TORONTO — For today’s NHL crowd, it’s been dubbed a ‘lacrosse-style goal.’ Or maybe ‘The Svechnikov.’ But for two decades, it was known only by one name: ‘The Michigan Goal.’
Before the Hurricanes young gun was stuffing pucks into the top corner from behind the net, fooling the likes of David Rittich and Connor Hellebuyck with that now-signature move, before Nils Hoglander joined the long list of others who’ve tried it over the years in different leagues and tournaments, before all that, there was only Mike Legg. The original dazzler.
It was Mar. 24, 1996, during a game against the University of Minnesota, when Legg first unleashed the lacrosse-style goal on the hockey world, finding some space to breathe behind the opposing net and leaving the opposition stunned as he whipped the puck onto his stick and whirled around to tuck it uncontested above the netminder’s shoulder — a goal like none had ever seen. It was a pivotal moment in that game, a pivotal moment in Michigan’s championship run. And, given it spawned 23 years of attempts to replicate it at the NHL level, a pivotal moment in the sport as a whole.
But the on-ice world in which Legg dared to pull off The Michigan Goal barely resembled the dangle-loving one in which Svechnikov recreated it. Back then, choosing to embarrass opponents with such overt displays of skill came at a cost.
“I had my life threatened. I had a bounty on my head,” Legg says. “At the start of games, guys would come up to me and say, ‘If you’re going to try that tonight, we are bench-clearing-brawling you. Like, we will jump you.’ I’m like, ‘Oh okay, that’s nice to know.'”
We’ve probably all seen the clip — Legg finding the puck on his stick, his head rising to scan the ice in front of him, the move, the goal, the teammates mobbing him in celebration.
What we didn’t see was everything that came after, the vitriol from players in the next game and the one after that, from those not keen on being on the receiving end of Legg’s offensive innovation.
“If somebody on the other team knew it was me that had scored that goal, somebody would definitely come out and have a little chat with me. ‘You try that in the game, you’re dead.’ Absolutely,” Legg says, recalling the bounties offered for stifling his offensive creativity. “I remember — I won’t mention any names, because it was a different time back then — but I remember I did it against one team and nothing really happened. And then the next time we went and played in their building, I knew a guy on the team and he gave me a heads up, he said, ‘If you try that in the game, whoever’s on the ice that doesn’t jump you after you attempt it — score or not score — they’re not getting paid this week.'”
“So that game of course I tried it,” he says with a chuckle. “Actually, I picked it up and instead of going in the short side, I tried to reach around and go all the way around the goalie. I hit his far shoulder, and it dropped down, he covered it up — he kind of knew me, and he looked at me shaking his head, like, ‘Look out.’
If nothing else, the embarrassed opponents were at least true to their word.
“The first guy broke his stick on my shoulder. Luckily I kept my balance and grabbed another guy, went at him. So it was kind of funny — it was just a different time, right?”
More than just a different time, it was the inverse of the game as today’s generation knows it, where skill rules all and the pugilists, the brawlers, seem a rare breed appealing to only a certain subset of fan. In Legg’s day, a flashy display of stickhandling skill was as much about battling through the haze of physicality, about risking it all despite the gruff response sure to come, as it was about simply being able to pull off a move.
But the game’s evolved, and with that growth has come room for players like Svechnikov to flex their offensive ability, to get the fans out of their seats without fear of retribution.
“It’s pretty neat how it’s just going crazy again. I’m blown away by it,” Legg says. “I’m excited for the game, for the evolution of that goal and what’s going to happen next.”
With the phenomenon he started 23 years ago finding renewed life following its recent emergence at the NHL level, Legg caught up with Sportsnet to reflect on how The Michigan Goal came about in the first place, what it was like to see it make it to the big leagues, and what its arrival means for the future of creativity in the NHL.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Sportsnet: Take us through the original Michigan Goal from ’96. What do you remember about the actual play and what you were feeling as you scored that goal?
Mike Legg: We had to win that game to go on to the Final Four. It was just practicing it and getting so comfortable with it that in different situations, any situation, you could pretty much pull it off 98 per cent of the time. But leading into the playoffs, I remember telling myself, ‘It’s playoff time, there’s got to be a better option. There has to be a better option. Don’t do it.’ Because I got so comfortable, I could pick it up forehand, backhand, just at practice. But I’m like, ‘Don’t think about it. Get it out of your head, get it out of your head.’
