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The Globe and Mail

Sedins' journey to the top a long, hard one

Vancouver Canucks Henrik Sedin, left, is congratulated by his twin brother Daniel Sedin after Henrik scored against the Buffalo Sabres during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Vancouver, British Columbia, January 25, 2010.


Of all the stories he can tell about the Sedins, Brian Burke's favourite concerns the time he went to see them play in Sweden after they had been drafted by Vancouver.

The Toronto Maple Leafs' GM was running the Canucks back in 1999 when he engineered the draft-day coup in which he snagged both brothers as the second and third picks overall. The Sedins decided to play with Modo in the Swedish elite league that year rather than try to endure the rigours of the NHL.

Besides, they had high school to finish.

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One night that fall, Burke went to Sweden to watch them play. He took in the game with the Canucks' chief European scout, Thomas Gradin, the former NHL star who had sold Burke on the twins' talents. Burke was hoping to see a hint of their superstar potential.

On this night, however, they were dreadful. After the game Burke was furious.

"I said to Thomas, 'I'm not even going to go down to the dressing room. If they don't both have the flu, then I have made one monstrous mistake.'"

They didn't have the flu. But they did have an excuse.

"They were both straight-A students and they had a calculus test earlier that day," Burke recalled yesterday. "There was a problem they couldn't solve so they had stayed up until 4 o'clock in the morning until they cracked it."

Burke was relieved. He knew the players he had drafted were not just extraordinary hockey talents but two people imbued with the kind of character, the kind of fidelity to hard work, that would come in handy when they began their NHL journey a year later.

As good as he imagined the Sedins might one day be, Burke admits he never saw an Art Ross Trophy in Henrik's future. Or in Daniel's. Anyone who said they did is lying, Burke said. But Burke and anyone who has ever talked to Henrik will tell you it couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

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It's difficult to talk about one Sedin without referring to the other, given that both players' ascent in the NHL has always been written as a single story. So when you talk about the withering criticism that Henrik faced early in his career, it would be silly not to include Daniel in that picture as well.

As someone who covered the Sedins during their early years in the league, I can tell you the abuse the pair took from media and fans alike was often unrelenting and personal. One radio personality began referring to them as the "Sedin sisters." Fans phoned into radio talk shows variously demanding that they be split up, traded or sent back to Sweden.

Many hockey players, especially high-profile ones who are the target of such vilification, won't read the papers, listen to the radio or watch TSN for fear of plunging into depression. Not the Sedins. They read it all, heard it all and likely turned beet red when they did, not because they were mad but rather because, well, they blush easily.

The thing is, they never complained about the treatment they were receiving, no matter how bad it got. Only later, when the tide of public opinion had turned in their favour, did they admit how unhappy they often were coming to the rink in the early years. But after every season, they went home to Sweden and put on roller blades and skated up hills and got stronger and faster and better.

Their English improved too, and their interviews got longer. But along the way, neither Daniel nor Henrik ever learned to take credit where credit was due, to shirk responsibility for poor outings, to celebrate outrageously after scoring a goal.

I know we sometimes make too much of athletes being nice people when it shouldn't be that big a deal. After all, why shouldn't they treat others with the kind of respect we all expect from one another? That said, there are degrees to everything, and as human beings, Daniel and Henrik possess a genuineness and humility that isn't common, certainly among athletes.

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After Saturday's four-point outing that helped him become the first Canuck player to lock up the scoring title, Henrik was in the dressing room running around after his three-year-old son Valter, who had a little hockey stick and a ball. Father instructed son how to properly hold the shaft, but the boy seemed to only want to hold his father instead.

So they hugged.

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