Tending talent

Ross McKeon

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff and a handful of other goaltenders he mentored over the years had a very special gift for a dying Warren Strelow last spring.

Six players in all were represented on a colorful and artistic goalie mask, the brainchild of Nolan Schaefer, who mastered studio art for his major at Providence College when he wasn't tending net for the Friars.

This story doesn't have a happy ending, though. Despite their best intentions, the goalies weren't able to get the special gift into his hands before Strelow passed away on the day the San Jose Sharks opened the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I never will erase him out of my mind," Nabokov said. "He always will be with me."

"I've been pretty lucky, I've had great goalie coaches at home and here," the Finnish-born Kiprusoff said. "You try to take something from everybody, but with Warren he taught me so many things. He made me work hard even when I wasn't getting much action, which was really good."

The two Strelow disciples put on a duel Tuesday night. Kiprusoff got the better of it with 40 saves for the Calgary Flames and a 4-3 win in overtime when Jarome Iginla beat Nabokov, who faced only 18 shots. It was a game Strelow would have loved to watch but would have agonized over at the same time.

Strelow is considered the godfather of all goaltending coaches, a job that didn't even exist until close friend Herb Brooks bestowed the responsibility on him to work exclusively with Jim Craig and the "Miracle On Ice" 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning United States men's hockey team.

Teams took notice, but it wasn't until 1983 that the Washington Capitals hired Strelow as the league's first full-time goaltending coach. Today, every team has either a full-time or part-time coach or a consultant working not only with the goalies at the NHL level but also throughout the organization with minor-leaguers, prospects and draft picks.

Strelow followed his seven years in Washington with a three-year stint in New Jersey where he worked with Martin Brodeur during the future Hall of Famer's early years. And he was in his 10th year with the Sharks last spring when he died at 73 following a stroke he suffered six weeks earlier.

Strelow was in declining health since 2003 when he underwent a kidney transplant and battled diabetes. The laundry list of complications and health challenges may have slowed Strelow, but it didn't stop him. He always found a way to continue to pursue his passion: hockey and improving goaltenders, both physically and mentally.

"We were on the phone all the time," said Nabokov, who dedicated his Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 2001 to Strelow. "I knew he wasn't in the best shape, but still I never was thinking about the bad part of it."

Strelow may have been confined to his suburban Minneapolis home toward the end, but that didn't prevent him from reviewing tapes of games that included every goaltending touch throughout the organization and having weekly one-on-one phone conversations with each goalie.

"I was with him when I had no language going on, nothing," said Nabokov, who reported to Lexington, Ky., and the Sharks' top minor-league affiliate in 1997 not knowing any English. "He was there; he was so patient with me, too. He always would explain stuff. That's why he will always be so special."

Kiprusoff took a similar path to San Jose. Drafted by the Sharks, he reported first to Kentucky like Nabokov with so much to learn.

"He was huge for me here," said Kiprusoff, winner of the 2006 Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie. "When I first came over, it was different to play here than back at home. I spent a lot of time with him at his goalie camp in Minnesota. And he was staying with us in Kentucky a lot, too. He helped me so much."

Kiprusoff was traded to Calgary early in the 2003-04 season when the Sharks had a logjam in goal – Nabokov and Vesa Toskala also were on the big-league roster. Though Kiprusoff's working relationship was severed at that point with Strelow, certainly his personal relationship remained. He would try to visit Strelow when the Flames visited the Minnesota Wild.

"He was so much of a team guy he didn't want to talk," Kiprusoff said with a smile.

At one point last season he spent an extended stay in San Jose when the Sharks were enjoying a long homestand. Strelow would get around on a mechanical cart. He had four of them, two in San Jose and two others in Worcester, Mass., home of the team's top minor affiliate in the American Hockey League. He hated the carts, but they allowed him to do his job. That's what mattered most.

Strelow was a student of the position, adept at employing drill after drill to improve fundamentals. But he also was a great listener and communicator, knowing when to pump up a goalie's fragile confidence and when to keep pushing hard to get the most out of a player.

For Nabokov, a lot of Strelow's coaching was for between the ears as opposed to between the pipes.

"He would always tell me to stop thinking," Nabokov said. "And that's what it always comes down to. Just go and play well. Stop making things complicated. And it's really true."

While Kiprusoff has been away from San Jose for several seasons now and is working with Flames goalie coach David Marcoux, Nabokov is without Strelow for the first time during his 11 professional seasons. The Sharks have not filled Strelow's position with a new hire, instead relying on the expertise of ex-NHL goalie Wayne Thomas, the team's assistant GM.

"I don't have the same relationship – they had a very, very special relationship – but I still know the technical side of it that Warren used to talk about and the little keys he needs to stay on top of to be at the top of his game," Thomas said as relating to Nabokov.

"Now I guess we have to move on," Nabokov said. "What he did stays with me, and we have to make him proud. He was always proud, and we don't want to let him down. I want him to be proud for the rest of my career."