And then it just happened. I was centring Johnny Madden and he gets tackled behind the net. I just pulled the puck back in behind the net — where, you know, you have a little bit of protection, you can get your head up — and it was so familiar in that position. I know a lot of people were like, ‘What were you thinking?’ It was more of a comfort zone, like ‘I’ve done this 100 times. I could do this’ — boom, put it up, put it in.
I was more happy that I’d completed something that I’d practiced for so long. I never knew it would grow legs like this and still be talked about today. That’s just nuts.
SN: You score and the guys all mob you on the ice — what were they saying to you in that scrum celebrating the goal?
Legg: Oh yeah, ‘I can’t believe you did that, I can’t believe you did that!’ In that game too, we were getting outshot like four to one, we were down two to one, and something had to change. We were just getting dominated. I’ve always said, you’ve got to change the pace — somebody’s got to hammer somebody, run somebody, have a good solid hit on somebody, change the pace of the game somehow.
That was just familiar. It totally flipped after that. And yeah, we went on to win that game of course, and went on and win a national championship, which probably made it even bigger at the time.
SN: What was it like getting back to the bench, seeing the effect it had on the team, and in the room after the game — what was everybody saying to you?
Legg: I remember going back and it was a lot of head-shaking, like, ‘I can’t believe you did it in a game’ type stuff. I know on our team, I wasn’t one of the [star players]. Like, Brendan Morrison and John Madden and Jason Botterill and Warren Luhning, these guys had lots of pressure on them leading into the Final Four. Before real social media kicked off, it was the phone calls and the meetings with all those guys all the time for what was going to happen to them in the future.
And it seemed like it was a relief of pressure a little bit for them, and we could all kind of concentrate on different things in our own games a little bit, and get those other guys away from the media just bombarding them a little bit.
SN: You mentioned you had done it so many times in practice it was almost automatic at that point — where did you first see that move and how long did it take you to master it?
Legg: I first saw something like that from a guy named Billy Armstrong — he’s a couple of years older than me and he was a part of the New Jersey Devils organization at the time. I remember it was like a summer skate — I didn’t know Billy, I didn’t talk to him. I was too nervous, I was a bit of a shy guy. I just watched him and watched him, and I remember as soon as we got on the ice, we were doing this warmup. Pucks are on the ice, the goalies are in net and you’re just kind of warming them up as you’re going in a big circle. You get a shot, a pass across, it’s not really structured. I was just keeping an eye on him and down at the other end, I saw him do something with the puck where he picked it up and he was throwing it around. And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that looks so cool.’
And I just sort of plugged it in my head. I had no clue how he did it, but in my head, I thought ‘I’m going to try to do something like that.’ I remember I was too nervous to go up and talk to him — that guy’s so smooth, what unbelievable hands. But I want to be the cool kid right, not go up like, ‘Oh how did you do that, could you sign my stick?’ or something. So I never had the gumption to go talk to him. From there, I just had it in my head I was going to do it a certain way.
There’s so many different versions, there’s so many different ways guys are picking up the puck — like Hoglander does it kind of like I do it, putting my stick on it and pulling it up. Guys are now scooping it up and catching it on their blades, which is unbelievable as well. There’s just so many different versions, the backhand version. I know a guy who doesn’t get too much press anymore was Robby Schremp — he was like up and over and around.
That’s what I was kind of getting into, even at practice against (Michigan teammate) Marty Turco. I remember coming in on a two-on-one, and doing the spin-o-rama move on my off-wing so the shot comes from a different angle at the goalie, and scoring on Turco. He digs the puck out and shoots it at my head, like ‘What was that?’ But it was all in good fun, and just all coming up with something new, something innovative. I remember thinking about that with Billy Armstrong, watching how he picked it up, and then sort of putting two and two together and thinking, ‘How could you use this in a game?’ Wraparounds — the wraparounds down low, every time you go to wrap around, the goalie’s job is to just beat you to the post. Well, it’s wide open up above him, right? Why not put it up above him if you can? So that’s how it came about.
