It’s amazing to think how many NHL-caliber starting goalies were in the San Jose Sharks system during the 2000-01 season.
In San Jose, Evgeni Nabokov was authoring a Calder Trophy-winning campaign, backed up by the previous season’s number-one, Steve Shields.
For the AHL’s Kentucky Thoroughblades, future Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala shared the crease.
And because Kiprusoff and Toskala took all the reps in Kentucky, the Sharks organization lent Johan Hedberg to the IHL’s Manitoba Moose.
For the 27-year-old Hedberg, who had yet to play an NHL game, this would prove to be most fortuitous.
Being the man in Manitoba allowed NHL organizations, chiefly the Pittsburgh Penguins, to watch him closely. And Hedberg’s Moose-themed mask was about to launch a phenomenon.
A day before the 2001 Trade Deadline, San Jose sent Hedberg and Bobby Dollas to Pittsburgh for veteran defenseman Jeff Norton.
At first, Hedberg thought Penguins fans were booing him, which was confusing because he finished the regular season 7-1-1 and had just shut out the Washington Capitals in Game Three of the 2000-01 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Then he realized — they were chanting “MOOOOSE!!!”
“Moose mania” would run wild in Pittsburgh. The highway exit for the nearby town of Heidelberg was artfully changed to “He-d–berg”. The Penguins gave away 17,000-plus foam antlers before a second round playoff game.
— Chris Hilf (@hilf13) April 26, 2019
The magic wouldn’t last — Pittsburgh lost in the Eastern Conference Finals — but the Moose endured, moving on to Vancouver, Dallas, Atlanta, and New Jersey over a 12-year NHL career.
In 2015, Hedberg found his way back to San Jose, when incoming head coach Peter DeBoer asked him to become the goaltending coach.
Under Hedberg’s tutelage, first-time NHL starter Martin Jones initially flourished, leading the 2015-16 Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final and enjoying consecutive top-10 Vezina Trophy finishes. But over the last two seasons, Jones tied for the worst save percentage in the league — ironically, with ex-Los Angeles Kings teammate Jonathan Quick.
San Jose’s deficiencies, from the goal on out, would result in the firings of DeBoer and Hedberg, along with assistant coaches Steve Spott and Dave Barr, on December 11, 2019.
However, instead of seeking another goaltending coach gig, Hedberg is taking the opportunity to re-make himself as a head coach. In 2020-21, the rookie head coach is hoping to bring Mora IK out of HockeyAllsvenskan and back into the SHL.
San Jose Hockey Now caught up with the affable Hedberg, who’s back in his native Sweden, for an exclusive interview. We touched on the Moose’s colorful career, which included playing with Gordie Howe, before digging into what’s happened to Jones and San Jose over the last two seasons.
Sheng Peng: Before we get to the heart of the interview, I wanted to ask you a few questions about your playing career — October 1997, you’re beginning your North American career with the IHL’s Detroit Vipers.
Were you the back-up goalie during the game that 69-year-old Gordie Howe played?
Johan Hedberg: I was, yeah.
SP: So your first professional game in North America was Gordie Howe’s last — what was that like?
JH: It was quite an experience. Gordie ended up playing [two] shifts. He played his first shift, almost scored. The defenseman got the puck and shot it off Gordie and almost into the net. It was quite an interesting start to my North American career. It got more normal after that.
SP: It was opening night too. A sell-out. Did you kind of think, oh, so this is what North American hockey is like?
JH: Yeah, we got 70-year-olds playing. (laughs) Everybody knew it was kind of a one-game thing. It was fun to be part of it. But you kind of wanted the game to get started in a real way too.
SP: What was Gordie like?
JH: I don’t really remember. He spoke to everybody. Seemed like a very, very humble man. I think he was just happy to be part of a playing atmosphere again. He was quite chatty on the bench, I remember.
SP: Remember anything he said?
