Penguins

Who wore it best: No. 1, Johan Hedberg

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Welcome to the first part of a series on who wore each number best for the Penguins.

The idea is being openly borrowed from our new hockey writer, Cody Tucker, and his project at the Lansing State Journal covering all the uniform numbers worn through Michigan State football history, one that's been well-received by their readers and prompted heavy discussion and debate.

Under the organization of Taylor Haase, and following the voting of a big chunk of our staff, we'll start with No. 1 today, then publish one new one each day until completion, which should be right around the start of training camp.

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Name: Johan Hedberg
Number: 1
Position: Goaltender
Born: May 5, 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden
Seasons with Penguins: 2001-03
Statistics with Penguins: 116 games, 46-57-12, 2.86 GAA, .901 save percentage in regular season, 18 games, 9-9, 2.30 GAA, .911 save percentage in playoffs

[caption id="attachment_654039" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Johan Hedberg in 2001. - AP[/caption]

WHY HEDBERG?

For longtime Pittsburgh hockey fans, he'll always just be 'Moose.'

The Penguins were in dire need of goaltending, months after Mario Lemieux's magical emergence from retirement, and Eddie Johnston, the old keeper himself, had the answer: The fourth man down on San Jose's depth chart.

Hedberg was nearly washed up at age 27, buried deep within the Sharks' wealth of goaltending --  Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala were ahead of him -- and playing for their AHL affiliate in Winnipeg, the Manitoba Moose. Johnston had seen him earlier in the season and had loved his athleticism and competitiveness and recommended acquiring him, which the Penguins did in what was seen as an underwhelming trade at the time. But in Hedberg's first morning skate in Sunrise, Fla., March 16, Lemieux tested him in that half-hour -- as only 66 could -- and told Johnston, per E.J.'s recollection, "This is our guy."

Within a couple months, Hedberg became a civic sensation, leading the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final while outdueling Olaf Kolzig, Dominik Hasek and almost Martin Brodeur. Through it all, he still wore his Manitoba mask, which prompted fans to chant 'Moooooooose!' with his saves. The team even gave out foam moose antlers before a playoff game.

This was my Sunday Page 3 feature on Hedberg's life that spring for the Post-Gazette.

This one's personal for me, too. Reporters are never supposed to be friends with people they cover, but this remains the one time in my career I broke that rule, and I'm fine with that. Hedberg, his wife Pernilla and his children are beautiful people, and they deserved all the good that followed his amazing ascent to the NHL. The night the Penguins traded Hedberg to the Canucks in August of 2003, my phone rang with a call from Sweden, and the man was in tears because he'd fallen in love with Pittsburgh. Each time we've spoken since, he's been almost as emotional on the subject. He's special.

Hedberg would go on to complete a fine 12-year career with stops in Vancouver, Dallas, Atlanta and New Jersey.

WHAT'S HE DOING NOW?

Hedberg, now 45, came full circle and returned to the Sharks as their goaltending coach and and assistant coach. The latter is a rare title for a goaltending coach, but he works on the bench right alongside Peter DeBoer during games. He always respected the San Jose organization's passion for the position, one that's been a nonstop strength for nearly two decades, including now with Martin Jones as starter.

IT WAS SPOKEN

"I'm very sad." -- Hedberg, March 17, 2001, in Tampa, Fla., when I asked how he felt after losing his second NHL game, giving up five goals on 20 Lightning shots. It's a scene I'll never forget. He was so new to the NHL that he didn't get a stall, so he sat on a folding chair in the middle of the cramped locker room and slowly packed his pads into the big equipment bag, as if he'd never need them again. I'd ask him about that quote many years later, and he explained, "I thought I blew it. It would be like this never happened."

HONORABLE MENTIONS AT NO. 1

Denis Herron
Jim Rutherford
Gordie Laxton
Wendell Young
Brent Johnson

ANY DEBATE?

Not much. Herron came closest in my mind, as he was a steady, sometimes terrific goaltender behind those terrible pre-Mario teams of the early 1980s.

Tomorrow: Taylor Haase has No. 2.

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