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Ron Hextall was a trailblazer when it comes to goalies handling the puck, inspiring a young Martin Brodeur to play it as often as he stops it.
Hextall has also been widely celebrated as the first goalie to actually shoot a puck into an opponent’s net. But it was a pen – not a stick – that the former Philadelphia great used to inspire another of today’s puck-moving legends. And Marty Turco used that inspiration to completely change how the next generation of goaltenders handles the puck.
“We had a class project to write to someone famous, and Ron was on top of his game – went to the finals, scored goals, won a Vezina – so for me he was just the guy,” Turco once told InGoal Magazine. “So I wrote and he wrote back. It was a pretty cool deal. I wish I still had that 3×5 card with the signature and the little note he wrote. It was pretty cool and now it’s more something that I don’t forget with my fan mail. I realize that we were all young once.”
Except today’s young goalies don’t just look up to Turco and hope to be like him in the general sense. When it comes to puck handling, they are copying him exactly, taught from a young age to turn over their glove hand as they grip the lower part of the stick, a change in philosophy that started with Turco tinkering in college and led to him revolutionizing the way goaltenders everywhere play the puck.
There’s a reason it’s called the Turco Grip.
“He has evolved the game into something it couldn’t have been without his idea,” said Lightning goalie Mike Smith, who credits his time with Turco in Dallas for his current status as one of the league’s better puck-moving goaltenders (so too does Tampa Bay’s Dan Ellis, also an ex-Stars prospect). “It’s funny because you see all the kids doing it now.”
The effects extend far beyond youth leagues: Countless NHL goalies changed their grips mid-career. And to think it all started with Turco tinkering at the University of Michigan.
“In my senior year in college I tried it, but I really worked on it in my first year pro in the minors,” Turco recalled. “The reason I started doing it is I was getting choked about not stopping hard rims on my backhand when I had my hand underneath and you just don’t have much power on your backhand. Coming in on you forehand side you are leaning into it, but on the backhand side it would just push the stick away. I didn’t have the leverage, so this was more just turning my hand over, jamming my stick square into the end boards and then stop it, and at first I’d even then turn my hand back over and under to play it. Then all of a sudden you are playing around with it and you need to do it quick so you shovel it along the ice that way and figure out, ‘hey I can actually saucer it pretty good this way’ and then all of a sudden it’s ‘while, hey I got a way better backhand then I do the other way so now I have two options.’”
And that, in a nutshell, changed how goalies handle the puck.
“We used to always say ‘the goalies going to put it on his forehand side, forehand side: He can only shoot it one-way’ and that happened for years,” said Turco. “But now you don’t hear that as often because guys will flip their hand over and have the ability to push it with conviction to their backside or their weak side. That was a real breakthrough for me to have that option and to even get it off the ice on that side. It was one thing just to push it along the boards, but if you got a guy on the forecheck sealing the wall you’ve got to get it up and over the blade and the sticks and even put it on the glass. It took a long time to have some fire on it, to saucer it and have it land flat so you could actually make passes and not just have grenades blowing up in front of your wingers or having them get pounded by D-men. So that’s how it all started. And I knew it was a pretty good idea when I saw Patrick (Roy) try it later on.”
“I was just always big on playing hockey, whether it was road hockey or a tennis ball in my basement, I always had a ball around and was just playing, but I really wasn’t big enough or strong enough to even have any impact on the game or do what I wanted with a puck,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was in college and got some strength and got some confidence and just worked at it, you know, it was practice. I wasn’t one of those guys that could fire it at 13 years old off the glass. It was a constant work in progress and it still is, but for my job it’s a high priority.”
It’s a skill he practices as often as he can, whether after practice starts, or just before. Like the time InGoal Magazine witnessed Turco trading barbs playfully with the trainers. As Turco was skating away backwards, he flipped up a puck that landed perfectly on the dasher board and started to roll towards the coffee cup one of them had placed on the edge.
“He does stuff that you have to think ‘is this guy serious, is he really doing this kind of stuff?’” Smith laughed. “It’s mind boggling sometimes.”
For Turco it’s all part of getting more comfortable with the puck.
“Shooting it, aiming it, making games out of it, you can play post-post-crossbar with forwards,” Turco said. “That’s a great conditioning drill to have someone dump pucks in and to stop them and play them. More than half the battle for me is stopping the puck, getting it in the right position, and knowing what you are going to do with it before you do it. I think if everybody did that they can get it to the spot, it’s just a matter of corralling the puck, having good jumps and good reads on dump ins – never cheating, but being on your toes at all times. And then having it incorporated into your game plan in practice was a big factor because that’s where you get a lot of your experience. You don’t just want to be cold turkey and think you can start playing pucks. You’ve got to learn if you can win races to pucks, what your defensemen are going to expect out of you, how they are going to turn, you have to remember if they are right handed or left handed to put it in the best possible positions for them. There is a lot that goes into it mentally.”
Special thanks to Dinur Blum for the Mike Smith photo, please check out more of his pictures.