JH: No, I really don’t. It’s too long ago. I’m too old now. I’m like Gordie now. (laughs)
SP: Next, is it true, because you were always Tommy Salo’s back-up on Sweden’s national teams, that he called you the “Norwegian Killer”?
JH: That’s true. I used to get the one game in the tournaments. I got Norway. He thought it was quite funny.
SP: Finally, your last professional season, you signed a try-out with the New York Rangers. Marty Biron beat you out for the back-up job.
That season, Biron played just two games before retiring, one of them was Tommy Hertl’s four-goal game, when Hertl scored his famous between-the-legs goal. Did you ever think that could’ve been you in net — are you grateful that Marty beat you for the job?
JH: Well, that wasn’t exactly what happened. I signed a tryout with the Rangers because Marty didn’t show up for camp. He wasn’t sure if he was going to keep playing or not.
I went there for a week. But Marty came back and I felt like I didn’t have the fire that I needed to have. So when he came back, I kind of decided I was going to call it quits and start working for the Devils, which I had an offer to do.
But yeah, I know exactly the game you’re talking about, it kind of finished off Marty’s career. (laughs)
SP: So if it had been you in net, and you said you had lost your fire, Tommy might have scored like six goals?
JH: Probably. There’s a good chance he would have. (laughs)
SP: Okay, let’s talk about coaching goaltenders. You developed in the Sharks system, coached by Warren Strelow. Can you point to one thing that you took from Strelow, that you applied to your goaltenders in Albany or San Jose?
JH: The consistency [needed] to build the foundation of your game, understand your own game. The daily routines, how to prepare and train.
Warren was really, really good at picking up tendencies in your game when you started to slip on things. I could have a great game, I thought, but he would come in after the game, say congrats, good game, but tomorrow, we need to pick this up. I see your footwork isn’t exactly where we need to be. You weren’t tracking the puck the the way you should do. He would get on things before they became a real problem.
So that’s something I tried to stay on top of with the goalies I worked with. When things started to slip, try to fix them before it becomes a problem.
SP: Between Peter DeBoer getting hired in May 2015 and your official hiring in July, the Sharks traded for Martin Jones. Did Pete or Doug consult you before the trade? First-time NHL goaltending coach, first-time NHL starter, how did they know it was going to work?
JH: Well, you never know if anything is going to work out well. They had a good book on Marty. They had seen him play with the Kings, seen him in the minors. I know all the scouts were really high on him.
So when I got the job, I was really excited to get the chance to work with him. I loved the foundation of his game, his athleticism.
I think everybody was pretty, pretty sure that Marty would be a good choice.
SP: Martin, at this point, was an unproven NHL starter. What do you think you added to his game, that helped him break out in the 2015-16 season?
JH: I don’t think it was so much what I contributed. He had his game figured out, he’s very strong technically, he’s got a very strong head. It’s more how your team is playing, how he got a chance to play consistently instead of being behind Jonathan Quick.
You don’t really, at least I don’t think you can change much at this level. When you’re at the NHL, you’re pretty much a finished product.
But I think the one thing that he improved on from the beginning were his puckhandling skills, something that we required with the way Pete DeBoer wanted to play. You need a puckhandling goaltender.
SP: Martin was swimming along in his Sharks career until the 2018-19 season. What can you point to as being the biggest difference between Martin Jones from 2015-18 to Martin Jones from 2018 to now?
JH: I think he’s a great goaltender. A lot of goaltending has to do with the big picture. It’s such a situational thing where you need to be put in situations where you can succeed. I don’t think Marty has lost his game, in any way, shape, or form. In my eyes, he could definitely be a Vezina Trophy winner in any given season, given the right circumstances.
I have the highest thoughts of him as a goaltender now, as I did five years ago. He’s just as good.
SP: A constant debate over the last two seasons was who was to blame for the rising goals against — was it more the goaltending? Was it more the team defense? Was it a little bit of both? Obviously, you’re biased, but how did you see all this?
JH: I think everything plays in. We had a great team. We were really close to winning it all. We had a couple good runs in the playoffs. We did a lot of things right.
