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Controversial ‘Michigan goal’ growing more popular in NHL

Sidney Crosby was all of 16 years old when he was made to respond to criticism from Don Cherry. 

Cherry, the bombastic face of hockey’s old guard, used his platform on Hockey Night in Canada to blast Crosby for scoring a “Michigan goal” — picking the puck on his stick and depositing it into the goal from behind the net — during a blowout in a Quebec Major Junior League game. 

“I like the kid,” Cherry said. “But I’ve seen him now after goals. He slides on the ice on his knees. You talk about a hot dog.” 

Mike Legg watched that and laughed at the irony. He remembered talking to Cherry about his own Michigan goal — the one that gave the move its name. When Legg had pulled off the move (sometimes referred to as a lacrosse move, since players carry the puck on the stick for at least a short amount of time) in an NCAA Tournament game for the Wolverines on March 24, 1996, it was the first time most of the hockey world had seen it. In some corners, it made him a pseudo-celebrity. Cherry congratulated him on the skill. 

“I was expecting mine to get ripped apart because it’s the same type of move,” Legg said in a phone interview. “I guess it was OK cause in the time of the game, we were down 2-1.” 

After Legg pulled off the trick move, he was regularly threatened on the ice. It was viewed as showboating, trying to embarrass the other team. But more than 25 years after he pulled out that a singular highlight, the Michigan has become a trend. Now, it brings plaudits, not threats. 

Much of that, particularly this season, can be credited to Trevor Zegras of the Ducks. The rookie sensation created waves in December when he assisted Sonny Milano on a variant of the move, lifting a puck from behind the net for Milano to bat in. In January, Zegras scored a more traditional Michigan goal against Montreal. But he’s not the only one to do it recently. 

The Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov has pulled off the move successfully twice. Filip Forsberg of the Predators has done so, too. At the college level, Boston University’s Wilmer Skoog has done it twice, first in 2019-20 and again this season, despite growing up in Sweden without any knowledge of lacrosse, BU hockey announcer Bernie Corbett said. In the AHL, Jacob Perrault pulled it off this season.

It’s still rare. But it is a veritable trend — so much so that Forsberg, in a conversation with The Post, said that goaltenders are starting to get better at covering off the top corner of the net when a player has the puck in the trapezoid, a spot where you would traditionally expect a wrap-around. 

“I think guys have started to realize it’s actually a pretty effective try,” Forsberg said. “It’s not just for showboating, obviously. You see all the plays that have worked out, it’s in close games.” 

Sonny Milano scores off Trevor Zegras lacrosse-style assist.
Sonny Milano scores off Trevor Zegras lacrosse-style assist.
NHLI via Getty Images

Bill Armstrong would agree. 

Armstrong, a native of London, Ontario, taught the move to Legg at an open skate nearly three decades ago. He had a one-game NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers, but played a pro career across stops in the AHL and International Hockey League from 1989-98. The move is called the Michigan because Legg took it worldwide in a televised game. It was invented, however, by Armstrong. 

By his own count, Armstrong scored eight goals on the move throughout his career. It wasn’t something he was doing every game, nor is that something he’d advocate anyone try. But, contrary to the likes of John Tortorella, whose words criticizing Zegras went viral, he sees a place for it in the game. 

“That’s the kind of mindset that keeps the creativity out of the game,” Armstrong said. “So for me it’s like, anybody who frowns upon it, a) they can’t do it, and b) they don’t have the vision and the skill for the game.” 

This conversation, one that delves into individualism and marketability, into what the NHL wants to be and how it wants to become that, is an uncomfortable one for its players to have. 

No one wants to publicly put themselves ahead of their team, or open themselves up to interpretation and attack. But the league wants to grow. And that means players such as Zegras will be the face of marketing campaigns centered around themselves. 

Even in defending the creativity, there’s a fallback on the team. Forsberg remembered trying the move during a blowout when he was 19 and getting chewed out by his coach. He concedes now, that probably wasn’t the time or place. 

It can go too far, he said. But the time and place for it still very much exists. 

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning games,” Forsberg said. “I’m obviously trying things, I’m trying to be creative, but I’m doing it to help the team win. … If there is a chance in the playoffs for a Michigan goal to clinch the series, I’m trying it.”

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