How far rebuilt Osgood really came for 400 NHL wins
Watching a triumphant Chris Osgood mobbed by his Detroit Red Wings teammates in Denver on Tuesday night after becoming just the 10th goaltender in NHL history to record 400 career wins, it was hard to imagine him on his knees, soaked with fatigue, staring face down at another sheet of ice, cursing out loud about being no better than a Mite goalie. But that’s exactly where the now three-time Stanley Cup champion was six years ago, brought to his knees in frustration by less an hour of basic goaltending movements that, truth be told, most 12-year-old goalies today would probably breeze through and laugh off.
During his run to a third Stanley Cup in 2008, Osgood made no secret of the fact he re-jigged his game during the NHL lockout in 2004-05, admitting to anyone who asked that he’d torn down his technique and rebuilt himself with a modern butterfly. But to truly understand just how far Osgood came from there to Tuesday’s 40-save, 4-3 overtime win – and how much more than just the “butterfly” in his game needed work – you have to go back to that first session with Stan Matwijiw, the coach that helped him do it.
InGoal Magazine did just that after Osgood went 14-4 with three shutouts, a 93.0 save percentage, and a 1.55 goals-against average for his last Cup victory, which set records both literally (for going 10 years since his last Cup) and figuratively (for redemption after doing so with the same team that dumped him in 2001, ironically for Dominik Hasek, who watched the last Cup as his backup). The result was this feature below, which seems appropriate to re-print after Osgood, who long-time friend and Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland once described as “an NHL goalie who had high school technical skills,” joined an impressive list of goaltenders in the NHL’s exclusive 400-win club:
“The first time we worked together we spent an hour and 20 minutes on movement, we didn’t shoot a puck. That’s how poor it was,” says Matwijiw, a former minor-pro goaltender who spent time as the goaltending coach at the University of Michigan while also running Bandits Goaltending School.
When Osgood, then a free agent living nearby in Detroit, left him a message on the eve of the lockout in 2004 after a recommendation Holland, Matwijiw wasn’t really sure what to expect.
“I asked what he has was looking for out of this, and his exact words were ‘I want you to tear my game apart and rebuild it,’ so that’s what we tried to do,” Matwijiw says, admitting he didn’t really know what that would entail until that eye-opening first session on the ice. “Boy, he had a long road ahead of him, let’s put it that way. Everything from not stopping with the correct leg, to not looking where he was going, his angles were poor, he couldn’t get off his line, I mean everything was wrong. Everything. To the point that 45 minutes in, picture him gas tired and all we’re doing is movement, and he has his elbows on his knees and he’s looking down at the ice and he shakes his head and he just picks his head up and says to me, ‘I feel like a Mite goalie out here, this is embarrassing.’ And after an hour and 20 minutes of straight movement I called it a day because he was so frustrated and … almost ashamed of himself.”
Matwijiw says this not with ridicule in his voice, but respect, not to criticize, but to give credit. Because as bad as his technique looked that day, that’s how much hard work Osgood put in to fix it, coming back three or four times a week, 90 minutes at a time, from August through April 2005, determined to get it right.
Perhaps just as hard for other athletes (never mind those who already had two Stanley Cup rings and 305 career wins) would have been finding enough humility to admit their game needed fixing. All of which is part of the impressive mental makeup that allowed Osgood to succeed for all those years on flawed technique, not to mention playing a huge role in leading, yes leading, the Red Wings to a Cup this year.
“Here’s a guy that’s won two Stanley Cups, he’s played at the time like nine years in the league, and he understands if he’s going to carry his career on another five, six, seven years, he’s going to have to change some things,” Matwijiw says. “But it’s like I tell people that all the time, the truth of the matter is a coach is only as good as his student, and Chris was a hell of a student, and still is.”
Evolve or go extinct
Osgood credited Mike Vernon, his partner during – and the MVP of – that first Stanley Cup in Detroit way back in 1997, for inspiring his willingness to retool his approach to puck stopping. But six years and two NHL teams after winning his second Stanley Cup as the Wings starter in 1998, Osgood was inspired to change his own game as much by watching younger goalies with better technique as he was seeing an older goalie willing to change late in his career.
“He would always say to me, ‘the 15-year-old kids butterfly better than I do’,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “Well, you can’t play in the league today without that ability. So he fixed his game and reinvented himself. … It’s about lifelong learning and getting better, or someone else has your job. And if Ozzie hadn’t made those adjustments, he still wouldn’t be playing.”
That Osgood hadn’t received this type of instruction 12 years into his professional career isn’t all that surprising considering he got started in 1992, a decade before most teams started to employ technical goalie coaches, a position many teams continue to ignore today. Heck, two years after Osgood turned pro, Kirk McLean led the Canucks to the Stanley Cup finals as a stand-up, kick-save goalie.