But at times, maybe we did get away from our systems, our way of playing, that hurt everybody. Not only the goalies, but the team overall.
There’s no finger pointing in any way. I take the blame if my goalies weren’t performing. That’s my job to keep them sharp. So I would hold myself accountable for it.
SP: I have to ask then, what, if anything, would you have done differently as San Jose’s goaltending coach?
JH: What I would have done differently? I don’t know. I don’t think I would change much.
I think I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do and how I wanted to work with him. I think I did that. Most of the time, I think the results were pretty good. At times, they were not as good.
But it’s a sport. Things happen so quickly. A lot of things have to do with confidence.
I don’t think I can say that I would’ve changed the way that I coached the guys I had to work with. Probably would do the same thing again.
SP: Through all this, you and Martin accomplished incredible things together: The Cup Final, a couple top-10 Vezina finishes, Martin’s resurgence against Vegas to finish off that series then his work against Colorado. Strelow said his goalies were like his kids, so looking at it that way, what Martin Jones moment are you most proud of?
JH: Well, first of all, I never looked at it like he and I accomplished. He accomplished. I’m there to support him.
But I think the way that he handled the playoff series against Vegas, how he turned that around. That’s probably the most impressive thing. Things were going really rough for us. Things weren’t going his way either. He took charge of the situation and turned the whole series around.
The mental strength that he showed there was very, very impressive to me.
SP: Can you give us an inside look of how he turned it around? Fan were calling for his head. The media was on him. The Vegas crowd was rabid.
JH: He did two things. He kind of slowed down his game a little bit. Early in that series, he was chasing the puck. Playing a little too aggressive.
He pulled his game back where he’s more comfortable, play a little bit deeper in his crease, let the game come to him instead of chasing it. That’s a lot of it, has to do with confidence, feeling that you’re making the right reads.
He pretty much figured out I got to play my game, regardless of what people are saying around me. I’m gotta trust what brought me [here].
It’s something he should take with him for the rest of his career.
SP: Did you watch any Sharks games after they let you go? Did you see anything different from Jones?
JH: I watched probably three or four games. No, I didn’t think he changed his way of playing. He tried to play the way he wants to play. You’re not gonna change Martin Jones, you gotta do this or that. He’s too smart and too strong in his foundation to go change his game. And there’s no reason to.
SP: What makes you confident that Martin Jones can come back strong next year?
JH: Like I said, he’s a great goaltender. He’s got a great foundation, great head. He’s got all the make-up of an elite goaltender.
SP: You’ve taken a new challenge, you’re now the head coach of Mora IK in Sweden. Is there anything that you learned from Pete in particular that you plan to incorporate as a head coach?
JH: Oh, absolutely. Most of what I will incorporate in my coaching was learned from Pete. A lot of the preparation, professionalism, details of the game, the planning, everything that we did on a daily basis, I will base my coaching upon.
Obviously, you need to find your own own way, but I learned so much from Pete and the coaching staff I was with here in San Jose. That’s why I feel confident I can take on this challenge.
SP: Mora IK’s big rival is Leksand. You have a relationship with Leksand spanning to the ’80s, you played juniors for Leksands IF, professionally for them, you even served on their board recently.
So what’s it like to take the job of coaching your biggest rival, is it like Pete taking over Vegas?
JH: Yeah, it is. When they first started talking about it, I was like I don’t know if I really can do this.
But the more I spoke to the people I’m working with and getting to know the organization better, I felt really strong about it.
It’s fine, it’s only been positive reactions from all my Leksand people. They think it’s a fun challenge and they’re happy I’m doing this.
SP: One day, if and when you return to the NHL, would you like to come back as a head coach or a goaltending coach?
JH: I haven’t really thought that far. Right now, I’m just happy to be home and take on this challenge. Would that bring me back to North America? I don’t know. At this moment, I don’t really plan on that.
Sheng’s Travel Fund
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