Surprised by Sedin? You shouldn't be
Alex Burrows has had a front-row seat to what he believes has been the best show in hockey this season.
He's biased, of course, but he hopes when voters sit down in April to fill out their Hart Trophy ballots for the NHL's most valuable player, they remember the center currently having a career season and leading the league in scoring: Henrik Sedin.
"It's too bad you people can't see him as much because we're on the West Coast," Burrows, Sedin's Vancouver Canucks linemate on arguably the NHL's top line, told ESPN.com. "You know, those big guys came to town, first Ovi and then Sid, and Henrik outplayed them both. He's a great player."
"You people" would be members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, the folks charged with voting for most of the NHL's individual hardware, including the Hart. While talk of an Eastern bias gets tiring after a while, the fact is, 10 of the past 15 Hart Trophy winners have come from the Eastern Conference, including four of the past five.
The two-time reigning Hart Trophy winner is Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, who supplanted 2006-07 winner Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh. Both superstar captains will be heavy favorites again for the Hart and, quite frankly, deservedly so.
But what about Mr. Sedin? He, too, has a legitimate case right now, even if most fans and media on the East Coast are sound asleep when he's doing his thing.
"For sure he should be up there," Canucks superstar goalie Roberto Luongo said of Henrik's Hart chances. "He's the top scorer in the league and he's carrying our team on his back offensively. It's pretty exciting to watch. On a nightly basis right now, that line is putting up a show."
Some will say it's strange trying to make the MVP case for a player who has been tied at the hip to twin brother and lifetime linemate Daniel Sedin. If not for an injury earlier this season, Daniel would also be among the league's leading scorers.
Does the brotherly connection hurt Henrik's chances?
"I don't think anybody who wins that honor wins it on his own," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. "Whether it be Ovechkin or Crosby, you have to have good players surrounding you and helping you out. Whether for Henrik it's his brother Danny, this is a team game and you need your teammates. I don't see what's wrong with that."
But Henrik's story will always be tied to brother Daniel.
1999 draft: "It's an omen"The Sedins were then represented by veteran agent Mike Barnett (although his right-hand man was their current agent, J.P. Barry). Barnett, who was at the helm of IMG Hockey at the time, sent a message to NHL teams heading into the 1999 draft and said the Swedish prospects did not really want to come over to North America unless they were drafted by the same team.
"It wasn't definite, but they loved it in Sweden [playing for Modo], and unless they ended up in the same NHL organization, it might have been several more years [before] they came over," Barnett, now in the New York Rangers' front office, recalled to ESPN.com.
So what Barnett and the twins needed was a team willing to make that happen. Enter Brian Burke, then the GM of the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks.
"I remember going to the world juniors that year and watching them," Burke, now GM in Toronto, recalled to ESPN.com last week from his corner office at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. "This sixth sense that they have, their radar, whatever you want to call it, was obvious to me the first time I saw them play together.
"Now, they did struggle a bit at those world juniors; they got knocked down easy in those days. I liked them a lot, but wasn't sold yet. That's until I went to the world championships in Norway later that year. They were playing against men in that tournament. I remember saying, 'OK, I've got to have these guys.' And that's when we started working on it."
Tampa Bay had the first overall pick, followed by Atlanta at No. 2, Vancouver at No. 3 and Chicago at No. 4. Six days before the draft in Boston, Burke struck a deal for the fourth overall pick with then-Blackhawks GM Bob Murray, who wanted rising young blueliner Bryan McCabe plus a first-round draft pick in 2000 or 2001.
"We were a nonplayoff team in Vancouver, McCabe was just entering his prime," said Burke. "That was a tough one, but I said, 'OK, I'll do it on one condition, we don't register the trade until Friday.'"
Burke wanted to keep the trade a secret until the day before the draft. That's because he had much bigger plans at the time.
"I was going to try to get three out of the top four picks," Burke said with a sly smile. "I liked Patrik Stefan, too, so I wanted all three players."
Draft day was arriving, but Burke still wasn't where he needed to be. He had the third and fourth overall picks, but that wouldn't guarantee the twins, especially if Tampa was going to take one of the Sedins despite Barnett's warnings. On the eve of the draft, Barnett met with then-Lightning GM Rick Dudley.
"Dudley definitely needed the most persuading," said Barnett. "I was just trying to be candid with him. The boys wanted to play together. They are extremely close, but it wasn't a threat or anything."
Dudley chuckled at the memory of it.
"Barney came to me and said, 'There's no reason to draft Daniel Sedin because Brian Burke is taking Henrik Sedin with his pick,'" Dudley recalled. "I said, 'I don't give a crap what Brian Burke does, I'm taking Daniel Sedin with my pick. If that's going to change, it's because Brian Burke phones me and offers me something for me not to do it.'