… I think when I was doing it, it was still kind of a new thing. I remember before games at Michigan, even before I did it, I would be asking the referees in warmup, ‘Could you watch me do something — if I do this in a game, will you call it a goal or is it a high stick? What would you think?’ So I’d go and I’d do it and I don’t think any referees said no to me. They were like, ‘Nope, that’s a goal, that’s a goal.’
I mean, maybe they were thinking, ‘There’s no way that’s ever going to happen.’
SN: What was the response like off the ice, away from the games — what do you remember about the attention that came your way after that goal? I mean, I read that the stick you scored that goal with went to the Hall of Fame.
Legg: Yeah, my stick I did it with, they have it in the Hall of Fame somewhere, I think it’s in the basement or it comes out every once in a while, I don’t know exactly. I haven’t been back there in a long time, living out in British Columbia.
But yeah, after that, well I was in college, so with the NCAA rules, I wasn’t allowed any of the money or any of that, it was all above board. But they allowed me to go to Sweden for almost a week, and I won, I think it was the ‘Goal of the Year,’ out of a Swedish magazine, Inside Hockey. And that was pretty interesting, me as a young kid over there, by myself with Nicklas Lidstrom, Anders Eriksson, Peter Forsberg. Lidstrom pretty much took me under his wing there for a little bit, this young kid over there in Sweden.
That was an experience and a half for sure. It was a whole different world for me over there — I think it was a model show slash NHL hockey awards ceremony, in some huge club. It was unbelievable. A huge screen drops down in the middle of this club and everybody goes crazy. They’re speaking Swedish. And then I hear my name, they show my goal, and the place goes nuts. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, all the way over here they know about this?’ It was just crazy. Some of those things, I don’t know — it’s funnier now that I’m older, just thinking about it.
Like, when it first happened, my sister was with her fiancé and they were in an airport flying somewhere. And of course, CNN is on in the airport and they show a clip of me. My sister was standing on her chair like, ‘That was my brother! That was my brother!’ CNN somewhere in the middle of nowhere in an airport!
It just didn’t compute back then. It was just something I practiced that I just was happy I completed, and then it was, ‘Okay, let’s get on with life, let’s do something else now.’
SN: Well fast forward to now, what did you think when you saw Andrei Svechnikov pull it off at the NHL level for the first time and start all this back up again?
Legg: I was just excited about it — I want to see what comes next. Him and Hoglander are unbelievably skilled players — to have that in their bags is definitely going to change the game at the NHL level. I think goalies are going to have to be more aware of who’s on the ice. It just ups the ante a little bit.
SN: Where were you when you heard that he did it — did you start getting texts from everybody? How did you find out?
Legg: Oh yeah. Well, I’m a firefighter in Burnaby here, it’s a really close department, and it’s just been non-stop — New Year’s Eve, my phone was blowing up. Any time anybody attempts it or does it, it’s just, ‘Hey a guy did it in here! A guy tried it in this league! Did you see this?’ They’ll send me videos of it. It’s pretty cool — I just love the evolution of it.
SN: Over the years, even before Svechnikov did it, it had become this phenomenon in the game, with people tracking the number of times it was tried in the NHL each year, waiting for the first player to do it, wondering who that might be. Were you aware of that at all over the years, the different guys that were trying it?
Legg: Yeah, I knew some names that were in there, all talented guys. I’m sure so many guys can do it. So many guys can do it. I’ll be looking for more and more now — there’s some unbelievably talented players out there, and coming up the ranks. It’s going to be awesome.
I hope to see a lot more [styles of it], like the ones from further out, incorporated into shooting. If they can throw this in there, it really changes the angle of where the shot is coming from, even outside — not from behind the net but from further out a little bit. That could be the next step, maybe.
SN: It seems like it’s just continued to grow, with Svechnikov doing it a second time, then we saw Hoglander do it at the world juniors. What do you think about how fans have latched onto that, and what it means for the game to have the skill level ramping up like this?
Legg: I think it’s just a step towards where the NHL is going. Like, there aren’t too many players that are going to be playing in the league that I think won’t be able to do that, at least at some level. They will be picking the puck up and they will be doing more creative things, instead of having a guy come out and threaten my life as soon as I step on the ice because I might do it. Those guys are probably not going to be in the game too much longer, right.
So now it’ll be more of a skill game, and it’s gone that way in the last couple years. You don’t see the bench-clearing brawls and all that kind of stuff, how it used to be. And that’s a step in the more-skilled direction. That’s the way the game’s going.