“In those days, they just said, ‘Stop the puck. We don’t care how you do it.’ You were expected to stand up. ‘Stand up. Stay in front of your net!’ they’d yell,” Osgood said. “If you went down, it wasn’t good. Nowadays, your first instinct is to go down. I spend most of my time on my knees. But we never had goalie coaches back then. My first real goalie coach was when I was 21 or 22. Today, they start with goalie gurus when they’re 10 years old. So I kinda had to change my game, reinvent myself a little bit. … Older goalies tend to reach a lot. Younger goalies now use their whole bodies in front of the puck. They can really move around on their knees. So I started working more on that. Making sure I have my chest and shoulders in front of the puck, instead of maybe my glove and my stick. Little things. Not flailing around so much.”
That Osgood was willing to make those changes say more than the fact he still needed to make them, especially for a guy that was already top-20 in career wins before the lockout. But Osgood was smart enough to realize he wouldn’t have lasted much longer in the NHL, let alone keep climbing the wins list, without making changes – and humble and hard working enough to do something about it.
“You have to kind of get over yourself and realize you do have some faults you need to improve on and that’s what I did,” Osgood said. “With some athletes its hard to say they’re not good at certain things and I had to just look within myself and say I need to get better mentally and I need to get better on the ice and implement these two things,” he said. “I took what I did good, and then I erased the things I didn’t do so good. And I improved on the new things I needed to learn to become the goalie I am today. It took a while. It just doesn’t happen overnight, but now I think I’ve got it down pretty good. It was kind of a meshing together. My first year it was a struggle but the last two years it seems to be working.”
Osgood certainly isn’t the more first goalie that had been in the league several years, and through several organizations, before even being introduced to simple concepts like proper leg recovery (see Curtis Joseph in his last few seasons). Many veterans still get by in the NHL without embracing even that simple, but obviously effective, theory (see Martin Brodeur). Of course, for Osgood even that technique was still a long way away after that first session at Bandits Goalie School. He had to work his way up to it.
Right back to basics
Osgood’s second visit to Matwijiw was similar to the first, with the focus entirely on movements, no easy task for coach or student when things as simple as a shuffle had Osgood popping up and down in “herky-jerky” fashion. When they first tried moving off a post to come out and challenge a shot up top, he somehow pushed off his inside skate rather than his post skate, a move so odd it seems hard in today’s game to even contemplate. And those were just two of many bad habits that had to be totally broken before they could even start rebuilding his game with good ones.
“We started with the simplest drills,” says Matwijiw. “Repetition is the mother of skill, the more you do something the more it becomes instinctive. We practice it like this; we’re going to play like this.”
They worked to keep Osgood down in his stance and smooth out his movements, stressing Bandit’s philosophy of leading with the heads, the hands and the feet, in that order. Starting with the head and the eyes, whether it was to lead movements, track threats away from the puck, or simply follow shots all the way into a save, was one of the biggest – and most surprising – adjustments required.
“It’s the most important skills in the game, watching the puck, and he didn’t do it,” says Matwijiw. “He used peripheral: he’d watch the puck off a stick but he never tracked it all the way into his body. I was all over him about that and still am, to finish his saves.”
With that in mind, they worked to stop him from slapping at pucks with his glove, and to quit flicking at pucks with his stick, both habits that were evident as far back as 1998 (and crept back in on the second goal Tuesday night in Denver, one Osgood admitted after the game he wanted back), and both perhaps an explanation for some of the long goals that derailed his reputation at the same time he was winning a Stanley Cup. By relying so much on timing – he would try to propel the puck away rather than letting its speed and his stick angle do that for him – Osgood left himself vulnerable to misses.
Pucks also had a habit of finding their way under his right arm, through the “six hole” created by the out-and-away blocker motion required to flick his stick in such a manner, with his palm actually opening up and away from his body. Matwijiw got him moving into saves with his body square instead of reaching for them with his limbs and his stick. They got him to “check his mirrors” more, identifying “no-danger zones” to allow him to look away from the puck and identify other threats.
“He had such tunnel vision on the puck,” says Matwijiw.
Over and over and over again they stressed the importance of good visual leads, stopping drills anytime that Osgood didn’t look before moving in any direction, anytime he didn’t follow shots all the way into his glove, or chest, or pads. Each time Matwijiw stopped a drill, he would tell Osgood what he did wrong. Eventually Osgood started beating him to the punch, identifying his mistakes immediately.
Only now did they move onto that “butterfly” Osgood and so many others talked so often during the playoffs about rebuilding.
