the NHL

Gratulationerna, Johan.

Congratulations to Moose for playing his 200th NHL game. It seems like it was so many more, but I guess there was all that time in the AHL, plus back home in Leksand for the Stars. Hopefully the boys can pull out a win for his milestone.

Penguins' Hedberg never stopped believing he would reach the NHL

Sunday, April 08, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Johan Hedberg was sipping slowly on a cold beer, his first of the evening. He glanced around the restaurant and noticed several other members of the Detroit Vipers working on their fifth, sixth and beyond, fulfilling the stereotype that the only thing harder than the lifestyle in the minor leagues is the drinking.

Johan Hedberg
(Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Hedberg, a newcomer to the club, looked across the table and noticed that Brent Fedyk, an older teammate, was staying dry.

"So I asked him, 'You don't like to drink so much?' And he told me, 'No, we have a game tomorrow night. And for me, every game is a showcase, my chance to get to the NHL. I never know who's going to be up in the stands watching me. If someone's up there just for one game and I'm not playing well, my chance might be gone.' "

Hedberg set his mug down.

He never had anything resembling a drinking problem, but he took Fedyk's stance in a different light and clinged tightly to it for the next three years.

"What Brent told me that night really stuck in my head. There were days where I didn't feel so sharp, didn't feel so good. I would just think to myself that there was someone sitting up there somewhere in that arena that I was trying to impress, someone who came there just to watch me."

Turns out that someone was up there, after all.

On a handful of occasions, this season and last, that someone would sit in the rafters and study his every move, his every mannerism. And, just as Hedberg had envisioned, that someone never introduced himself, never told anyone he was there.

"I loved him, just loved him," Ed Johnston, the Penguins' assistant general manager, recalled. "We were looking at him for two years. Saw him when he played in Cleveland, saw him in Kentucky, saw him in lots of places. Loved him."

"I didn't have a clue," Hedberg said. "No idea."

On March 13, Hedberg, nearly washed up at age 27, was headed to Pittsburgh. And to the NHL.

'My reaction was ... wow'

When Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick announced he had acquired the rights to Hedberg and defenseman Bobby Dollas from the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Jeff Norton, the cries rose in Pittsburgh.

"Johan who?"
"That's it?"
"A minor-leaguer?"

One reaction in Winnipeg was decidedly different.

The Manitoba Moose had just arrived at the airport after a long road trip, and Hedberg was greeted by his wife, Pernilla, and daughters Molly, 5, and Wilma, 2.

Pernilla noticed Randy Carlyle, Manitoba's general manager and coach, on his cell phone across the way. Mindful that it was the day of the NHL trading deadline, she couldn't help herself.

"She teased me," Hedberg said. "She tells me, 'OK, maybe you're going somewhere, maybe to the NHL.' "

Carlyle waved to summon Hedberg.

"I handed Johan a phone number and told him to call this guy in San Jose," Carlyle recalled. "I told him this was the break he'd finally been waiting for. He was going to the Penguins."

"My reaction was ... wow. I was so excited I could barely speak," Hedberg said. "My kids and my wife hadn't seen me for a week, and I'm just standing there, saying nothing to them. I looked back at Randy and I asked what I'm supposed to do, whether they're going to just send me back to the minors. He told me they wanted me right away. And I said, 'Oh, OK ... great.' "

That blank stare rapidly disintegrated into a full-throttle case of the nerves when he arrived at Mellon Arena the next day and met the Penguins.

"I was really excited. I was just like a kid, peeking around all the rooms and meeting all the guys."

Including the owner.

"I was wondering all that morning what I was going to say to Mario Lemieux when I met him. You see him on TV and you have some kind of idea what he's like, but until you meet him, you don't know. He has a real karma about him. It was a great experience for me."

But not the real thing. That began the morning of March 16. Hedberg showed up at Florida's arena early, trying desperately to regain some sense of focus. Not to face the Panthers in his NHL debut that night, but to impress his new teammates in the morning skate.