SN: What does that mean for you, being a guy that played that style in an era where, like you said, it wasn’t quite as accepted? Now these kids have more freedom to try things.
Legg: I don’t really know that [new] side of the game — yeah, I was a skilled player, I didn’t get in too many scraps, but it was a part of the game, where you had to watch out for certain guys on the ice. Are they going to run you through the boards and take your front teeth out, and not think twice about it? You kind of had to deal with that, and the consequences if you were going to embarrass the other team with a goal like that.
I miss that part of it. When I played it was the clutching and grabbing and you had to fight through a little bit more. And hopefully we don’t see the more skilled players taking more dives and not battling through as much, or going towards more diving and trying to draw more penalties so they can be on the power play.
I do like letting the play go — I think everyone would agree that the best type of hockey is still playoff hockey. But in saying that, this is going to open up so many more skills and different things in the future, which is also unbelievably good. Everybody loves that skill. These guys are scoring those goals and people are losing their minds for it, just like back in the day when there was a fight, everybody was on their feet, they loved it.
So, it’s excitement in the game — I hope both are still going to be there. I don’t know if that’s possible or not.
SN: How important do you think it is for young players growing up watching this style of NHL hockey to continue to try to push the envelope and bring more of these types of moves into the game?
Legg: I think it would be somewhat on the coaches, too. A lot of the coaches, they probably frown upon it. They might like it but frown upon it. So are the players going to be allowed to be that creative, or is it going to be, ‘Dump it in and smash them and push it into dust.’
Take Red Berenson back in Michigan for me, he was a hard-nosed player — skilled, but a hard-nosed player. I only did it in practice, when we weren’t working on something. It would be after practice, when we had extra ice, I would goof around as long as I possibly could with different moves and picking it up and throwing it around and breakaways. I was only ever pushed to do it after Red Berenson was out there talking with Billy Powers and Mel Pearson, the assistant coaches, one day — they were at centre ice, we were goofing around — and when they were coming off the ice, coach Berenson came over to me. He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, is that legal?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah I asked some referees if it was okay, and they said yes.’
And he just looked at me, he blinked a couple times, and he said, ‘Well why don’t you do it in a game?’ And then he skated off the ice, and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ That was the green light, right — he saw it ahead of when I did. That was the push to go ahead and do it.
SN: I saw a couple years ago, you were back in Michigan and you pulled off that crazy lacrosse-style goal from the other side of the rink, which might’ve been even crazier than the original. Tell me about the love the fans out there have showed you over the years.
Legg: It’s unbelievable. I’m super lucky to be part of the University of Michigan Wolverines family. You go back and they just welcome you with open arms — that was the 20-year reunion, and I hadn’t been back for so long. What happened there, that was crazier than the goal, I think. It was just crazy, people there, they were so excited to see it.
SN: What about the kids you’re coaching now — how often do you see them pulling these types of moves, and what did they say to you when they saw Svechnikov pull it off against Calgary?
Legg: Oh yeah, they were all over me at practice, like, ‘They did your goal again! They did your goal!’ I’m an assistant coach of the junior B team here as well, and a couple of guys there were like, ‘You were on Spittin’ Chiclets, they were lightin’ you up!’ I didn’t see it but they told me all about it, I guess they were saying, ‘You don’t call it The Michigan, you call it The Mike Legg. It’s like calling it The Colorado — it’s not The Colorado, it’s The Forsberg.’ (laughs)
… I coach on a midget team in Maple Ridge, and there’s a bunch of the kids on my team that are like, ‘I’m doing it next year, I’m doing it for you coach!’ I’m like, ‘If you do it, you’re all benched.’ I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding — ‘Go ahead, go ahead. Make sure it’s the right time, and no one else is open, and you’ve got a green light, for sure.’
SN: What does it mean to you to move on to this coaching phase and pass along the things you’ve learned to these kids?
Legg: I just love seeing kids accomplish things, like ‘Hey, try this, try that, maybe we can try this next time,’ and then when they do it, they’re so happy they did something that they were told to do and they nailed it and success happened and you see their faces.
I just love it, I absolutely love it. I’m coaching from seven-year-olds to 20-year-olds, so you get a bit of every age and every different style and their learning curves. I’m really loving it right now.