The Moose Is Loose The Penguins' hopes don't rest merely on Mario Lemieux but also on little-known goalie Johan (Moose) Hedberg

May 07, 2001
May 07, 2001

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May 7, 2001

The Moose Is Loose The Penguins' hopes don't rest merely on Mario Lemieux but also on little-known goalie Johan (Moose) Hedberg

The Moose that saved Pittsburgh is a 28-year-old Swedish goalie
with a wispy beard, an engaging manner and wondrous lateral
movement. He also has the unique ability to get people to do
stupid things, such as shoot the puck directly into his chest or
his pads, which is what the Buffalo Sabres did in the first two
games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the
Penguins, or wear goofy yellow foam antlers on their heads, as
many of the 17,148 fans at Mellon Arena did on Monday in homage
to Pittsburgh's most improbable hero.

This is an article from the May 7, 2001 issue Original Layout

Johan Hedberg is Damn Yankees' Joe Hardy as presented by Looney
Tunes, the animated tale of a masked man who comes out of nowhere
(well, Winnipeg) to win the big game--actually a couple of them,
as the Penguins held a two-games-to-one lead after falling 4-1 to
the Sabres Monday night. Disney has done a variation of this
team's story a couple of times, using Mighty Ducks instead of
flightless waterfowl from Pittsburgh. The only elements missing
from the Pittsburgh version of the tale are the plucky girl, the
tubby kid and someone who speaks Spanish.

Mario Lemieux speaks French, and he's on the Penguins too, which
always gives them a chance, but Hedberg gives Pittsburgh
dependable goaltending, the ingredient it has lacked since the
early 1990s. A proud former member of the International Hockey
League's Manitoba Moose, a goalie who had played only 18 NHL
games through Monday, Hedberg has become the unlikely focus of
the Penguins' playoff run. He has succeeded in downgrading
Lemieux, who had produced five playoff goals--not to mention the
most inspiring comeback in hockey history--to a mere costar.
"There's a lot of pressure, but this is the best time of my
life," says the 5'11", 185-pound Hedberg. "I never thought the
opportunity would come. I try to enjoy it as much as I can."

Unlike the other classic sporting Moose--first baseman Bill
(Moose) Skowron, hockey players Andre (Moose) Dupont, Mark (the
Moose) Messier and Elmer (Moose) Vasko, blocking back Darryl
(Moose) Johnston and the letter-sweater-wearing Moose from
Riverdale High in the Archie comics--Hedberg isn't really a Moose.
Inside the Pittsburgh dressing room, he's called Yo-Yo or
sometimes Heddy. To goalie-deprived Penguins fans, however,
Hedberg became Moose when Pittsburgh returned home for Game 3 of
its first-round series against the Washington Capitals. Every
save during that 3-0 win on April 16 was greeted with a braying
that to untrained ears sounded like a boo. "I couldn't figure out
why they were booing when I was stopping the puck," Hedberg says.
"Later, as the game went on, I figured they were calling,
'Mooooooose.' I starting laughing to myself. It was funny."

Funny and brilliant. This was one of those increasingly rare
sports moments--a tribute wafting down from the stands,
unsolicited by a team promotion or a cheerleading scoreboard. For
that welcome bit of spontaneity, the hockey world owes a debt of
gratitude to David Gunnarsson. He's a 25-year-old Swedish artist
who paints goalie masks but also, according to his website,
decorates "telephones, cars, trucks, computers, playstations, the
human body. The only limit is your imagination."

Your imagination isn't nearly as vivid as his, which explains why
he did Hedberg's Moose mask in an icy blue, the team color of
Leksand, for which Hedberg played in the Swedish Elite League,
rather than in forest green and purple, the team colors of
Manitoba. Because you are what you wear, the quirky Moose
mask--through Monday, Hedberg was second in the playoffs in
goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.941)--has
helped turn Hedberg into an overnight sensation. Between midnight
and 10 a.m. last Friday morning, the hours immediately after
Hedberg's 25 saves had frustrated the Sabres 3-0 in Game 1, the
Manitoba Moose website received 30 orders for Hedberg-related
gear from Pittsburgh and other points east.

NHL history has been dotted with goaltenders whose careers, like
the dying moments of a 100-watt bulb, briefly burned unnaturally
bright--notably in Pittsburgh. Ken Wregget, Hedberg's veteran
partner in Manitoba this season, had a surprisingly good playoff
run for the Penguins in '96, journeyman Ron Tugnutt staked
Pittsburgh to a 2-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers
in the second round last year before faltering, and Patrick
Lalime started his NHL career by going unbeaten in a
league-record 16 games for the Penguins in 1996-97. But for a
team with a fan base optimistic enough to don yellow foam antlers
in public, Pittsburgh hopes the ultimate analogy will be to Ken

Dryden played six games at the end of the 1970-71 season for the
Canadiens and then carried Montreal to the Stanley Cup that
spring, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP before he
was rookie of the year the next season. The difference is that
Dryden had been a star goalie at Cornell and entered the NHL as a
heralded prospect. Hedberg had long toiled in hockey's
netherworld--Leksand, Baton Rouge in the East Coast Hockey League,
two stints in the IHL, the American Hockey League--and was
nobody's top prospect. Even after Hedberg shut down the Capitals
by stopping 151 of 161 shots over six games, Sabres netminder
Dominik Hasek wondered if Hedberg was American or Swedish.

Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick knew. For 18 months
Patrick had been keeping an eye on the San Jose Sharks, the
organization with the NHL's deepest goaltending. They had
netminders stacked up in the minors like flights over
O'Hare--Evgeni Nabokov, who would become this season's presumptive
rookie of the year; Miikka Kiprusoff, who has made the NHL as
Nabokov's backup; and Hedberg, a ninth-round draft pick by the
Flyers in 1994 whose rights San Jose acquired in '98--and Patrick
would have taken a chance on any of the three. "They wouldn't
trade any of them," Patrick says. "I'd call and ask, and they'd
say, 'No, sorry.'"

The Sharks, who this season had yet another European netminder
develop nicely in the minors (Vesa Toskala from Finland) finally
decided they could afford to deal from what seemed to be the
bottom of their goaltending deck. So they sent Hedberg and
journeyman defenseman Bobby Dollas to Pittsburgh on March 12 for
puck-moving defenseman Jeff Norton. For Patrick, Hedberg was
simply goaltending depth, an intriguing possibility but nothing
more. For Hedberg, the Penguins were the terminus of a tortuous
path he had been following since the big kids in his hometown of
Alvik forced him to strap on goalie pads when he was six. "When I
came here," says Hedberg, "I didn't know if I could play in the
NHL. I was a question mark to myself."

The answers came immediately. With Garth Snow suffering from a
strained groin and second-year man Jean-Sebastien Aubin
struggling, Pittsburgh threw Hedberg in against the Florida
Panthers four days after the deal. He made 41 saves and foiled
Pavel Bure on two of three breakaways. (These were the old river
hockey Penguins, not the new and improved left-wing-locking team
that has shockingly emerged in the playoffs.) The next night
Hedberg was beaten five times on 20 shots by the Tampa Bay
Lightning. That 5-1 loss included what Patrick calls the only
soft goal Hedberg has allowed since joining Pittsburgh. Hedberg
would not lose again until the first game of the playoffs, a 1-0
classic in Washington.

"Goalies his size have disappeared from the league," says
Miroslav Satan, Buffalo's most dangerous forward. "Teams all want
big guys who play a butterfly style. Hedberg's not trying to fill
the net; he's trying to make a save. It's good to see that kind
of goalie have some success."

"I was watching him in the second period [of Game 1] from the
bench," says Sabres backup goalie Martin Biron, "and you could
almost see the reflection of the puck in his eyes. He was really
seeing the puck. Nothing was going to get through his head that

Nothing was going to get through his pads, either. Unlike another
Swede, goal-line-hugging Tommy Salo of the Edmonton Oilers,
Hedberg plays at the top of the crease to reduce a shooter's
angle. He's also mobile enough to cover rebounds, as he showed
with a sliding stop on defenseman Jason Woolley's power-play
rebound in the first minute of Game 2, the start of another
bravura performance, this time in a 3-1 Pittsburgh victory. In
studying videotape before the series, Sabres coaches noticed that
Hedberg held his glove low--so, for that matter, did Muhammad
Ali--and they instructed their players to shoot high. Because of
Hedberg's positioning and ability to read the play, most of those
shots through the first two games hit him flush in the logo. On
top of all this, Hedberg is a confident puckhandler, a Yo-Yo with
the puck on a string, who cleared one puck high off the glass in
Game 1 on a Buffalo power play and handled weak Sabres dump-ins

There's no guaranteed happy ending for the Moose that saved
Pittsburgh, but a nomad goalie prepares for all the vagaries of a
hockey life. While in Buffalo last Friday, Hedberg phoned his
wife, Pernilla, and their daughters, five-year-old Molly and
two-year-old Wilma, in Leksand. Hedberg spoke for 10 minutes to
Molly, who asked when he'd be coming home. He told her it was
difficult to say: If the Penguins kept winning, it would be a
while. If they lost, he would be back soon.

"Then my wife gets on the phone," Hedberg says, "and I hear in
the background, 'Mommy, why don't you marry another guy? Daddy's
never coming home.'"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Looking good Hedberg, who played most of this season with the Manitoba Moose of the IHL, still sports his minor league mask.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Sabre rattler After shutting out Buffalo in Game 1, Hedberg stopped Maxim Afinogenov and Co. in a 3-1 win in Game 2.
"I didn't know if I could play in the NHL," says Hedberg. "I was
a question mark to myself."