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A beautiful mind: How Zubov's hockey sense molded him into Hall of Famer

The Stars' greatest defenseman did 'all of his talking on the ice,' excelling at out-thinking the competition

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

2019 Hall of Fame: Sergei Zubov

Sergei Zubov forever remembered as key to Stars' core

As a team leader, defenseman Sergei Zubov was a pillar of the Stars' core for 12 seasons, helping lift the club to its 1999 Stanley Cup title

  • 01:44 •

When Sergei Zubov was a young lad, he would work on his wooden sticks over his mom's stove.

A bright boy, Zubov figured that there had to be a way to improve his tools so that he could make the puck do different things on the ice. He pondered curve and lift and taper. He worked with different tape jobs. Like a mad scientist, he experimented, took his creation to the outdoor rink for a test, and then scurried back home to continue his work.

"It took me 10 years to get it the way I liked it, to get my pattern," Zubov said. "Ten years."

 

[PHOTOS: Carbonneau, Zubov at 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame weekend]

 

That experience not only gives you a glimpse into the beautiful hockey mind of Sergei Zubov, but also into the patience that made him so famous.

On Monday in Toronto, Zubov will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2019. It took him a decade to get that honor, as well. Despite being one of the all-time great defensemen of his era, finishing up ahead of Nicklas Lidstrom (0.70) and Scott Niedermayer (0.49) in points per game during the playoffs with 0.71 per game, Zubov was not an easy choice for the Hall.

He polled higher than eighth just twice in voting for the Norris Trophy, getting third one year and fourth the other. He wasn't seen as a charismatic figure with media or fans. All he did was play great hockey on a consistent basis.

"He never got the credit that was due to him from the media or the league or awards or anything," said teammate Craig Ludwig. "I think it was funny, because he didn't want you guys hanging around asking questions all of the time. He was like, `I don't need that, so I'm fine if nobody is giving me attention.' It probably hurt him in terms of awards and everything, but I think it was just better for him day to day.

Video: Sergei Zubov reflects on childhood, hockey career

"He could just play his game and do all of his talking on the ice."

And that's where the case for Sergei Zubov is best found. He was a player who was miles ahead of the rest in thinking the game. He was a player who loved not only out-thinking the opposition, but helping his teammates out-think the opposition. He was a player who mostly just wanted to win.

"I don't know that we even used the term Hockey IQ at the time, but his understanding of the game was extremely high," said Rick Wilson, former Stars assistant coach who ran the defense when Zubov was with Dallas. "He saw things as well as anyone when he was on the ice. It wasn't only a creative mind, it was sort of semi-genius. So then it was a matter of just figuring out how he could help us the most, and how he could help himself play his best hockey. That took a little while."

Zubov will be honored for his entire career on Monday.

He started out as one of the youngest players to compete with the Red Army Team before moving to the New York Rangers at age 22. He helped New York win the 1994 Stanley Cup, leading the team in scoring with 89 points that season. For some reason, the Rangers traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995. And for some other reason, the Penguins traded him to the Stars in 1996. It's difficult to say why exactly, but it would be easy to guess that Zubov's mind wasn't the easiest to understand. So when former Stars general Bob Gainey made the trade with Pittsburgh to send Kevin Hatcher away and get Zubov back, everybody had to be open-minded.

"I know when we got him, he was a little shell-shocked by all of it, and Bob wanted to make sure that we really got to know him and did everything we could to make him comfortable," said former Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock. "We found restaurants that served Russian food, we found fans who could speak Russian. It was a long way from New York, and we wanted to make sure he liked it here."

It took a little while, but Zubov most certainly did like Dallas. He fit in well, the team started winning almost instantly, and he was a part of 10 trips to the playoffs and seven division championships. Mix in four trips to the Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup championship in 1999, and you could say Zubov became one of the greatest players in franchise history.

Video: Stars to retire Sergei Zubov's No. 56 in 2020-21

"It was good there," he said. "They had good players, we won a lot. It was fun."

Hitchcock said one of the best things the Stars did was put Zubov on the penalty kill. He said that challenging the talented blueliner's overall game proved a perfect motivational tool. Add to that they allowed him to share his vision of the game with coaches and teammates, and the fit started to appear pretty quickly.

"I think he wanted to be respected for his craft, that's really at the heart of it," Wilson said. "He wanted people to understand how he saw the game, and that was always easy for me. He was always very respectful, so it was a mutual feeling."

In fact, the players loved Zubov's thirst for creativity, especially in a system that asked for a lot of conservative decision-making. With players like Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk, the hunger to make plays out of the team's defensive base proved infectious.