“He didn’t know how to use a sliding butterfly,” Matwijiw said.
They started with flexibility, doing developmental stretching after Osgood had broken a sweat, targeting his hips to help widen out his butterfly, making it easier to tighten up and seal up his holes. To introduce the actual technique, they began with breakaways and the idea of wanting to force shooters to deke, ideally going straight back through the middle whenever possible, and beating shooters with a butterfly back to a post, all holes sealed up nice and tight.
From there Matwijiw introduced the idea of recovery movements out of a butterfly, starting Osgood in a down position and having him follow rebounds after save, first with the eyes, of course, and then getting his power leg up and pushing across, quickly pulling that drive leg back in tight again to seal on the holes.
Then they started Osgood on his skates, dropping and moving into saves – and again, following the puck into and off of his body or pads – before making proper recovery pushes into the rebounds.
Over and over and over again, the importance of perfect practice and not just practice driven home, until finally Osgood didn’t have to think about every move, until it became instinctual. But for all that work together, it didn’t still happen in those first eight months.
“For a while he was frustrated,” Matwijiw says. “I told him, ‘Ozzie you are probably going to get worse before you get better,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ Did he get worse? Yeah. You break down those bad habits and rebuild the good ones and slowly but surely you start seeing some progress. But even after that first year I was still like ‘boy oh boy, I don’t know if he’s ever going to get it.’”
Osgood returned to his summer home in Vernon, British Columbia, but after signing back with the Red Wings after the lockout ended, was back on the ice with Matwijiw before the season started.
The difference was readily evident.
“He must have been thinking it a lot because it got to a point where instead of him saying ‘what did I do wrong there, I would ask him what he did wrong and he would answer me,” says Matjiwi. “And I said, ‘Now you’re starting to get it. If you can’t figure out what you are doing wrong you can’t correct it.”
Osgood was snake bit by a laundry list of injuries that season, and spent most of it watching partner Manny Legace assert himself as the Red Wings definitive No.1. But after a first-round playoff loss, Legacy was gone, and Hasek was back in Detroit. Osgood was back too – at Bandit’s school that summer, continuing the process of rebuilding his game. It finally started to pay off towards the end of the 2006-07 season, when Osgood quietly (does he do anything loudly?) finished unbeaten in 12 starts (7-0-5), foreshadowing for the Cup winning 2008-08 season, when he won his first eight starts and went 22-3-2 through early February to earn his first ever All-Star invitation.
“All I needed was confidence in the things Stan and I were working on” Osgood said. “My movement, keeping everything economical so that I would be in better position for the first shot and any potential rebounds, was the key. I feel like I’m a better goalie than I was my first time around in Detroit. When I was young we didn’t have goalie coaches. You played and taught yourself. Now they’ve got a technique for every kind of save you have to make – and I’d like to think that this old dog has learned a few of those tricks.”
Osgood finished this season sharing the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals-against with Hasek, but despite a better save percentage than his 43-year-old partner (91.4 to 90.2) was on the bench to start the 2008 playoffs. He had not, however, resigned himself to staying there.
“I wasn’t sitting on the bench for three and a half games hoping not to go in, I was waiting for my opportunity so when I went in I was focused and confident I could do the job,” Osgood said. “I knew I had done the right things on and off the ice to be prepared to play.”
Those things hadn’t gone unnoticed by his Red Wings teammates, a handful of who were there for the first two Stanley Cups – and many for a third backstopped by Hasek after Osgood was cut.
“He’s always been mentally strong,” said captain Nicklas Lidstrom. “That’s one of his strengths. If he has a bad game, or a bad goal is let in, he doesn’t seem to get rattled by it. We’ve seen that in the playoffs and we’ve seen that back in the ’90s as well. (But) he’s really matured as a goalie and as a person, too. I’ve never seen Ozzie look so relaxed in goal. He’s not scrambling around like he once did. He’s real solid positionally. Bottom line: He’s strong for the entire 60 minutes … and that gives the whole team confidence.”
Mental Game improved too
Whether it was that confidence that helped the Wings finally clamp down defensively after a looser start against Nashville and some soft-ish goals against Hasek; or whether Osgood benefited because the team made that adjustment about the time he took over, there is little question Osgood was the right man for the job. In Detroit, he’s always seems to be, in part because of a mental makeup that allows him to thrive in a city bigger-name goalies struggle to survive, in part because of the pressure, and in part because it’s not as easy as it might seem from the outside to only see 20-odd shots a game.
