The greatest play at the biggest moment in Wild history
Posted by Dean Holden at January 5th, 2013
By Jack Blatherwick, January 4, 2013
“Nothing fancy in overtime, boys. No Turnovers. Get it deep.” That was the standard advice by the Minnesota Wild TV commentator after a turnover in a pivotal playoff game against the Colorado Avalanche (2003). This is standard punditry when a play doesn’t work. Second-guessing after mistakes is the contribution to sports broadcasting that allows anyone to earn a second career after a first one as a player, coach or a blonde model with the capacity to memorize statistics.
We’ll hear it a dozen times in the football playoffs when a quarterback gets intercepted: “No. No. No. You can’t throw into a crowd.” Of course, when the QB throws into a crowd, and his receiver catches it for a touchdown, the pundits say, “He really threaded the needle. That’s why he’s great.”
Yes, great players make mistakes sometimes, because as John Wooden says, “They are taking the initiative.” And great coaches allow them to “go for it.”
Jaques Lemaire, a great coach, known for promoting solid defense, was behind the Wild bench when two of his players attempted a drop pass while criss-crossing in the neutral zone. It resulted in the turnover, which prompted the standard warning from the TV booth. The turnover had no impact on the game, because the Avs were in their conservative shell, and simply dumped it deep behind the Wild goal.
Sergei Zholtok (Wild forward, now deceased) wasn’t buying the standard advice, and a minute later he carried the puck at top speed across the middle red line. Skating down the left side, he faced a well-prepared defense led by all-star Rob Blake. Zholtok had a split second to make a decision: either dump the puck and make the announcers comfortable, or come up with something fun, and see how the defense reacts. He chose the latter. As he crossed the blue line, he cut sharply to his right, creating a moment of indecision for the Avs, and in that brief moment both defensemen were playing Sergei.
Andrew Brunette, skating on the right wing, saw Sergei’s intention and crossed to his left where Zholtok dropped the puck as they criss-crossed just inside the blue line. The defense had all but evaporated after Zholtok’s deception, and Brunette waltzed in alone, deking Patrick Roy, the league’s best goalie. Overtime ended in an unexpected sudden death for the highly rated Avs, sending them off to the golf course, and inspiring the underdog Wild to compete boldly into the conference finals.
Zholtok was born in Latvia and played junior hockey in the Soviet Union, so he knew from hours of practice that making plays could be more effective and fun than giving the puck to the other team. The strategy is to attack in unpredictable crossing patterns, rather than straight lines. “When you don’t see an obvious play, make one up,” Sergei was taught. “If you don’t outnumber the defense, try to get two of them to play you momentarily, so a linemate can take advantage of the void.”
In 2004, Sergei died from a congenital heart problem after a game in Belarus during the last NHL lockout. Two years earlier, in the summer before the Wild playoff success, Sergei came with teammate Darby Hendrickson to train at our dryland facility. His massive legs were legendary in the weight room, but there was something else. During every exercise (weight training, sprinting, jumping or slide board), Sergei’s eyes were constantly moving side-to-side.
Darby asked him about this, and Zholtok’s reply was, “In Russia, the coaches emphasized eye movement in all training, even off-ice. Their point was that playmaking is limited by vision, so we practiced seeing everything around the weight room, exactly as we did on the ice.”
Wait a second. You mean vision and creative playmaking are coachable? They aren’t just a gift you receive at birth? Dean Talafous, former NHL player and long-time coach, makes the same teaching point in his Total Hockey dryland training. “Expanded vision is the key to offensive playmaking,” he says. “Young players should practice peripheral vision as they handle the puck and work on leg strength, balance and speed.”
Most creativity in North American hockey comes from players, because it is not a high priority in dryland and on-ice practice as it is in Russia. Creative offense is a coaching priority in American football, where beating the defense requires more than waiting for them to make a mistake. Consequently, football has grown from its Neanderthal beginnings, when an off-tackle play was the norm, to offenses so deceptive that defenders have no idea where they will be attacked next.
In the same 50 years, offense in college hockey has become so boringly predictable that TV commentators are shocked out of their comfort zone when someone actually makes a creative play.
For great athletes to reach their potential, they must be empowered by coaches to learn by trial and error. In hockey, however, offensive attack is restricted by coaches who do not tolerate risky plays; unless, of course, the play happens to work.