It has become the great debate of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Not the Vancouver Canucks or Boston Bruins - that will eventually be decided on the scoreboard - but whether or not the Sedin twins of Vancouver are psychic?
Daniel and Henrik Sedin look so alike it took coach Alain Vigneault years before he could tell them apart. They speak so identically that they will sometimes say "we" even when one is talking alone. On the ice, they are distinguished by numbers, 22 for Daniel, 33 for Henrik, and by an astonishing ability to find each other when making passes, many of them blind, while moving the puck around in the opposition end.
So remarkable is this ability that the man who brought them to the NHL 11 years ago believes they "absolutely" possess a second sight, a sixth sense, a built-in communication system that gives them - Henrik the NHL's scoring champion last year, six minutes younger Daniel this year's scoring champion - an advantage never before known in the game.
"I've seen guys who had chemistry," says Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs but GM of Vancouver in 1999, when the Swedish twins were drafted. "But I've never seen anything like this - it's like they have radar."
The twins themselves are not convinced, though Henrik, the team captain, did concede this week that, "Sometimes, even ourselves, we can maybe think that something strange is going on."
Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, a fellow Swede and a linemate of the twins during the 2010 Olympics, says he has experienced what happens with them on the ice enough to believe that their story is all about skill and familiarity, not telepathy.
"It's not more than two super-skilled persons who can read the play," Alfredsson says. "It's more just being used to each other. They've played together so long. They know each other perfectly.
"But they can sure make it look like there's something telepathic going on."
"People say we have that on the ice," says Daniel, who also does not believe in telepathy. "We have the thing we have because we've played together for so long. It has nothing to do with anything else."
"There are always reasons why those things happen," Henrik adds.
Alfredsson agrees and says that such seemingly magical connection is not unusual among elite athletes playing on a team. He felt it himself when, for a couple of seasons, he and Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley were the game's most formidable scoring line.
"It just happens," he says. "You don't even have to think. You just know where the other will be. The twins take this to another level."
"They communicate like dolphins," says the twins' current linemate Alex Burrows. "The way they move the puck, they have that sixth sense."
They do so because they are supremely skilled athletes - both were given the opportunity to move 800 kilometres south of their northern Sweden hometown of Ornskoldsvik to join an elite soccer school, but declined in favour of sticking with hockey - and because they have always played together, always on the same line. Among elite hockey players, there is simply no comparison when it comes to longevity and compatibility. Henrik, the elder, has always been the centre, the one most likely to make the pass; Daniel has been the shooter. Henrik has always been the team leader, Daniel content to let his older brother serve as captain of the various teams they were on. Henrik talks slightly more, but only slightly. They have the same accent, inflections and exactly the same dry humour. In separate interviews held only steps away from each other this week, they at one point cracked the same joke about winning a team scrimmage.
At age 30, the twins are clearly in their prime. They have their back-to-back scoring championships and, if Daniel is named winner on June 22 of the three finalists nominated as the league's most valuable player, they will have back-to-back Hart Trophies, as well. This week they were named recipients of Crown Princess Victoria Prize, awarded annually to Sweden's best athlete.
It usually goes to single recipient - but even in Sweden they do not separate the Sedin twins.
No brothers have ever won consecutive scoring championships in the league's 94-year-history. Brothers, however, are far from novel in professional hockey. Even the Hall of Fame greats - Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky - all had brothers play with variable success in the NHL. The six Sutter brothers of Viking, Alta., all made it, including Ron and Rich, the first twins to play in the league. There have been five sets of twins since.
But identical twins - the product of a single egg, as opposed to the more common fraternal twins, which come from two eggs - are different still. It has only happened twice in the NHL, and in the case of the Lundqvist twins, Henrik and Joel, they not only did not play together but played different positions, Henrik goal for the New York Rangers while Joel, who now plays back in Sweden, was briefly a forward with the Dallas Stars.
Only the identical Sedins can claim to have played the same position, forward, and on the same line. They have never been separated. Not in sports, not in school. Their father is a school principal and the parents, Tommy and Tora Sedin, placed high value on education, although they allowed the boys to complete their high school studies in four years rather than three to allow more time for hockey. "We considered it very important for Henrik and Daniel to finish their studies," says their mother. "We talked about it at home. Who knows what would have happened with the hockey? There was no guarantee for success. Anything could have happened."
Anything could happen in the Cup final, too, but that won't stop Tora from watching her boys compete for their first NHL championship, despite her stated affinity for the "more pleasant" sport of soccer.
"The games are played nighttime here in Sweden, but … well, it's really exciting now," she says. "So I guess I'll sit up and watch. And if everything goes in the right direction, we will come over for the fifth game."