"I left that meeting and the look on Barney's face, he was dumbfounded," Dudley laughed. "But by the time I left Barney's room and got back to my room, my phone was ringing. It was Burkie."
Burke was fretting on the eve of the draft. Still no trade with Tampa Bay.
"Rick Dudley played it tough," said Burke. "We're friends, but you should have heard the profanity over the phone. He said, 'I'm taking Daniel Sedin and I don't care what you do.' I said, 'You're going to take a guy you can't sign? They're not coming unless they come together to the same team. You have to make a deal.' Dudley got his back up and said, 'You don't run my team.' If we had been in the same hotel, we would have had a fistfight. That's how heated it got."
A frustrated Burke remembers taking a walk around Boston to clear his head.
"It was a beautiful day in Boston," said Burke. "I bumped into the twins three different times on a 20-minute walk and remember my wife saying, 'It's an omen. You're going to get these guys.'"
Sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, Dudley realized there was no point in drafting Daniel if he wasn't going to play in Tampa Bay. A deal was struck. Burke moved his fourth overall pick (acquired from Chicago) to Tampa Bay along with the 75th and 88th overall picks (third-rounders) in exchange for the first overall pick (Dudley would move the fourth pick to the Rangers in another blockbuster deal).
Burke decided it would be fitting if the Canucks could go on stage and pick both twins consecutively. Knowing Atlanta wanted Stefan with the second overall pick, he took Thrashers GM Don Waddell aside and asked him if he wanted to the first pick, especially since Atlanta was a new franchise. Waddell agreed and Burke got a conditional third-round pick out of it.
"I went up on stage to draft them and couldn't tell them apart," laughed Burke.
The early years: It takes timeThe two skinny boys from northern Sweden didn't take the NHL by storm. Early on, they were easily pushed around on the ice, and critics had a field day with Burke and the Sedins, some of them calling the twins the "Sedin Sisters."
If it stung, Henrik would not admit it.
"No, we never get motivated by fans or by media," Henrik told ESPN.com last week. "We said from day one we wanted to get better, and more so showing Brian he did a good job of drafting us. That's the one thing. He always believed in us. We wanted to show him he did the right thing. That was part of what motivated us. Also we knew, and Brian knew too, that we weren't really prepared physically. ... It's taken some time, but it's been worth it."
Those first three NHL seasons were a real test of their character, and people who know the twins aren't surprised they persevered.
"They're great kids, very smart people, and their work ethic is terrific," said Burke. "Their teammates always liked them. They were accepted from day one."
Burke also believes former Canucks coach Marc Crawford should not be forgotten in the twins' development.
"I think Marc Crawford deserves a lot of credit for how they came along because he kept throwing them out there no matter what," Burke said. "The thing that's admirable about the twins is that even when they weren't putting up offensive numbers -- and they didn't their first few years -- they never got scored on. They're reliable defensively."
"Those first few years, you'd see both Henrik and Daniel getting knocked down," Crawford told ESPN.com this week. "They had those great skills, but it was the ability to engage physically.
"But even in those first few years, they were good players even then," added Crawford. "It was just a strength issue. Not that I'm the biggest developmental guy in the world, but you knew what was ahead for them."
The twins soaked it all in, worked extremely hard every summer, and by the 2003-04 season, they began to mature into front-line players. After they had produced 30-point seasons in their opening three seasons, Henrik put up 42 just before the lockout and Daniel, 54. They were on the cusp.
"They were beginning to get it," said Crawford.
And they wanted to play more. They were on the second line behind the big boys, Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi. But they wanted a bigger role after the 2003-04 season and were ready for it.
"They never voiced any displeasure with me ever -- ever," said Crawford. "But that summer, Dave Nonis took over as GM and he told me we had to go meet the twins overseas. We went to England to meet them. J.P. Barry was there as well. Turns out the twins were basically concerned that I didn't like them enough and I didn't play them enough. They knew that they were playing really well and that they weren't getting rewarded with the ice time. The reason was obvious -- at that time, the Naslund-Morrison-Bertuzzi line was still our top line. But the message was received."
Post-lockout: "Sisters" become "stars"While young stars Ovechkin and Crosby took the Eastern Conference by storm coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the Sedin twins emerged from the work stoppage as first-line, bona fide stars.
Both players set careers highs in points, clearly responding to the extra ice time and the roles Crawford gave them.
"By the end of that year [2005-06], they definitely were our top guys," said Crawford. "They had surpassed Naslund and Bertuzzi by that time."
The hard work paid off. The "sisters" were now "stars."