"He was respected by Hall of Fame players, because they knew he could help make them better and he could help them win games," Ludwig said. "All you had to do was play one game with him, and you could see just how much he affected every game. He played a smart game and he made smart players even better. That's saying a lot right there."

Modano and Zubov used to play a game after practice or at the morning skate. Each player would stand on an opposite side board and flip pucks back and forth to the other across the width of the rink. The puck had to bounce once before it got to the defending player. If it hit the wall, the shooting player received a point. If it didn't, the score stayed the same.

"It was something he liked to do and he got me into it, and it just kind of took off from there," Modano said. "It was simple enough, but it taught you how to control the puck when you were throwing passes and it taught you how to catch a bad pass, so I think it did make you better. Back then, the ice at Reunion wasn't great, so the puck was bouncing a lot in the last 10 minutes of a period, and it just kind of got you used to it. He was always thinking about things like that."

Video: Sergei Zubov receives his Hall of Fame jacket

Modano said the Stars already had a high team IQ with players like Niewuendyk, Guy Carbonneau (who also is going into the Hall with the Class of 2019), and Mike Keane. But Zubov pushed everyone to be better.

"He just had a whole different vision of the game, how it felt, how it should be played, what would work and what wouldn't," Modano said. "When you look at it, it was perfect timing for him to come to Dallas. We didn't have a puck-moving defenseman, we didn't have someone to organize the power play, and we were really open to whatever ideas he had. It just came together for us, and for him."

Zubov said he has always tried to find ways to control the game. Whether it was changing his stick or his skates or learning ways to move the opposition into places on the ice, he liked to do things different.

"I would spend hours and hours with the sticks, with the game. I don't know how to explain it," Zubov said of his zeal for hockey introspection. "I think you just know you can be better. You always think it can be better."

Wilson was a big key to helping Zubov explore his creativity.

One time during training camp, teams were picked for an obstacle course challenge. Each team was given three sticks and tape and told to tape the sticks in a triangle that could be carried throughout the obstacle course. While every other team taped the sticks in a normal three-sided triangle, Zubov taped his with the blades sticking out like a propeller. It turned out that his design was easier to carry and pass, and when Zubov's team won, the other teams complained that he didn't follow the rules.

Asked to explain himself, Zubov showed the center of the propeller where the three joined sticks formed a small triangle. The coaches smiled at the creativity and pronounced Zubov the winner.

Video: Carbonneau, Zubov receive Hockey Hall of Fame rings

"Rick was really patient with Zubie," Modano said. "He knew he was a special talent and that he would create a lot more than he would give up in terms of risk. He was so smart, at a level not a whole lot of people could reach."

He also was tremendously skilled. Zubov was listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, but had strong hands and thick legs. He enjoyed finding ways to outmuscle forwards.

"He went into the corner and he held his own," Ludwig said. "He was very strong."

While Modano added: "He had the biggest hand strength I have ever seen. If you shook his hand, it was like cement. His grip could crack your hand."

 

[READ MORE: Why Carbonneau's stop in Dallas proved huge in path to Hall of Fame]

 

In reality, it was the mix of skill and strength and smarts that has landed Zubov in the Hall of Fame. He will be celebrated as a player who helped change the fortunes of a somewhat unknown team from Texas. He will be celebrated as one of the smartest men to play the game.

Ludwig started in Montreal with Larry Robinson and Chris Chelios as teammates, two of the most honored defensemen in the game. He said Zubov is definitely in their class.

"I've played with Chelly and I played with Larry, and I don't want this to sound bad, because they had their own strengths in how they played the game, but Zubie is the most skilled, talented guy I have ever played with," Ludwig said. "Chelly was different, Larry was different, but Zubie was so dynamic offensively and yet he was also really good defensively. His legs were strong, his hands were strong, he was a really complete defenseman. He never got credit for how good he was defensively."

Video: Zubov for Kevin Hatcher

On Monday, he will.

"It's nice," he said. "It's nice to hear nice things about yourself."

It's also nice to ponder what his hockey brain can still accomplish. He was head coach of Sochi in the KHL for more than two seasons, but was fired this fall. He is living in New York and pondering where his coaching career might go. The Stars would love it if he would help them look at things in the organization right now. They know he has a different perspective on things.

As for Zubov, he too understands that he can be a pretty good teacher.

"Now, my job is to get that vision to other people, other players," he said. "Sometimes, that job is easy. Sometimes, it is not."

And yet, it's a job he knows he suited for.

"I think I still have a lot left in me, and I want to pass it on," he said. "That's what I want to do."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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