Saturday, April 10, 2010

Interview w/ former Hobey Baker winner & Kings goalie Robb Stabuer

College hockey is alive and well people. Just look at the LA Kings roster - Jonathan Quick, Jack Johnson, Davis Drewiske, Peter Harrold, Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi, Scott Parse...they all played NCAA hockey prior to becoming NHL players.

There have been many more before the current group though, including an unheralded member of the Kings team that made a run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals...Robb Stauber.

Blueline, as he was affectionately known during his playing days, was the first goalie to ever win the Hobey Baker Award in a sophomore! For those unfamiliar, that's hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. He also went to the Frozen Four three times as a member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. After wrapping up his pro career he returned to his alma mater and joined the coaching staff, where he helped guide the team to three more Frozen Four appearances.

Tonight in Detroit this year's college hockey championship will be decided when two of the premier programs in the country battle for the title, Wisconsin and Boston College.

To help get everybody ready for the season ending game we sat down with Robb for a conversation about college hockey - both as a player and as a coach.
Straight out of the net and racing towards the blueline, it's Robb Stauber...

The Hobey Baker Award was just announced on Friday (going to Wisconsin's Blake Geoffrion). Like so many things in hockey a much bigger deal is made of the award today. What do you remember about winning it and looking back on it 20 years later what did it mean to you then versus what it means to you today?

When I was named one of the three finalists I was surprised. I was just trying to stop pucks. As a result of that and just trying to do my best I was fortunate enough to be named one of the three finalists out in Lake Placid, NY.

I guess I'll never forget - the team landed at the airport and a van came to pick me up along with my head coach and a couple of other coaches...they were taking us over to the announcement. I was just oblivious. I didn't even know they were doing an announcement. I had no clue what was going on.

We got to, I believe it was the rink. They had a little staging area and they put me in a room off to the side. I think it was somebody's office. There was a lady in there who worked for the Hobey Baker Award group and she said "Congratulations - I heard you just found out." and I said "Well, I guess I just did." I had no clue and it was quiet a shock. She felt bad, but I've always thought it was kinda cool how I found out. I was totally surprised, totally shocked.

I was brought out into the conference room area next. Like you said, it was a very small crowd compared to what you see today. Totally different.

Do you still keep up with the Hobey Baker award every year?

Oh yeah. I just got an email regarding this year's winner. Most years I'll call the individual within a few hours or the next day. So, I have a phone call to make to Blake. It's just a special thing. I was very fortunate to win it and I like to congratulate the other winners.

Jordan Leopold won the award in 2002 while at Minnesota. Was that extra special to you at all - to have a fellow Gopher win the award?

Absolutely. the university has had several players win the award. I think when it was named at the River Center - next to the Xcel Center - it was a huge event. What it did was make me realize how far the award has come. That was 2002 and every year it gets bigger.

So was that the first time it hit you that it was a big deal to win the award?

I cant say it was the first time I thought of it that way. Honestly, every year that I get further away from winning it I realize how much I appreciate it. It still impacts my life to this day. Just yesterday I was talking to an attorney who I was consulting with about some business ventures. I've never met him in person, just talked over the phone. When price came up I referenced a figure he had given me in December and he said something like "That's my normal price, but I'm going to give you the Hobey Baker discount." I was like "Ah...that's a long time ago."
You didn't turn it down did you?

No. No. (he laughs) It's fitting that the award was handed out today. But, quite frankly with Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey, they have such a strong fan base. I've had UPS guys, people in a restaurant - you name it...they remember it as a pretty special thing. So, I was really fortunate to win it.

When you were playing at Minnesota your teams went to three straight Frozen Fours...yet you guys were never able to win the championship.  Is that something that still bothers you to this day or at some point do you get over it?

Well, I'll tell you what...I don't think you ever...well, I'm over it - but...I've been a part of three national championships as a coach, two with the University of Minnesota and then one with the women's team at Minnesota-Duluth. I can only say that it's probably a lot better to win it as a player. As a coach - there's nothing like the blood, sweat and tears. As a player, that will never be for me. I guess it also goes back to '93 with the Kings know...ah, boy, so close. (it was an odd moment at this point in the conversation...he seemed genuinely happy to be talking college hockey and when he mentioned the '93 Kings his voice changed for a moment, almost sad like)

I cant imagine what it's like to raise it as a player. And I'll never know. Winning as a gut tells me it's not the same as potentially winning as a player.
I see the Cup raised every year. I see National Championships won by players that gut it out together. I'll never know. Yes, I'm over it. But would have loved to experience it.

