I don’t think that too many of us will forget the roller coaster ride that Game One of the 2007 Western Conference Quarterfinal series vs. Nashville brought on April 11, 2007. It all began with excitement, sadness, and amazement, followed by anticipation, electricity, shock, anger, horror, and delight, and punctuated by a 5-4 double-overtime victory against the Predators that brought the San Jose Sharks to a 1-0 series lead.
In the midst of this dramatic scene, we find ourselves watching two hockey teams that seem to embody the ideal of what the NHL was trying to achieve when it revamped its economic system and changed some key rules of its game. The Sharks and the Predators are both hungry for excitement, adventure, and achievement, and it shows in the way that they compete on the ice, each and every night.
The day started off a little atypically, even after a normal night’s sleep and a trip to the rink for the morning skate at about 9:15 a.m. There, the news arrived like a thunderclap: Warren Strelow, long-time goaltender coach of the San Jose Sharks, had died at 73 years of age in Worcester.
I’ll never forget the first time that I saw Warren in person. I was in the American Hockey League, on a trip with the New Haven Nighthawks in Utica, New York, home of the beer ball and, at the time, the Utica Devils.
He was a large man, with a focused look in his eyes, and if you didn’t know him, as I didn’t at the time, all you saw was a man who was all business. He didn’t wear skates, donning a pair of work boots with soles that allowed for easy foot travel across the ice to his spot near the goal.
He stood out there, calling for drills, with a couple of the “Black Aces” executing them in precision-like fashion. Everything was designed for working his goaltender.
I’ll never forget seeing the goaltender, either: he was tall, gangly even, looking a tad bit clumsy at times as he was put through his paces. I had never seen him play for Utica, and in fact, he never had.
“Who is this guy?” I wondered aloud, thinking about both the man in work boots and the man in goal. Someone nearby replied, “That’s Warren Strelow, the goalie coach, working with one of the junior kids from Quebec.”
I had heard of Strelow, a man who had been at the University of Minnesota during my years working in college hockey, but I couldn’t believe that it was this man, not looking at all athletic, standing on the ice in work boots, a windbreaker, gloves and a baseball cap. He was trumpeted as a brilliant goaltending coach by the WCHA people, but was being dismissed by some as just another collegiate phenomenon who couldn’t possibly help anyone in professional hockey.
The kid that he was working with looked tired, and the drills seemed very challenging for him. He didn’t seem as adept at the drills as did Roland Melanson or Craig Billington, the Utica goaltenders during the previous couple of seasons. In fact, it looked as if the youngster needed a rest, or at least, a drink of water.
“Well,” I said to myself, shaking my head, “this is quite a sight.”
As it turned out, it was, indeed. I was watching one of the pioneers of his profession working a “blow-out drill” with a goaltender that would turn out to be quite a bit more talented than either Roland Melanson or Craig Billington.
You see, the goaltender’s name turned out to be a Devils draft pick named Martin Brodeur.
Of course, I would meet Warren six years later, when he came to the Sharks to begin the final chapter of his distinguished career. With San Jose, he worked closely with all of the goaltenders and he seemed to be really focused on working with the prospects in the organization. From that prospect list came a few gems named Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Johan Hedberg, Nolan Schaefer, and others still to come.
He always seemed to understand exactly what his goaltenders were thinking, and he continually emphasized the psychological ups-and-downs that the position brings to itself.
He had endured diabetes, kidney failure, kidney dialysis, a kidney transplant, a subsequent infection, broken bones, and many other medical problems. Yet, he seemed to gain energy from just being around his goaltenders, working with them on things that they didn’t necessarily want to work on in order that they might become the goaltender that they dreamed of becoming.
More amazingly, he held on until the very day that the playoffs began, as if passing the torch from his failing hands to his protégés, who promptly dedicated the upcoming postseason to him and promised to hold that torch high.
From there, the game, and what a game! It had all the elements of an entire seven-game series, all rolled up into one double-overtime thriller that will not be soon forgotten by anyone.
When the Sharks win their first Stanley Cup, they will raise it over their heads in celebration, but they won’t forget all of the people who helped get them to that point. As a show of gratitude to their mentors, they will pass what they learned on to the next generation, and somewhere, Warren Strelow will be smiling.
For Seagate Technology’s “In the Crease,” I’m Dan Rusanowsky.