Mike Legg, Bill Armstrong and the 'coolest goal ever scored'

Puck Daddy

It was March 24, 1996. It was the NCAA West Regional semifinal. Mike Legg of the Michigan Wolverines took the puck behind the Minnesota net and surveyed the scene. Two Gophers were standing on the other side of the goal, waiting to see what the Michigan forward was going to do. 

He was outnumbered. Teammate Bobby Hayes was to his right fighting for position with a Minnesota player. The other two Gophers who could have defended the play made the mistake of turning their heads to check their surroundings for Wolverines players who could become passing options for Legg.

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It was then that Legg bent down on his stick, scooped the puck up and whipped it over the shoulder of Minnesota goaltender Steve DeBus. The netminder didn’t know what was coming and in his delayed reaction threw his glove hand up while Michigan players were already raising their arms in celebration.

Believe it or not, the Wolverines were trailing in that game when Legg decided to pull off what has been known as “The Michigan” ever since that Sunday afternoon at Munn Ice Arena on the campus of Michigan State University.

The play went the mid-90’s version of viral since the game was broadcast on ESPN in the U.S. It won a 1997 ESPY Award for “Outrageous Play of the Year.” Swedish hockey magazine “Inside Hockey” named it the “Goal of the Year.” TSN voted it “Play of the Year.” Legg’s stick spent time in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Legg and the Wolverines would go on to win the national title a week later over Colorado College, thanks to an overtime goal from Brendan Morrison. But the lasting memory for many from the 1996 tournament would be the lacrosse goal scored by the junior forward from Michigan. 

It was a move most had never seen before — except, less than 24 hours before Legg introduced it to much of the hockey world, a minor leaguer was doing it for the sixth time.

*** 

Bill Armstrong was a minor league lifer. Following three years at Western Michigan University, the Philadelphia Flyers signed the undrafted winger and he would spend the next three seasons in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears.

Armstrong did make it to The Show, but only once, for a Feb. 18, 1991 game against the Chicago Blackhawks — a 5-3 Flyers win that saw the 24-year-old record an assist on a Scott Mellanby goal.

After one more year in Hershey, Armstrong spent the 1992-93 season in Utica and Cincinnati, playing in both the AHL and IHL before landing with the Albany River Rats in 1993.

During summers, Armstrong would work at London, Ont. hockey schools and while looking to make use of some downtime during sessions he’d mess around with the puck, lifting it up on his stick and creating a shot attempt — what is known as the “lacrosse move.” It was then that the thought crossed his mind: “How can I turn this into an actual scoring play?” 

“Initially I just started picking it up on the fly and kind of flipping it over my shoulder, similar to a lacrosse-style play,” Armstrong told Yahoo Sports. “Then one day at the hockey school I told the kids to do a down and back or something and I was standing right beside the net. I leaned down, picked up the puck and kind of wrapped it into the net and I thought, ‘Oh, geez, that might be a play I can use in a game.’”

But first Armstrong had to ensure that the play itself was legal. As long as his stick didn’t go above the height of the crossbar, there was no rule preventing him from doing it.

Pulling off the lacrosse-style move is a risky one. Be successful and you’re a legend. Mess it up and you’re on the blooper-reel. For Armstrong, he was hesitant to try it during a game until his head coach in Albany, Robbie Ftorek, gave him the green light.

“Years prior to that I was able to do it, but I was scared to death because I would be sitting my butt on the bench,” Armstrong said. “One of the things [Ftorek] always gave us was the freedom to be creative and be a hockey player. In my lifetime, my favorite coach of all-time just because he was a great communicator and he was a good teacher and he put a lot of onus on us players to be our own gauge of what was right and what was wrong.”

Armstrong had done the move enough times in practice and just fooling around on the ice that all he needed was his coach’s approval and for an opponent to give him just a bit of room behind the net.

It was so second nature that I never really had to worry about where the puck was or any of that,” Armstrong said. “All I ever had to worry about was getting position behind the net and making sure that there wasn’t that defender on that blocker side or that wrap side of the net. That formula was pretty easy. All I’d ever do is get the puck behind the net, fake like I was going to wrap it around on my forehand and as soon as I’d lean to that forehand side of the net, the goalie and the defender would go to that side and then I’d just lean on that back of the puck and pull it the other way and it was easy.” 

