It is one of sports greatest truisms, perfectly articulated by Robert Duvall’s Max Mercy in the film “The Natural”; “…they come and they go Hobbs, they come and they go…” That it is so true hardly makes it easier in cases like this.
For the first time since 1995 the Dallas Stars open camp without Sergei Zubov. That little has been written or said about it is oddly apropos.
Sergei Zubov never sought publicity or praise, and to say that is to greatly understate his sentiments and actions in that regard. As slippery and crafty as he is as a player, he is equally cunning and successful in his efforts to elude the media and their questions. He was difficult to get to know and let very few into his confidence.
He is, above all, a hockey player, frequently the first on the ice for practice and just as often the last to leave. Once there he is gregarious and radiant, and a unique talent. Dallas fans will always remember the eighty-foot passes up the gut and on the tape, the ease with which he toted the puck through and around frustrated opponents, the ever-so-slight shoulder shake and quick move to the forehand for a shootout winner, and his improvisational brilliance quarterbacking the Power Play.
For those who had a closer look or keener eye, there was his mastery in the after-practice games of skill, and always with a robust smile. There was the pre-game warm-up skate and the passing back and forth with Mike Modano, both grinning as they saucered it over teammate’s sticks and to each other, confident that theirs was a game in which few really belonged. There was the eyebrow raised and the shake of the head at the score sheet after a thirty, or forty, or fifty or more minute performance. And there was always the look on the face of a teammate or opponent when he was asked about Zubie. Even the best were awed.
The highest scoring Russian-born defenseman in NHL history, two Stanley Cups, the only player ever to quarterback three different team’s Power Plays to first overall. And on and on and on. And yet little national recognition by the media. He didn’t care. Honestly - he didn’t care.
I asked him once several years ago if not getting the accolades, not getting the national press or NHL individual awards bothered him. He said simply that “awards shouldn’t be for who is best with the media”. He also told me that he would trade ten Norris Trophy’s for a shot at another Stanley Cup.
We honored him a few years ago for his 1000th NHL game. ( VIDEO
) As you would expect he didn’t want the recognition. After the game he called me over and told me how great it was – that the fans really seemed to appreciate him. I believe he had no idea what a big deal Sergei Zubov is to the Dallas fan.
He allowed us to interview him just once or twice, and it was always a battle. “Zubie, c’mon – the people love you – they want to hear from you.” I think even after being in the States for so long, and getting the American citizenship of which he was so proud, he felt uncomfortable with the language but more to the point, he wanted to be known for what he did on the ice and nothing more.
This past summer, the Dallas Stars and Sergei Zubov could not find common ground, and so Zubie returned to his native Russia to play for St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League. As of the writing of this piece the 39 year-old Moscow native leads his team averaging 23 minutes a night, leads them with 13 shots on goal, and has a goal. It’s early in the season of course, but for those of us who know and love him, those are encouraging signs for a player who has had the kind of health issues he’s dealt with over the past few campaigns. The money and the terms of the deal were better for him and his family there, and who can ever blame a guy for doing what he has to do to take care of those closest to him.
I’m proud to say I’m his friend, and probably one of the few who didn’t play with him that he allowed in. I’ll miss everything. I’ll miss watching him play and practice, I’ll miss the morning coffee’s and the hotel chats, and I’ll even miss the profanity-laced good-natured insults. He is not replaceable in any meaningful sense of the word, and in my estimation I’ll never see another like him. He was as important a player as this franchise has ever had, and believe me when I tell you that I don’t say that lightly.
I keep hoping that somehow, someway, he finds his way back to us and back on the ice as a Dallas Star. But I know that’s just not going to happen, because ‘they come and they go…’
I’ll just have to be ok with clinging to the memories of what happens in between.