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Kovacevic: Recalling our own 'Linsanity'

| Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

He was overlooked and underestimated, ignored when he should have impressed.

A nobody going nowhere.

But once fate finally called, courtesy of a rash of injuries to others, he joined a team with two superstars and stunningly outshone them all right away. He brought victory after victory. He slayed giants of the game. Reporters hung on his every syllable. Fans chanted his name.

Jeremy Lin?

Well, yeah, but let me slip back a decade to Pittsburgh's own smaller-scale version of the NBA's ongoing fairy tale: Johan Hedberg.

"Oh, for sure, I can see the similarities," the New Jersey Devils' backup goaltender was saying by phone Monday. "I'm not a big basketball fan, but every time Lin comes on the highlights, I keep watching. It's a good story."

It's fabulous, actually. But in a quarter-century in this business, I've never covered a better individual story than Hedberg's.

Check your Linsanity at the door, and pull up a folding chair.

Philadelphia drafted Hedberg in the ninth and final round in 1994 — 218th of the 234 players taken — but the Flyers thought so little of his 6-foot stature that they never invited him from his native Sweden to a training camp. Make the national team first, he was told. He did make that team. Still no call.

So, Hedberg paid his own way. Against peers' advice, he left home in 1997 to find work in the North American minor leagues, hoping that someone, anyone, would notice. He wound up with the Baton Rouge Kingfish of the ECHL, pro hockey's lowest rung, earning less than a used-car salesman and crisscrossing the continent by bus.

The Flyers dumped off Hedberg's rights to San Jose the next year, but that only darkened the outlook: The Sharks were loaded with terrific, younger goaltenders, and, at age 25, Hedberg wasn't going to rank higher on the depth chart than No. 4.

The end, it seemed, was nigh.

"There are times when you get down," Hedberg recalled. "You wonder, 'When am I going to get my break?' But you see when good things happen to other people, it helps you believe. You just have to keep doing what you're doing. That's what my old goaltending coach told me, and it ended up being the truest thing anyone ever told me."

That coach was the late Warren Strelow, a pioneer in the role. He previously served on Herb Brooks' staff for the Miracle on Ice.

Here came another.

Hedberg excelled for the AHL's Manitoba Moose in 2000-01, and that caught the eye of the Penguins' Eddie Johnston, an old keeper himself who had little use for size stereotypes.

"Loved him," E.J. said then.

In March 2001, the call came. Randy Carlyle, the Moose's coach, pulled Hedberg aside at Winnipeg's airport and told him he'd been traded to Pittsburgh. And that he was reporting directly to the Penguins.

"Even my wife didn't believe me," Hedberg said.

The rest was hockey history, at least in our world.

Hedberg went on to stabilize the Penguins down the stretch, then outdueled Olaf Kolzig and Dominik Hasek to reach the Eastern Conference final. Fans at the Civic Arena called out " Mooooooose!" with each save, in recognition of his story. The Parkway West's exit sign for Heidelberg was appropriately shortened by three letters. And who can forget those yellow foam antlers they passed out at one game?

"I was in the clouds, you know?" Hedberg said. "It was a dream coming true every day I woke up. Not only was I getting a chance to play in the NHL, I was on the team where Mario Lemieux just came back. We had Jaromir Jagr. The fans were so great. It was like everything I'd ever dreamt of. And so fast."

But only after a harrowing first 48 hours. Hedberg won his first game at Florida but was shelled for five goals on 20 shots the next night in Tampa, a 5-1 loss.

I'll never forget the scene after that one: Hedberg sat on a folding chair in the middle of the locker room — all the real stalls were taken — and spoke bluntly of playing poorly, even if it didn't exactly help his case to stay in the NHL.

Among his quotes: "I'm very sad."

For real, he said that.

"That's how I felt," Hedberg recalled. "I thought I blew it. It would be like this never happened."

Not quite. Hedberg is 38 now and still solid for the Devils — 2.53 goals-against average in 19 starts behind Martin Brodeur — and has played 350 NHL games. That's no flash or fluke.

I couldn't help but ask if he could offer advice for the young baller across the Hudson River.

"I would just tell Jeremy to enjoy the moment, live the dream. But stay humble," he said. "Don't change anything. Remember what got you there."

And that is?

"Believe in yourself. Always."

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