May 11, 2004
Postcard: Praise Warren-ted
Strelow's students engaged in Western Conference duel

By Mike Eidelbes

Like a lot of us, Warren Strelow settled in at his suburban St. Paul home Tuesday night to watch Calgary and San Jose play in the second game of the NHL’s Western Conference finals. Unlike a lot of us, Strelow looked on as two of his former pupils battled for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

As San Jose’s goalie coach, Strelow not only tutored Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks’ starter, but also worked with Calgary’s Mikka Kiprusoff, who backed up Nabokov prior to being traded to the Flames in November. Pressed into duty with Calgary due to injuries to Roman Turek and Jamie McLennan, Kiprusoff seized the number one spot in the team’s goaltending pecking order. Not bad for a guy whose college career consisted of one start between the pipes for Minnesota during the 1952-53 season.

“Kipper is an outstanding goalie, always was,” Strelow said. “The problem is Nabokov was Rookie of the Year and is one of the best goalies in the National Hockey League.”

Watching Nabokov and Kiprusoff duel is the latest chapter in Strelow’s incredible story – he’s been around enough significant events in hockey history to make Forrest Gump jealous. Herb Brooks added him to the Minnesota coaching staff in 1974. By the time he left in 1983, Strelow had been part of three NCAA titlists. Brooks summoned him to work with the goalies on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team – we know what happened there – and later called on his old friend to serve in the same capacity with the 2002 U.S. Olympic team.

His professional coaching career started with Washington in 1983. In six seasons with the Capitals, his goalies posted the NHL’s lowest combined goals against average six times. He then moved onto New Jersey, where he worked with a young Martin Brodeur. And while it seems Strelow leaves a path of first-rate goaltenders in his wake, he credits the scouts who’ve scoured the world to unearth talented prospects.

“You’re only as good as the guys they give you,” said Strelow, a former scout himself. “(In San Jose) we had Johan Hedberg, who we traded to Pittsburgh and is now in Vancouver, we’ve got (current Sharks backup Vesa) Toskala and Nabokov and (had) Kiprusoff. We got all those guys at about the same time.”

Once he gets the goalies under his wing, Strelow uses the same techniques he employed for 18 years as a teacher in Minnesota. In fact, he says there’s no difference between his former career and what he does now.

It’s a classroom with ice,” Strelow said. “Repetition, good habits, not taking away their creativity and their abilities…if they do something you don’t like but they do it well, you leave it alone. My goal is to make them the best they can be with their God-given talent, work within their style, throw in good basics and perfect their weaknesses.”

A recent kidney transplant has kept Strelow in Minnesota during the playoffs, but he’s maintained his role fine tuning Nabokov’s game with the help of former Wisconsin goaltender Wayne Thomas, the Sharks’ vice president and assistant general manager.

“I talk to Wayne Thomas every day,” Strelow explained. “We agree on philosophy and we agree on teaching methods. I don’t think there’s a lot lost between the two of us. I talk to Nabokov two, three times a week. Sometimes after the game, he calls me.”

Strelow’s idea of a perfect series was a San Jose sweep with the Sharks winning every game 1-0 in overtime. That dream, of course, went by the wayside Sunday after the Flames beat the Sharks 4-3 in OT. And regardless of the outcome, don’t expect Strelow – who’s become the game’s hot goalie guru, usurping the handle Anaheim’s Francois Allaire enjoyed at this time last season – to take credit for the play of either Nabokov or Kiprusoff.

“I don’t teach these guys how to play goal,” he says. “I help them to be the best they can be. It’s their game. They have to play.”

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