“All our goalies are in a no-win situation, especially when you don’t get the credit when you win, but you do
get the blame if you lose,” said Holland, adding he’s never seen a goalie forget a bad goal or a game faster. “The fans’ perception was always that we won because of our skill and we lost because of our goaltending. But because we don’t give up many chances, we need big saves at the right times. I don’t think Ozzie even knows there’s pressure. … To me, the best part of Ozzie is his makeup. You won’t find anyone more mentally tough. He’s laid-back, but there’s a passion burning inside of him. It takes a strong mental toughness to stand there for 15 minutes and then – boom – you have to make a big save. I’m not going to tell you that he is one of the top five or six goalies in the game, but for our team he is perfect. … We’ve outshot teams for a long time. But sometimes when the other team gets a chance, it’s a Grade A chance.”
Where other goalies sometimes feel tension mount whenever shots pile up at the other end of the rink, Osgood now enjoys prolonged periods – sometimes entire periods – without making a save.
“I just play the games as they come. I can play the game and feel good regardless of how many shots I get,” said Osgood. “I’ve never been a guy that needs 40 shots to feel good. I think I can play well in any situation, whether it’s 15 shots or 30 shots or whatever. First, you have to be consistent. Second, make the big saves when you have to; and third, you have be a calming influence, so our team can go out and play and do what they have to, to score goals. Some guys say they need 40 shots to get into a game. I’ve never thought that. To me, it is mind over matter; if you think like that, you’re psyching yourself out before the game starts.”
Osgood’s consistency undoubtedly improved with technique. But even if that strength between the ears existed in Osgood’s first stint with the Red Wings – as Holland pointed out several times in the playoffs, Osgood barely blinked after giving up the infamous 90-foot Jamie Langenbrunner goal to force Game 6 in the 1998 Western Conference finals, following it up with a 2-0 shutout of the Stars to clinch the series and put Detroit in the finals – it too has improved over the years.
Ironically, one of the biggest lessons came from Hasek, whose acquisition from Buffalo in 2001 left Osgood on the waiver wire, where he was plucked by the New York Islanders. By the time Osgood got back, after three years away and a third NHL team in the St. Louis Blues, Hasek too had returned from his own exile.
Osgood paid close attention to the six-time Vezina Trophy winner, and noticed how good the Dominator was about not wasting too much of his energy in the hours leading up to a game, how he saved it for when the puck dropped and he’d need it most.
“Dom was pretty relaxed off the ice,” said Osgood. “In the room he would talk about other things right up to the point where we need to go on the ice with two minutes to go, and then when the game is on you notice the focus and intensity in Dom. He’s a Hall of Fame player with six Vezinas, and I thought, ‘you know what? I’m going to try that,’ and I started using it more and more, implemented it into my game, and it definitely works. Sometimes I was trying to stop 300 shots before the game even started and blowing myself out before games and wasn’t sometimes able to be focused for 60 minutes. So I really relaxed myself before the game, not really think about much, but when the game starts, it’s Game On and I’m 100 per cent better. I don’t try to play the game before it’s started anymore. I rest my mind so when I get on the ice, I’m completely mentally ready.”
Looking back and forward
Osgood talked many times during the playoffs about never looking back at a history widely questioned, or too far ahead no matter how close the Wings were to a championship, always staying in the moment.
That wasn’t easy after being 35 seconds from drinking out of the Cup on home ice in Game 5 before losing in triple-OT. Only later would he admit to hearing all the stories “about the Cup being out of its case and he championship hats being out of the box and it makes it even worse, so you’re driving home and banging the pedal to the floor and banging the steering wheel.” But after talking with Matwijiw on that same drive home, a ritual that lasted throughout the playoffs, and going over Game 5, Osgood was ready to let it go.
Two days later, he even broke his “in the moment” protocol by sending Matwijiw a text message just hours before stepping onto the ice for Game 6: “We will win tonight.”
Once they did, Osgood was able to reflect more on all he had been through to get to this point, including the lack of credit after that last Cup in 1998. True to the character teammates always lauded, and perhaps even worked harder for in front of, there was rarely even any hint of bitterness in any of his many interviews.
“It was more enjoyable, with the circumstances I went through personally,” Osgood said in one such post-Cup interview.
“They’re all special but this even more special because I had to do a lot of work to get my game to where it is,” he said in another.
“Just kept fighting, never gave up. I never ever doubted myself. It’s just hard work and perseverance. I have a bigger heart than people think. I’m mentally strong. I just never give up. I’ll fight until I’m done playing my last game,” he said in yet another.
“It’s been a long journey.”
It’s been a harder journey than most realize too, and for different reasons than most talk about. But at the end of the latest chapter, as things have come full circle, Osgood again has his head held high.
His name is there too now, with only nine other above it in NHL history.
Photo thanks to HockeyBroad