Fans in Albany fell in love with Armstrong and his funky move. Every time he skated behind an opponent’s net with the puck River Rats they would yell Do it! Do it! hoping to see some of his stick magic. “They’d want me to do it every single time,” he said, “and it’s like anything in a play; you can’t do the same thing every time, so I had to kind of disguise it and pick my spots.” 

Ftorek not only gave Armstrong the confidence to do the move in a game, but also financial incentive. He once playfully offered Armstrong $100 if he scored a goal with the move during a game. 

Sure enough, Armstrong did.

“I came back to the bench and had my hand out,” Armstrong joked. 

The first few times Armstrong successfully pulled off the move — he did it four times each in the AHL and the IHL in his career — there was shock. Some fans did double takes wondering what they had just witnessed, while officials were trying to determine the legality of the play.

“It was, honestly, the first three times when I’d score, I’d cheer and my teammates would celebrate with me, but everybody else in the building, including the other team, would just stand there and look at each other like, ‘What the hell was that?’” Armstrong said.

The play was alien to goaltenders, especially back then before YouTube and gifs where a highlight could be around the world in seconds. The final two times Armstrong pulled it off he did so in the IHL against former NHL goalies Pat Jablonski and Stephane Beauregard. The move wasn’t done in the NHL, and in their minds they’re not really expecting that kind of shot attempt as they’re trying to process the situation around them.

“It happens so fast you can’t defend it,” Armstrong said. “Now goalies are so smart and I think the easiest way to defend it is just put your blocker up on the crossbar as you’re coming across, but I don’t really know because all’s I was ever trying to do was score.” 

By the last time Armstrong pulled it off, he was a known threat and opposing teams didn’t want to see their goaltender embarrassed. Plenty of players took exception to what some in the hockey world would see as showing up an opponent, but that was never his intention. It was a legal play and way to help his team score a goal, which is what he was being paid to do.

“I was like I can score a goal like this. I’m not just going to not use it because you guys are mad at me,” Armstrong said. 

One time Armstrong received blowback from an opponent was when he was with the IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears. During a home game, the Jumbotron played a highlight of one of his lacrosse goals days earlier against the Cleveland Lumberjacks.  

Armstrong knew what was coming.

“I’m like, ‘Don’t do that!’ We’re playing the Chicago Wolves and the Wolves are on their bench going, ‘We’re going to kill you!’ and I didn’t even do it to them,” said Armstrong. “They’re like, ‘Keep your head up, we’re going to kill you’ every time I skated by their bench. Sure enough, I get the puck behind their net and I do it against them.” 

*** 

Mike Legg wasn’t inspired to pull off “The Michigan” in the 1996 NCAA tournament because of Armstrong’s success from the night before. In fact, it wasn't until weeks later that Legg learned of Armstrong's goal the night before his.

The planning for Legg's famous tally had been in the works for months. 

Armstrong and Legg are both from London, Ont. and would train during the summer with other college and professional players from the area. The college kid was a bit intimidated by the old pro, but would watch him closely during workouts. When Legg saw Armstrong practicing the lacrosse move, he had to find out how to pull it off. It was the perfect ice breaker.

Legg would practice and practice the move for months with the intention of doing it in a game. Multiple times during warmups while at Michigan, he would ask officials what they thought of the move and whether they would rule the scoring chance a legal one. Each one told him they thought it was fine. Now it was time to actually attempt it.

After practice, Legg and some teammates would stay on the ice to mess around. One day, Michigan head coach Red Berenson saw Legg do the move and asked him if it was legal. He told him yes, to which Berenson replied, “So why don’t you do it in a game?” 

“I was probably even more scared to do it then,” Legg told Yahoo Sports. 

"I'm not a coach that supports hot dog-type moves in hockey. But on the other hand, if a kid can score goals and had the skill, then go for it,” Berenson told ESPN.com's Patrick Hruby in 2010 story titled "The coolest goal ever scored in hockey". 