"I was just as focused for that as I've been for any game. I knew there were so many great players on this team, and I wanted to make sure I did my best."

Then came the interminable six-hour stretch between the skate and faceoff.

"I was really nervous. Not that I didn't think I could do it. But here I was, this was the chance I had been dreaming about. I knew I had to be at the top of my game to take advantage of it. Funny thing was, right before the game, I started to settle down a little. I just tried to take shots and get comfortable. And by game time, I felt really calm. I was focused in a good way."

A good way, indeed. He made 41 saves and thwarted the league's premier goal-scorer, Pavel Bure, on two of three breakaways in a 6-3 victory.

That was just the start. Since then, he has gone 6-1-1 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, the best numbers on the club.

To top it off, he learned yesterday from Coach Ivan Hlinka that the Penguins' starting job for the Stanley Cup playoffs is his. That will match him against the Washington Capitals' Olaf Kolzig, the winner of the Vezina Trophy last year as the NHL's best goaltender, in the first round.

"If I see Kolzig on the other side of the rink, it's going to be a great challenge, a fun challenge. But he might not feel the same way about me. I don't know. He probably doesn't even know who I am."

'I was always a goaltender'

Hedberg's story has the same opening chapter of just about every goaltender.

When he was 6, by far the youngest on his block in the 200-strong village of Alvik, Sweden, he, his brothers and some friends helped build a makeshift rink. Hedberg, true to a universal custom in pick-up hockey, was forced by the older boys to don the pads.

And, as so often happens, the youngster fell in love with the position.

"These guys were so much bigger than me, and they shot the puck really hard. But I was never afraid. I would stand there for hours. I loved it. I never played any other position. I was always a goaltender."

His brothers -- Anders was five years older, Bjorn three years older -- gradually lost interest and found other pursuits. But not the youngest.

"I was the only one who kept playing, so I always had to find my own way with it. My mother would help me, too. She was the one who would drive me, who would always be there, selling hot dogs and programs, organizing everything. And that was all the time. I spent so much time at rinks. I never wanted to leave."

Hedberg remains tight with his family. His father, Lars, calls to offer advice. And his brothers stay up at night to listen to Internet broadcasts of his games. After his NHL debut, they were brought to tears when they heard Lemieux presented Hedberg with the puck.

But his mother, Bia, died two years ago after a long illness. That, Hedberg said, changed his life.

"I've become more mature, I think. Not that I'm all grown up now, but it helped me in the progress of becoming a better human being, of dealing with stuff."

And how much would she enjoy his making the NHL?

Hedberg smiles at the thought.

"I always knew she would help me out. I'm sure she's up there helping me out right now, and I think she's the happiest person there is."

'He never quit'

Hedberg rose rapidly through the junior ranks in Sweden, but he never seemed to catch the eye of scouts in that country's elite league.

His fortune changed in 1992, when both goaltenders for the Leksand club were injured.

"Kind of the same situation I'm in now. I was buried in the minors, but I ended up in the right place at the right time."

Then as now, he made the most of it. He would be Leksand's starter for the next five years and claw his way onto the national team's roster.

In that time, he was claimed by Philadelphia in the eighth round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. But the Flyers never seemed interested, visiting him only once.

"I always wanted to come to America to play. When they drafted me, I thought they were going to invite me to camp, but they didn't. They always told me I had to play on the national team. Well, I was on the national team, but it didn't seem to help."

Realizing his clock was ticking at age 23, Hedberg came overseas on his own in 1997, figuring he had a better shot of getting noticed with an independent minor-league team than in Europe.

In his first season, he signed with the Baton Rouge Kingfish of the ECHL, then played for Detroit and Manitoba of the IHL. The hockey went well, but he didn't get noticed. Worse still, his family was homesick and his old teammates in Sweden were phoning him to tell him he was nuts to be riding buses across America when he could be playing in that country's top league. So he went back to Leksand for another year.

