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On Evgeni Nabokov, Goalie Coaches, and Hockey's Most Mysterious Position

On the nature of goaltending, its practitioners and the men who help them.

Nabby, the throwback.
Nabby, the throwback.
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Evgeni Nabokov has been waived by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and now traded to the San Jose Sharks for what looks like a ceremonial retirement and end to his long NHL career, which dates back to 2000-01 when he won the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie.

In between then and now, he experienced much of the possible spectrum in a goalie's career: an outstanding workhorse and starter for a perennial playoff team, a sacrificial lamb on a struggling Islanders squad, a declining goalie who provided more proverbial veteran leadership than performance for an improving squad that soon needed someone better, and a backup on a team that ultimately cut him adrift midway through his final season.

In that context, we'll consider the gestalt of goaltending, and the influence of a goalie coach Nabokov holds dear, one who coached both the first Russian goalie to win the Calder as well as the U.S. goalies who famously defeated the Russians in 1980.

Goalies: Forever on the Precipice of Heroism and Goathood

More than any position in hockey, goaltenders have their mistakes magnified and the outward reflections of their inner mental battles on display.

A skater can have a bad shift without anyone noticing. He can make a mistake and then disappear from sight for the next several minutes of game time. He can be bailed out by a teammate -- including a goalie -- or protected from further mishap by his coach.

But goalies look best only when something goes wrong -- and even then, the "greatest" saves can come from a goalie scrambling to compensate for being drawn out of position by previous events. Otherwise a goalie's best and most work, like a referee's, is noticed more by the comforting sense that all is well and nothing unusual has happened.

While we evaluate goalies by save percentage and performance on "scoring chances" -- mostly because those are the only numbers we have -- as we discuss them and their peaks and valleys, it's important to remember that there is a whole other mental component going on: A goalie, left alone with his thoughts when not working, engaged in a mix of instinct and thought when he is, is in a constant mental tug-of-war with himself and his surroundings. Like the Heisenberg Principle, we might know that battle is there but not necessarily know where it is at any given time.

Nabokov's Goalie Coach

Goalie coaches come in all different forms. They are frequently shuffled from team to team, sometimes at the behest of a particular goalie who likes them, sometimes because a team or head coach prefers a specific technique -- or alternatively, a psychological approach -- that someone else offers.

No matter the coach, they are always part tactician and part psychologist.

Wayne Coffey's "The Boys of Winter" (2005), a book I highly recommend about the lives of the 1980 Team USA "Miracle on Ice" Olympic team, had a few bits about goaltending worth pondering here.

First, on Jim Craig, the U.S. goalie who Herb Brooks went with for the whole tournament instead of backup Steve Janaszak, the goalie who had backstopped Brooks' U. of Minnesota team to an NCAA championship:

"Goalies are different from other human beings. By workplace location and mindset, they occupy their own distinct space. A goal cage is six feet wide and four feet high, 24 square feet to keep the puck from penetrating. You are quite literally the last line of defense, the ultimate determinant of who wins and who loses. You need a special sort of self-reliance to play goal, and a willfulness that borders on defiance: You are not getting this puck past me. Jim Craig had both in abundance."

Then, even more pertinent, the team's goalie coach, the legendary Warren Strelow, who coached Evgeni Nabokov when he was at his career peak with San Jose, before Nabokov came to the Islanders. Strelow coached technique and small adaptive improvements, but he also tended closely to the mental side of a goalie's game:

"Strelow has always been his goalies' staunchest ally. [...] He doesn't believe in embarrassing them or humiliating them. He plays to a guy's strengths. He never says, 'Do it this way.' He says, 'I have something that may help you.' His approach inspires profound loyalty."

"It's hard to describe what this guy does for us, how helpful he is," Nabokov once said. "You've got to see him with us day after day. This guy gives up all his heart -- everything that he has -- to hockey. His life is hockey. He's watching the tapes all the time. He's talking to you. Anybody can coach. Any goalie who retires can tell you what to do. It's not that hard. But it's harder to go deeper, to get to know the goalie as a person and to understand them. Nobody is able to understand you like Warren does."

The game has changed much since 1980, and even since Nabokov's rookie year in 2000, and "Nabby" was in many ways stylistically a throwback.

But one thing that seems never to change about the mysterious puzzle of goaltending -- a condition influenced in equal parts by uncontrollable external forces as by the goalie's physical actions to minimize those forces -- is that the technique is not there if the goalie's head isn't right. And keeping the goalie's head right is a constant assignment for both the goalie himself and the coach charged with helping him along.