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Hedberg ready for chance to contribute

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Hedberg went 21-16-6 with a 2.62 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and three shutouts with Atlanta last season.
For those fans getting desperate for a hockey fix, here’s some comfort: Devils veterans officially report to training camp one month from today.

It’s been a sweltering hot summer in the Northeast, and though the players have taken some time to kick back and relax after the grind of the NHL season, their offseason training regimens are already well underway.

Newly-acquired goaltender Johan Hedberg is among the vets already back on the ice in Newark. He's been skating informally this week with some of his new teammates just to get back into the swing of things. Fifty-two days from now, the Devils will open the 2010-11 season at home against Dallas on Oct. 8.

“Vacation’s over,” Hedberg said Tuesday. “Now it’s work.”

The 37-year-old was one of three signings the Devils made back on July 1, when they also inked defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov. He had one of his best seasons in 2009-10, posting 21 wins in 47 appearances with Atlanta. Both totals represented the second most of his career.

Drafted by Philadelphia in the ninth round, 218th overall, in 1994, Hedberg owns a career record of 123-114-29 with a 2.93 goals-against average, .900 save percentage and 14 shutouts.

He jumped at the chance to become a Devil.

“When this opportunity opened up, I was very, very excited,” he said. “It’s a first-class organization that always wants to win. I was intrigued and honored to have a chance to come here.”

He arrived at his home in Atlanta from his native Sweden last Wednesday, then got to New Jersey on Sunday night. His early impressions of Prudential Center and the AmeriHealth Pavilion were overwhelmingly positive.

“Gorgeous,” he said. “Everything around this team is top notch. Everything that you need to succeed is here. It’s all up to the team to do it because the support is there, as far as I’ve seen and as far as I’ve heard.”

Can a team’s home rink and practice facility have an impact on a free agent’s decision?

“I think so,” said Hedberg. “The whole picture of the franchise plays into it, especially when you’ve been around for a while and you appreciate how life is. Coming here, it makes you happy. There’s nothing you can ask for that you need that isn’t here. I’ve been in other places where you think, ‘Maybe this could be a bit different,’ but it’s all up to you anyway as a player to make the most of it. But you can’t say that there’s anything missing here that you would need to succeed.”

For years, Devils backups have had to embrace the role of understudy to Martin Brodeur, who led the League last year in games played (77), wins (45) and shutouts (9). If called upon, Hedberg’s ready to lighten Brodeur’s workload.

“I know my role here, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “Hopefully I can come in and do what they ask me to do, and whenever Marty needs a rest, to be fresh. I hope I can provide it and give the team confidence that they can play me as much as they feel that they need to.”

Considering that Brodeur and Hedberg combined for 66 wins last season, they could prove to be a formidable duo.

“I think any tandem that has Marty Brodeur in it has to be counted as being one of the top in the League, regardless of who’s backing up,” said Hedberg. “I’m just coming here to do what they want me to do. If it means 15 games or 20 games or more or less, we’ll see. I don’t know, but I’m going to try to make the most of it.”

The winningest goalie in NHL history, Brodeur has appeared in 70 or more games in 12 of the last 14 seasons. Hedberg, meanwhile, has made at least 20 appearances in each of the past four. He explained that success as a backup requires a certain mindset.

“When you play a lot, maybe you have to be a little more cautious in practice; don’t burn yourself out too much,” he said. “If you’re not playing that much, obviously you can go harder in practice and in working out to stay in shape in different ways. It’s always tough to keep the mind in a rhythm when you play once every second week. You have to just be sharp for that game, play as good as you can and see what happens.”

Hedberg's eager to contribute as much as possible.

“Regardless of where I’ve been, I’ve always felt that I wanted to play,” he said. “Then the season starts and you kind of have to adjust and see what your role is. For myself, it doesn’t really matter. I’m very supportive of whoever I play with. If it’s me playing, I’m going to do all I can. If I’m not playing, I’m going to do as much as I can to help out the guy playing.”

He's been a part of four playoff teams, which is sure to change next spring. With 18 straight postseason appearances, the Devils hold the longest active streak of any team in the four major sports.

"Come playoff time, this team has always been the position to go deep," he said. "I think, for myself, I’m extremely excited to get an opportunity to be on a team like that. Hopefully, we’ll be playing in June next year. That’s the goal and the dream.”

Hedberg took center stage in one of last season’s most memorable bloopers, when he came out of the net to play the puck in Philadelphia. After colliding with Simon Gagne, Hedberg lost his goal mask and wound up with his jersey up over his head.

Yes, he’s seen the replay on YouTube.

“It was a 50/50 puck that I went diving for, and we collided. Somehow, when I tried to get up, I didn’t see anything. I don’t know how it happened but the mask fell off and I was stuck inside my jersey. I kind of panicked looking for the puck. Everything happened quick, and I got hit again. At the same time, I realized this must look extremely funny. I have seen it on YouTube and it is pretty funny.”

He summers in his hometown of Leksand, about three hours north of Stockholm.

“I like to spend a lot of time at the lake house, hanging around the kids tubing, water skiing. Just hanging there is the best part of the summer for me. Spend time with friends and family. I don’t like to travel. Once I come home, I want to stay there. Just leave me alone. My town is such a small place, too, you almost don’t need a car. I take my bike out to ride around and enjoy life.”

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