You talked about the championships in 2002 and 2003 with - what was it like going back to the Frozen Four as a coach versus your memories as a player?

It was special. Very special. It was almost like going back to the same sheet of ice. It wasn't exactly the same because they tore down the old St Paul Civic Center to build the Xcel Center. But, basically the same piece of land. To see the Gophers win there - where we lost the title some 13 odd years prior, it was really kinda neat. I was honored to be part of the coaching staff that helped the University of Minnesota hockey program win their first title since 1979 - when Herb Brooks won his last one.

That was really unique because it was in Minnesota. Then, the following year it was in Buffalo - where I had played. So, that was kinda neat too because I still knew some of the reporters and stuff. Obviously, I'm thrilled I was able to do it as a coach.

At the end of the day, I think if you talk to most athletes - to win a championship and get that ring, it's a pretty cool thing. Not because you want to wear it everywhere, but because nobody can ever take that away from you. I think about giving them to my kids someday and that's kinda cool. You're etched in something forever and that's why I played.

How did you end up as an Assistant Coach at the University of Minnesota in '99? Was that something you actively pursued or did it just happen by accident?

Doug Woog, who was my coach when I played there, had just left the University and Don Lucia was named the new head coach. I put a phone call into Don. He called me back and we met for breakfast.

I certainly wanted to give back. I wanted to help them accomplish something I wasn't able to do as a player, so I was very motivated. Very, very motivated to try to bring a certain level to the goalie coaching...but, also to bring an attitude to the program. Those Frozen Fours when I played, they say winning is just a matter of inches - it certainly was for us. So, I had a lot of experience and by playing pro hockey had been around a lot of great players I felt I could bring something back to the University.  Besides having just played there, I thought I could bring some valuable experience.  Besides my own determination to help the program win, I honestly thought I could fill a void.

Were you guys able to work a deal out at breakfast or was it a much longer process?

I think by the time it was over it was pretty much solidified. I've always appreciated the opportunity Don gave me. He had Bob Mason at the time, who is now in the NHL as the Wild goalie coach. Don made a decision to go in a new direction and I was fortunate to be part of that decision.

You played with Corey Millen at Minnesota and then again later in LA with the Kings, where he was a fan favorite. What was he like back in college?

Corey was an incredible player. He was one of the most talented guys, just gifted. That's the way he played at Minnesota. He touched the puck and he was just electrifying. The same way he was in LA when he played with Mike Donnelly and Tony Granato when we made the run in '93.

He was the same way in college. But, you know, he had his fair share of injuries. He was a strong...he was a little guy, but he was strong as an ox. I think sometimes when you're that physically fit you have a tendency to be maybe not as limber as some other guys. You know, he was just built. Very strong, very solid. He had some injuries along the way, like so many athletes do. I think even in college it hurt him. He had some groin pulls, he had a high ankle sprain. I remember some of the injuries because every time he was out of the line-up we didn't fare quite as well. Just a top notch guy and a great player. Great to be around, no two ways about it.

Why do you think goaltenders get the wrap as being eccentric, different, odd and things like that...versus you know, just another guy on the team?

You have to be! This position requires such precision and pressure. Being like the last line of defense, you know. I hear it all the time now as a coach 'Ah, that guy is weird.' And I say - 'If he's not, he doesn't have a chance.'

These guys start to learn it at such a young age. At 11 and 12 they start to learn to deal with those pressures. They get into their own world. It scares me more if I go into a locker room and I see a goalie not getting into that world. I haven't seen too many great ones that don't get into that world, that strange place. It's very psychological.

Tell us a little about the school - Stauber's Goalcrease. What's it all about, what type of players go there, what the training is like, etc.

I started coaching in '93 with my college goalie coach, who was just fantastic. We had such good chemistry and worked so well together that we ran summer camps from 1993-2002. After I retired I started to look at things differently. It became obvious that kids aren't getting better in a week of camp. So I came up with the concept of building my own training center and ice sheet.  I knew deep down that if I could see kids more often, they were going to get better. And that's what happened, we see so many kids now. On average we have 900 goalies a year that train with us - with me and the full time staff.