"There were times in this business when I doubted myself," Hedberg said. "I wondered if I can do this."

San Jose acquired his NHL rights from the Flyers in 1998, and he agreed the following year to report to their system. The Sharks gave him a good look, last season with the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the AHL and this season with Manitoba. But a glut of good goaltenders left him at No. 4 on the organizational depth chart.

He might as well have been selling used cars.

"It was a rare situation," Manitoba's Carlyle said. "The only strike against Johan was that the other goaltenders they had were younger than him."

He was No. 1 on Carlyle's depth chart, though, displacing former NHL veteran Ken Wregget and blossoming into the Moose's most valuable player.

The Penguins were aware of this. Johnston was in touch with Wregget, who played nearly a decade in Pittsburgh, and had his own observations confirmed. But the Sharks were loath to make a deal.

"We tried to get him last year, too, but San Jose just wouldn't budge," Johnston said. "They had all those goalies, and they wouldn't let them go."

That changed in February and March when the Sharks told the Penguins they wanted Norton. Seems strange, considering Norton is 35 and had been having a forgettable season in Pittsburgh, but ...

"He played there before, and they wanted him bad," Johnston said. "So we asked for Hedberg."

They got him, and his Winnipeg days were over.

Carlyle is as disappointed to have lost Hedberg as he is delighted to watch him succeed in Pittsburgh. He and other Manitoba officials and players have watched some of the Penguins' games on television with pride.

"In reality, we know he's not coming back here, and that's great," Carlyle said. "They say good things happen to good people, and he's definitely one of those. He never quit, never gave up. He always knew that if somebody would just take a look at him, he'd be fine."

'It's gotten a little bit crazy'

Anyone worried about how Hedberg will hold up under the pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs should compare that to his first two days in the NHL.

Every save, every rebound, every touch mattered. If he didn't excel -- immediately -- his chances at an NHL career would have fizzled just as quickly.

His pivotal game came March 17 at Tampa, the night after his successful debut. He had stopped only 15 of 20 shots in a 5-1 loss to the Lightning and was devastated afterward, sitting at his locker, staring straight ahead.

But as microphones and cameras surrounded him, he stood and answered every reporter's question by blaming himself. Even though his teammates had played abysmally in front of him. Even though by acknowledging that he didn't play his best game, he was risking never seeing another one in the NHL.

His final comment: "I'm very sad."

That, as much as any game Hedberg has won, carried plenty of weight in the Penguins' locker room.

"He's the kind of guy you try to help," defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said. "You see his effort. In every game, every practice, he works hard. You see a guy doing that, you want to help him succeed."

"That game meant a lot," Johnston said. "The kid showed he doesn't get rattled."

Hedberg hasn't lost since then.

"I didn't feel pressure from anyone except myself because I knew everyone here wanted me to do well. You could feel that. When you come to the next level, you have to take your game to the next level, too. That's what these guys helped me to do by believing in me."

Now, Hedberg doesn't want the script to change.

He still expresses the same childlike awe at sharing an ice surface with Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

He still sits on a metal folding chair in the locker room of the team's Southpointe practice facility, while the rest of the players have plush stalls.

And yes, he still wears his bright blue Moose mask. A new one, featuring a flashy Penguins design, has yet to escape his equipment bag.

"You have superstitions, so I think I'm going to stick with it for a while. As long as the team doesn't mind me wearing it, that's OK with me. Besides, I think it's a pretty nice mask, and people here always seem to be asking me about it. It's gotten a little bit crazy."

It's a crazy story, to be sure, and he loves sharing it.

With his wife and kids, still living in Winnipeg.

With his father and brothers.

And most of all, with his old hockey buddies back in Leksand.

"They're all very happy for me now. But it's funny, you know, because these were the same the people who were asking me, 'Why aren't you giving up?' 'Why are you still in the minors?' 'Why don't you come back to Sweden?' I would tell them I didn't want to do that, that I had a shot at the NHL. ... I always believed that."

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