NEWARK, N.J. – For a while last season, a popular player who came from the Atlanta Thrashers to the New Jersey Devils was getting a lot of attention in hockey circles. But maybe they weren’t talking about the right guy.
While world-class talent Ilya Kovalchuk struggled at times during his first full season with the Devils after being acquired in a late season trade the year before, it was Johan Hedberg who helped keep New Jersey afloat after future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur went down with an elbow injury.
Hedberg had signed with the Devils as a free agent after negotiations to return to Atlanta for a fifth season had fallen through, and played in 34 games for New Jersey last year, posting a career-best 2.34 goals against average to go with 15 wins and a .912 save percentage. But ask anyone in the Devils locker room, and they all knew that they were getting a lot more than just one of the best backups in the league.
"I think he’s the hardest working guy I’ve ever seen in my life," Kovalchuk told ECHL.com. "In practice and during the games, he’s a real warrior. He leads by example. We’ve got a lot of young guys and some young goaltenders, and I think he’s a perfect fit here."
While word of Hedberg’s unparalleled work ethic had spread throughout the league before he even arrived, it’s another thing when you get to see it up close. All-Star forward Patrik Elias had spoken to Bobby Holik about Hedberg and heard nothing but good things, but Elias was blown away once he got to experience it first-hand.
"First off, he’s a great guy off the ice," Elias said. That’s what you want to have, you want to have good character people around you and he’s one of them. He’s got a lot of games in the NHL, and he’s got a lot of experience. You watch him in practice, and I’ve been here a long time, I don’t think we’ve had a backup working as hard as him. It’s unbelievable, his work ethic during practice."
Unfortunately for Devils fans, Brodeur isn’t getting any younger, and has been slowed by injuries over the past two seasons. Hedberg’s excellent season in relief of Brodeur, which isn’t the first time he’s had to replace an injured starter over an extended period of time, earned him even more respect in the locker room.
"We went through a situation where when Scott Clemmensen was here, he played great, so you have to trust your goaltending," Elias said.
"It helps when you know that a guy has a lot of games behind him and has that experience. He played great and stole a couple games for us, and that’s what you need."
FROM THE ECHL TO THE OLYMPICS
Hedberg played for Leksands IF of the Swedish Elite League for four seasons before coming over to North America before the 1997-98 season.
In a one-on-one interview with ECHL.com last season, the 38-year-old netminder explains how he ended up going from the IHL to the ECHL to the Olympics in his first North American pro season.
"I signed with the Detroit Vipers in the ‘I,’ and I played there until I broke my collarbone in December," Hedberg recalled.
"I was going to the Swedish Olympic team, and that was just when I was getting back, so I ended up playing a couple games in Baton Rouge before I went to the Olympics. It was only those two games that I was there."
Hedberg did, in fact, play just two games for the Kingfish, whose roster also had future NHL’ers Reed Low and fellow netminder Travis Scott.
"I remember it pretty well, it was different," said Hedberg of his time in Louisiana.
"I think we won the first game, 2-1, maybe. And the second game, I was pulled after two periods, we were down, 6-0. Dave Schultz was the coach, and it was interesting. I came from where it was very structured in Sweden, and came over from the IHL to the East Coast was kind of a big step. It was not as structured as I was used to."
Hedberg, who had been drafted by the Flyers in 1994, was traded to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose while he was at the Olympics, which would kickstart the "Moose" nickname that’s stuck with him for his entire career. Following his stint in Manitoba, Hedberg returned to Sweden for the 1998-99 season with Leksands IF, but returned for another full season in North America in 1999-00, playing for the Kentucky Thoroughblades.
"Moose" ended up with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2000-01 trade deadline, and earned his moniker by wearing a Manitoba Moose mask during several NHL games. It turns out several NHL games that season would turn into a long playoff run, as Hedberg carried the Penguins all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. It was quite a roller coaster ride for the well-traveled Swede.
"It was phenomenal, it was what I always wanted and was aiming for," he said. "For myself, it was good for me to travel the road that I did. I learned to appreciate a lot of things, I learned to work hard thanks to a lot of great people. The appreciation that I’ve got for being in the NHL is probably bigger than some other guys who came here right away."
Hedberg has since played for the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars in the NHL before he joined the Atlanta Thrashers for a four season stay, where he backed up oft-injured Kari Lehtonen and got to play in 116 games over his final three years there. Now, he begins his second season as a backup to Brodeur, who he’s more than happy to form a tandem with.
"It’s great, he’s a phenomenal guy," Hedberg said.
"He’s very relaxed, down to Earth. And a phenomenal goaltender. I knew he was a good guy, but he impressed me even more being the kind of person that he is."
And as for those nipping at Hedberg and Brodeur’s heels, getting to learn from them this training camp has been impressive to them as well.
"It’s been a great experience, you know," rookie goalie Keith Kinkaid told ECHL.com. "They’ve been in the league for a great deal of time, and it’s just good to learn from them. They know what they’re doing out there, so they can help you out if you need anything.
"(Hedberg has) been teaching me the foot movement drills that we do before practice. He’s just helping me out with anything he sees that I can improve on. He’s just been a great all-around guy."