"We try to be consistent," said Daniel. "We know what we're going to do, that is key, do the same things over and over again."
You want consistency? In the four full seasons since the lockout, the twins each averaged 78 points per season, Henrik edging Daniel 314 points to 311. Henrik was plus-58 over those four seasons, Daniel plus-56. There's consistency, and then there's eerie similarity and carbon copy: Henrik and Daniel each posted 82 points last season.
They look so darn alike, it only stands to reason they would produce the same numbers. Last Saturday morning at the pregame skate in Toronto, Canucks forward Mikael Samuelsson switched the Sedins' nameplates around in the visitors dressing room. Some Toronto media members didn't notice and left their scrums identifying the wrong brother for their particular quotes.
"The best story I have for that was during their first season, and it just shows you what great kids they are," said Crawford, now head coach in Dallas. "It was during a faceoff play in our end. I yelled at Henrik, just screaming at him, but it was actually Daniel that let the guy go on the faceoff. But I'm just yelling at Henrik and he took it. We were walking off the ice after the game and Daniel turned to me and said, 'Just want you to know that that was me.' And he kept walking. I just started laughing."
The standoff: No pushoversThe Sedins are two of the nicest players you'll find in the NHL, but that doesn't mean they're pushovers. Represented by one of the NHL's toughest negotiators in Barry of CAA Sports, the twins pushed the Canucks right to the limit last offseason, waiting until the eve of the July 1 free-agency period before signing identical (of course) five-year, $30.5 million contract extensions.
One more day, or a few more hours as it were, and the twins were unrestricted free agents. For Canucks fans, it was a frightful few weeks in June 2009, the thought of their beloved twins bolting town. The twins? Cool as ice, as always.
"We didn't really think about it," said Henrik. "J.P. was doing everything and was talking to [Canucks GM] Mike [Gillis]. For us, it had been about the summertime, showing up in the gym and getting better that way. We knew everything would take care of itself. If Vancouver wanted us, then we stay there; if not, then we were ready to go somewhere else. It wasn't a big deal."
But they nearly did leave. Barry, for one, exited the NHL draft in Montreal thinking as much.
"We had one more meeting before the draft and we agreed to disagree," Barry told ESPN.com. "I shook Mike's hand and said, 'That's it. We're going to Sweden to prepare for free agency.'"
But Gillis had one more play. He surprised the twins and Barry by showing up in Stockholm.
"Our objective in going to Stockholm was to make sure they understood that they were key guys on our team," said Gillis. "We wanted to re-sign them. In order to have a competitive team, we needed to do certain things under the salary cap and they accepted that."
In the end, both sides compromised. The Canucks moved from $5.5 million a year and Barry moved from $6.5 million a year. The $6.1 million average is below what they would have received on the open market, but it wasn't all about money with the twins.
"The twins made their final decision a few hours before July 1," said Barry. "We were confident we could have got similar offers in the marketplace to what Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik got. But ultimately, the twins were very happy in Vancouver and that was the deciding factor for them."
This season: "A lesson in character"
The twins have responded to their newfound riches with the best hockey of their careers this season.
"I give them credit, they came in here this year and have been absolutely fantastic after getting that kind of security," said Gillis. "It's a lesson in character."
But because Daniel was felled by a foot injury, Henrik has really come to the forefront. With his brother out, he proved a few things: He could still produce without Daniel at his side, putting up 18 points in 18 games while Daniel was gone, and lead his team to victories. That is why Henrik is so worthy of consideration for the Hart Trophy.
There's certainly an element of satisfaction in quieting critics who say the Sedins can't stand alone.
"I think so," said Daniel. "We can't do much about those kinds of things [what other people think], but it is good to know. For him to see he could play that kind of hockey, I think it was huge, and for myself, too."
Henrik has also changed his game. Henrik has always been the passer, Daniel the shooter. But Henrik potted 10 goals while Daniel was out. Who knew?
"I don't know if he shot the puck more, but he was finding the scoring areas," Daniel said. "He really took it upon himself to do things out there and it was great to watch for myself. And for his confidence, it really helped. Once I was back, he just kept doing the same things. I think he got better as a hockey player."
Henrik, like his brother, has done it without much input.
"For a coach, you talk about low maintenance or no maintenance at all, he just goes out and does his job, prepares well," Vigneault said of Henrik. "And he's a real team guy. His focus is always on what the team needs."
That's what a leader does.
"He's moved into a much greater leadership role on the team," said Gillis. "I think he really feels that this is his and his brother's team. They want to be the leaders. They want to be the go-to guys every night and they're embracing it and they're going with it."
That was the plan all along.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.