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.
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 Andr� (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.
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 net-minders 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."