Fast forward to that March day in 1996 with Michigan on the power play trailing Minnesota 2-1 in the second period. The Gophers were dominating and Wolverines goaltender Marty Turco was standing on his head keeping Michigan in the game. Legg and his team needed some sort of swing in momentum. 

“I had just practiced it so much in that situation. I remember Johnny Madden got tackled and I pulled the puck all alone behind the net and I’m like, ‘Oh, well, sure, let’s do it,’” Legg said “There’s no real time to think about it, right? You just have the confidence in doing it so many times and different ways.”

The goal goes in. Wolverines fans are celebrating while not quite sure what they had just seen. Legg’s teammates maul him. But in the moment, he was more excited about the game being tied and momentum being back in Michigan’s favor than relishing how he had just evened the score. 

Michigan would go on to win 4-3 and didn’t have much time to enjoy the victory with the Frozen Four semifinal four days later. Legg’s goal garnered so much attention in the days following. His sister was in a Florida airport and saw the highlight on CNN. Pizza delivery men were randomly bringing up the goal while in elevators with Michigan players. It was everywhere. Even non-hockey fans were aware of it.

In a way, Legg, who’s been working as a firefighter outside of Vancouver for over a decade, felt the spotlight on his goal was sort of a good thing for the team as they entered the Frozen Four. The attention he received took some pressure off team leaders like Morrison, Turco and Jason Botterill. In the end, it would work as Michigan shutout Boston University and then beat Colorado College in the title game.

No matter how many interviews he did or how much attention was brought his way, Legg never did forgot the man who taught him the move. It may be known as “The Michigan” now but he's never let an opportunity pass to give credit where credit was due and bring up Bill Armstrong's name.

It may be 20 years since Legg’s famous goal, but he’s constantly reminded of it from his friends. Whenever a highlight of a player pulling off the move hits the Internet, he gets the texts. The older he gets, he says, the more the impact of that one goal sinks in. 

“It is very flattering and I wasn’t expecting [it] to be like this at all,” Legg said. “It was something I practiced, that I did, and that was the end of it for me. I was proud that I worked so hard at something and it worked out and it was OK, let’s move on, we’ve got a national championship to win. That’s it. It doesn’t matter how we got here. That’s the way it is.” 

***

Call it the lacrosse move, “The Michigan,” the high-wrap, or “The Crosby.” Call it whatever you want. Twenty years later, the move is performed at all levels of hockey all over the globe.

The most famous successful attempt since Legg’s happened during the semifinals of the 2011 World Championships. Finland’s Mikael Granlund pulled it off against Russia. It became such a big moment in his homeland that they immortalized it on a postage stamp.

Granlund’s inspiration? Mike Legg.

“I think I was saw it when I was five-years-old,” Granlund told Yahoo Sports. “Someone showed me the video. When you’re a kid you try to do some kind of new, interesting stuff and then I just did it once in a while.” 

While the goal earned Granlund iconic status with a postage stamp, he wasn’t even the first person in his household to score like that. His younger brother, Markus, did it during a game in 2010 and again six months after Mikael’s goal at the Worlds.

Granlund hasn’t thought about attempting it again. 

“I feel like back then when I did it five years ago it became way too big deal and I told myself I’m not sure if I’m going to do that anymore,” he said. 

*** 

Armstrong’s hockey career ended in 1998 due to a concussion suffered during an IHL Turner Cup playoff game with Kansas City that may have saved his life. According to an Orlando Sentinel article, he played four more games before headaches caused him to undergo a CT scan where a tumor was discovered. It was removed and diagnosed as benign. Today's he's perfectly healthy.

Prior to the discovery, Armstrong’s agent was in talks with representatives from “The Late Show with David Letterman” for a guest appearance to perform the move. Unfortunately, his health prevented his late night debut. “That would have alleviated any of the questions,” he says regarding the crediting of Legg as the move’s inventor.

Armstrong now works in real estate in the London area, enjoying the structured schedule he found in professional hockey. He’s remained involved with the game as a coach in the OHL and as a scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008.  

He doesn’t play shinny much anymore, but whenever Armstrong is out on the ice with kids they always ask to see the famous move he invented. But, of course, they still call it “The Crosby” or “The Michigan.”

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Sean Leahy is the associate editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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