21 March 2008

Hedberg loves life in the NHL

yeah, i know i've been slacking on the updates. seriously, what do i say? rah rah they're giving... the same half assed effort they gave since november? yeah, no, it's cool. you're there. you've seen it. so hey, interesting thrasher stuff in the interim. i'm preparing for offseason. so... carry on and enjoy the repubs.

Contact Dan Rosen
Mar 20, 2008, 1:56 PM EDT

The backup goalie normally leads an anonymous lifestyle inside an NHL dressing room. Called into the spotlight only when needed, the backup is there to handle all of those unenviable tasks the No. 1 has earned the right to avoid.

It is a thankless job, but if he goes about it the right way, the backup can garner just as much respect inside his dressing room as the No. 1 has throughout the NHL.

Enter Johan Hedberg.

Despite having only 14 wins this season and 33 appearances, Atlanta's No. 2 goalie is an unquestioned leader inside the Thrashers' dressing room. While that is rare for any backup, Hedberg has earned his respect through his approach instead of his play.

This approach -- first one on the ice, last one off the ice, hardest worker in the room -- has earned Hedberg the Thrashers' nomination for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is handed out annually by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.

"It's a totally different game when you're playing all the time, but at the same time you have to understand the situation you're in," Hedberg said. "Of course you want to play more, but I'm not going to go into the coach and cry about playing time. I have to take my opportunities and make the most of them. At the same time I'm doing the best thing in the world -- playing hockey for a living -- so who am I to complain?

"I'm living a great life."

Hedberg's amazing perspective on his career shines through during interviews. This isn't someone who is taking his career for granted. Hedberg has worked too hard to not appreciate everything he has right now as a 34-year-old NHL player.

"I might not have the pure talent to play in this League without working," Hedberg said. "I have to work. If I'm not, I don't belong on this level. I have to stay on top of things all the time otherwise they're going to go away."

Hedberg was a ninth-round pick, 218th overall, by Philadelphia in 1994 when he was playing in his hometown for Leksand of the Swedish Elite League. He didn't cross the pond until 1997 when he split 32 games with Baton Rouge of the ECHL and both Manitoba and Detroit of the IHL.

He returned to Sweden in 1998 and had a decent amount of success the following season. He could have stayed home and played another 10 years as a starter basking in the spotlight, but he chose to return to North America instead.

"Always when I was playing in Sweden I tried to push forward, tried to get on the national team so I could get to the NHL," Hedberg said. "That's why I never really thought about going back. It's never been that interesting to play in Sweden because this is where I want to be. I want to be in the best league in the world with the best players in the world.

"It's more fun to know when I step on the ice that I have to be on top of my game or these guys will pick me apart," he continued. "It makes me push myself. I would have had a tough time playing in maybe the second-best league in the world (Swedish Elite League) and putting in the same amount of work."

After another year of minor-league hockey, this time in the AHL with the old Kentucky Thoroughblades, formerly San Jose's top farm team, Hedberg's wish finally came true when he made it to the NHL, debuting with Pittsburgh in 2000-01.

He went 7-1-1, and became a starter for the following two seasons.

"When I came here, the NHL was the biggest thing for me," Hedberg said, "and having to take a longer route than other people made me appreciate it more than some other guys could."

Atlanta, though, marks Hedberg's fourth stop on his NHL journey -- he also had stops in Vancouver and Dallas -- and outside of that two-year stint in Pittsburgh he's been a career backup.

That's OK, though. Hedberg embraces the role that many take umbrage with.

Even though his job description is different than Kari Lehtonen's, he still approaches everyday with the same verve and each practice with the same intention. The challenge of staying in the NHL, not the playing time, is what drives Hedberg.

"Of course I want to play as much as possible, but I know what role I have on this team and what I need to do to be successful," Hedberg said. "I have learned enough to appreciate this life. There shouldn't be any complaints."

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