Success did happen, and quickly. By 16 they were playing at the highest level - so involved with hockey that the parents let them complete high school in four years rather than three - and the play of the identical twins of Ornskoldsvik was being noted.
Twins are always a curiosity - and have been since the days of Greek and Norse gods, since the Old Testament, since Romulus and Remus founded Rome - but identical twins far more so in that there is large belief that they have their own special communication skills, as do certain birds and animals.
Such a possibility has always intrigued science - and fascinated false science. Experiments conducted on television have included separating young identical twins so one is in a room subject to various stimuli - hand plunged into cold water, frightened by a rubber snake - while the other is hooked up to a lie-detector machine in another room to record emotion. In those experiments, a telepathic connection was claimed. It was also quickly dismissed as pseudo science.
Writing in Psychology Today in 2009, British author Digby Tantam, who is both a psychiatrist and psychologist, claimed that legitimate parapsychologists "have been unable to duplicate these results in the laboratory." Identical twins Randy and Jason Sklar said that they were involved in a clinical university study on telepathy when they were 14, Randy drawing shapes in one room while Jason was attempting to copy them in another. "I was so far off," Jason Sklar told the magazine, "they ended up stopping the study."
What, then, explains the blind passes of Henrik Sedin to Daniel, the innate ability of Daniel to place himself in a spot where he will have a clear shot at goal if only he is given the puck? The twins say familiarity. Brian Burke jokes that they have the mentalist skills of "The Amazing Kreskin," who used to do mind-reading on a popular television show of the 1970s. There are many - several of them NHL teammates and opponents of the twins - who would agree with Burke.
They were still children playing in Ornskoldsvik when they were noticed by Thomas Gradin, a former NHL player then working as a scout for the Canucks. He believed they had an ability to "read" each other that was not understandable but also undeniable. On Gradin's urging, Burke travelled to the world championship in Oslo, Norway, to see for himself. He came back a believer, "We decided we were going to move heaven and earth to get them together."
At the 1999 NHL entry draft, Burke completed a complicated series of trades with three teams that ensured Vancouver would have the second and third pick, having been assured that the team picking first overall, the Atlanta Thrashers, had settled on another choice. He called both Sedins to the podium at the same time, holding out jerseys with No. 22 (D. Sedin) and No. 33 (H. Sedin) in the hopes that each would take the jersey intended.
Like everyone else, Burke could not tell the two apart. At times in the past, the twins have fooled the media, even doing interviews as their brother. They seem so much the same, yet have lived fairly separate lives in Vancouver - Henrik with wife Johanna and two sons in Yaletown, Daniel with wife Marinette and two girls and a boy in Shaughnessy.
They blossomed slowly, really only coming into their prime over the past three seasons. Burke says former coach Marc Crawford deserves credit for getting them to the level they are now at. Alfredsson says that, as with many European players, it took them years to adjust their talents to the smaller North American ice surface. The Sedins play what is called a "cycle" game - working pucks out from the corner boards by circling and dropping passes to each other and their linemate until an opening presents itself.
"It's harder to do on the North America ice surface where there's just not as much room," Alfredsson says. "Obviously, you have to do it a lot quicker. And they're really good at that. They seem to find a way to take it to the net on a consistent basis. That's unusual. And they do it with small, little plays are so difficult to do. But they do it."
They do it with such success that, despite earlier concerns that they were off to a slow start in these playoffs, Henrik is today the leading scorer in Stanley Cup play with two goals and 19 assists, and Daniel not far behind with eight of each.
"We thought they would be top-six players," Burke says. "No one talked about Hart trophies or Art Ross trophies back then. It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise."
Such success, naturally, has led to financial reward. And even when it comes to contracts, they are treated as one. When current GM Mike Gillis signed them to twin five-year, $30.5-million (U.S.) contracts two years ago, he said, "Because of their style of play, they are symbiotic and effectively inseparable. As such, we will treat them as a single entity for contract purposes, while recognizing their individual needs and attributes away from the arena."
Henrik Sedin claims it doesn't bother them in the slightest to being regarded as one. "With those questions," he says, "you're going to get the same answers."
"We think pretty much the same way," Daniel adds, "so we're going to answer the questions the same way, for both of us. It's been like this for 15 years - and it's not going to change."
As for being regarded as "freaks of nature" if not mere curiosities, Daniel just laughs off all the talk about telepathy and psychic skills and being able to read each other's mind on the ice.
"We bring it on ourselves," he says.
"We answer the same way … we like the same things ... and we can't really do much about it."
With files from Matthew Sekeres in Vancouver and Janne Bengtsson in Sweden.