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Sergei Zubov looked at hockey through a different visor.
Take a team-building exercise the Dallas Stars were assigned in the wilds of Vail, Colo. They were split into small groups, told to bind three of their sticks together into a triangle and carry it together through a difficult obstacle course in the woods.
Zubov, who was appointed squad leader, told his men to tape the sticks with the blades jutting out, making the contraption easier to grip, throw and relay while running. They easily won the competition and, when other players protested, Zubov pointed to the perfect inner triangle of his creation.
Perhaps those wondering about the quiet defenceman’s Hockey Hall of Fame inclusion should take a different look at his accomplishments, too.
Zubov ticks some crucial boxes: Two Stanley Cups, 1,068 games and Olympic gold with the 1992 Unified Team. A lot of his NHL contributions came in the shadow of those who couldn’t help being in the spotlight: Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Keenan in New York in 1994; and Brett Hull, Mike Modano and Ken Hitchcock in Dallas in 1999.
Zubov did not play in a prime-time TV zone as contemporaries Leetch, Scott Stevens, Ray Bourque, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Chelios, all Norris Trophy winners. But he had strong influences on the two championship teams he played on, leading the Rangers in regular season points to set the stage for their first Cup in 54 years.
“I had a chance to play with great guys — Messier, Leetch, but most importantly it was my partner back then, Kevin Lowe. That influenced a lot into my game.”
He was the only Ranger other than Messier to average a point a game, as researched by author Nathaniel Oliver of The Hockey Writers, with two assists in the Game 7 win over Vancouver.
“I’ve played against great players in the NHL, but Zubov was one of those guys that you didn’t want to see on the ice,” said fellow Hall inductee Guy Carbonneau. “(Later, as Zubov’s Dallas teammate) he could always find you somewhere, was a great passer that could control the puck. When you have guys like Hull and Modano, he was always a threat on the ice on the power play and offensively.”
Rather than bolt with so many Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s, Zubov finished his military service with Red Army, played on its star-laden team and embraced the disciplined life and detailed practices others disliked. Selected by the Rangers in 1990, long after a glamour first round that included Jaromir Jagr, Owen Nolan, Martin Brodeur and Keith Tkachuk, Zubov didn’t play a full season in New York until 1993-94. But what a year it was — 77 assists, more than Norris winner Bourque.
With Dallas, in the days of the dead puck, Zubov became more of a field marshal, no less an important role as the old North Stars franchise won its first title and nearly a second in 2000. Zubov was described as the chess piece that controlled the game; calm under fire, solid positionally, knowing when to hold the puck or an opponent just enough to find daylight on an outlet pass.
The Stars’ management and public-relations department did a lot of drum-beating to get Zubov a Norris or other award, but he wasn’t comfortable with that part of celebrity. He was also very conscious about English not being his first language in TV interviews, which limited his media exposure.
Yet, Hitchcock, assistant coach Rick Wilson and general manager Bob Gainey had the utmost respect for Zubov, giving him a long leash on the ice.
“Wilson probably was the one that spent most of the time with me, taught me a lot and changed my game,” Zubov said.
Where the colourful Hull could get kicked off the ice for fooling around in practice, the staff let Zubov and Modano play an elongated game of trying to catch bad passes a foot off the ice or controlling long lobs. Many considered the flashy centre from Michigan and the reserved Muscovite to be on identical wavelengths.
Zubov lasted until 2009 with the Stars and a year in the KHL before retiring. The Hall call last June caught him off guard.
“It’s truly special. It’s kind of that you realize you’ve done something in your life that you can be proud of and never look back.”
Though he was on a waiting list, Zubov gets in ahead of a couple of Russians who have been talked about a lot longer, namely Alexander Mogilny.
“There are many different guys, many different players, who deserve to be here,” Zubov said diplomatically. “I’m just glad that it happened with my phone number.”
THE FILE ON SERGEI ZUBOV
The skinny: NHL’s second-leading scorer among Russian defencemen to Sergei Gonchar … Plus-20 or better in five of his 16 NHL seasons … Won Olympic gold with the Unified Team in 1992 … Played final 12 years for the Stars, second-team NHL all-star in 2006 with Zdeno Chara … Had 112 playoff points in 164 games with Stars, Rangers and Penguins … Coached Sochi in the KHL up to this season.
SERGEI SAYS: “It was tough at first, especially no (Russian-speaking people) that are usually around you. But hockey is that kind of game, when you put everything aside and it just takes you all in.”