Former Shark has become quite a Flame

Updated: May 8, 2004, 1:55 AM ET
Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When the San Jose Sharks traded Miikka Kiprusoff to the Calgary Flames last November, they were fully aware they might be giving away a future star for a mere second-round draft pick.

Nobody thought the trade might haunt the Sharks six months later in the Western Conference finals -- not Kiprusoff, and not the goalie he couldn't unseat in San Jose.

"It's pretty strange that it worked out this way," said Evgeni Nabokov, who will lead the San Jose Sharks onto the ice for Game 1 of the series on Sunday. "This series isn't just about me against Kipper. It's 20 guys on both teams ... but it's kind of strange."

Kiprusoff, a Finnish goalie drafted and trained by the Sharks, backstopped the Flames all the way to their first conference final in 15 years, earning a nomination for the Vezina Trophy and serious consideration as an MVP candidate. He set an NHL record with a 1.69 goals-against average while earning 24 victories in just 38 games.

Both goalies have excelled in the playoffs, too. Kiprusoff has posted statistics nearly identical to the regular season, while Nabokov has allowed just 15 goals in 11 postseason games, posting a 1.34 GAA and a 94.9 save percentage.

But when the season began, Kiprusoff was the Sharks' third-string goalie behind Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. Kiprusoff had struggled in his only regular playing time early last season while Nabokov was in a contract holdout, and Toskala had snatched the backup job.

"He was professional, and he worked very hard," coach Ron Wilson said. "If he hadn't worked as hard as he did, he wouldn't have been ready to do what he's done in Calgary. He wanted to be a No. 1 goalie, and he knew he wasn't going to get the chance here, so he kept himself ready and finally got the opportunity."

Kiprusoff was aching for an everyday job, but the Sharks couldn't send any of their prized goalies to the minors without putting them through waivers, where they would have been snatched up. General manager Doug Wilson was a victim of his team's phenomenal success in developing goalies -- so he made the best deal possible.

"We knew he'd have a chance to be a great goalie," Doug Wilson said, "and that's exactly what he turned out to be when he got a chance to play every day."

Both goalies joined the Sharks from fairly humble hockey origins.

Nabokov, who's from a large city in the mountains of Kazakhstan, had no interest in North American hockey until the Sharks unexpectedly drafted him in the ninth round in 1994. Kiprusoff was a fifth-round draft pick a year later, but didn't leave his teams in Sweden and Finland until 1999.

By most accounts, they coexisted well in San Jose during parts of three seasons as teammates. Nabokov was the league's top rookie in 2001, but Kiprusoff found the spotlight a year later when he replaced his injured counterpart and became the first Finnish goalie to win an NHL playoff game.

"It was a great place to play, but now I'm glad I can be here and get a chance to be a [starter]," Kiprusoff said earlier this year. "I still have a lot of friends over there."

Though Nabokov and Kiprusoff play different styles, both players owe much of their careers to Warren Strelow, the Sharks' veteran goaltending coach.

Strelow, an assistant for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, has produced an assembly line of netminding talent in recent years. In addition to Nabokov and Kiprusoff, he mentored Johan Hedberg, who's been a starter for two teams since the Sharks traded him, and Toskala, Nabokov's highly regarded backup.

But Strelow isn't with the Sharks at the highest point in franchise history. The 70-year-old coach is home in St. Paul, Minn., recovering from a kidney transplant last September. If the Sharks keep winning, he hopes to be able to attend a game.

Strelow stays close to his players. He speaks to Nabokov over the phone at least every other day, discussing everything from technique and strategy to Strelow's memories of a trip to Moscow in the 1970s.

"He was -- he is -- a huge part of what we've achieved in this locker room," said Nabokov, who spoke with Strelow for 75 minutes on Wednesday. "Sometimes you're talking to him and you can just hear in his voice that he wants to be here.

"I made a joke: 'Somebody said that you're going to cheer for Kipper.' He took it seriously. He said, 'You know that I'm going to cheer for you guys.'"


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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