They come in from Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania...and they all hear about us from word of mouth. So, it's really exciting to be part of their development. It's really a whole new way of training goalies. I think we were the first to do it, to build our own ice sheet and do it they way we do it. 80% of our kids come in for private lessons. Their development gets tracked, they get emails with their progress, we video them and so on. What we've done is kinda take it to the next level, similar to golf training.

Any big success stories yet?

Sure, we've had a ton of kids get Division I scholarships. What we're trying to do is build goalies from the bottom up. We don't want to just run one week camps. They wont get the attention they need that way. What we've tried to focus on is taking a core group of kids and working with them for years. That takes a lot of work. But, then you get to see the fruits of your labor. And we're seeing it now. We have a whole crew of kids that have trained under our wing and we have a whole slew of colleges calling about our goalies. In fact, I had two calls earlier today. They're calling from across the country to talk about these kids we've had for 6 or 8 years now that started when they were 10. We got them when they were young and they didn't really have habits.  Now they're panning out.

Al Richards is our first true pro (Yale University, then signed by the Chicago Blackhawks last summer). He came through at age 10, stayed with us and he still trains with us. That's the best thing - he comes back to us in the summer. What's cool about it is he books his own time. He doesn't only want to work with me. He'll work with any of our coaches, which is great. It shows that he just wants to get better.

He's the first and we have several in his category. It's like raising kids, it's not easy. We're in the first wave -with us starting in '02 - it's been eight years now and we're starting to see kids really be successful. We have about 8 or 10 kids right now that are really special players. People are calling about them.

You cant breed goalies. Finland has some good ones right now. Canada has a lot of good ones. But, you can't say one area of the world has a patent on goaltending. What they have done in certain areas of the world is dedicated themselves. For example, in Finland they have goalie coaching throughout every level in the system. And that's not a big country.  If we had 100s of goalie coaches here, just in Minnesota, we'd be seeing similar success. Canada has gone that direction. We just don't have that in the U.S.

Along those lines... for the first time in their history the Kings seem to be on the verge of having several solid goaltenders in the pipeline. GM Dean Lombardi has been very vocal about not wanting to rush Jonathan Bernier, the Kings first round selection from 2006. Going back 12 years earlier - the only other time the Kings took a goalie in the first round was Jamie Storr in 1994. What went wrong with Jamie? How did he go from the 'next big thing' to 'first round bust'?

First off, this is just my opinion because I was traded away before it all fully unfolded. I think at the time Sam McMaster was the GM, Nick Beverly had been let go. If memory serves me correctly Jamie was the first draft pick Sam made with the Kings. Often times what GMs do is that they want these guys to pan out. So, I think Jamie was up with the Kings when he was just 18...and quite frankly, that's just a bad plan for a goalie.

You mentioned Dean Lombardi. I have an article that I've highlighted and use in presentations where he says 'With these guys we never know what is going to happen because so much of it is mental.' Typically, goalies mature later because it is such a difficult position. Here he is talking really intelligently about the position because goalies have to be cultivated. You really have to do your research on these guys. You want hard workers. You want guys with a strong mental make up. You want guys that know they have to prove themselves every single day because that's what goaltending is.

If Jonathan Quick has two bad games, everybody starts thinking 'oh my god' - that's just the way people are. So, you have to prove yourself everyday as a goalie and that's why they end up in their own world. They know it.

With Jamie that was a mistake. At 18, you cant do that. You have to develop the kid. Playing a couple of good games or six good games, that's far different than being a professional goalie. A professional goalie in L.A. as an example, you have to learn traffic patterns, what time to leave...that's just a piece of it, then you have to deal with the fans and deal with the good games when everybody thinks you're great...and then the bad games when they all think you're terrible. That is NOT what an 18 year old kid is usually capable of handling.

As they mature, as they play in the minors and they get beat they ride the bus, they really start to learn what it's going to take. Then they get to the NHL level and it happens again, but they've been through it. It's a rarity when you find a guy that can step in at that age. I'm not saying it's impossible, it's just one in a million. We've seen it happen, so it's not totally impossible. It's just so, so rare. Why take the chance?

Let's get ready for the final game of the Frozen Four. Who is going to win the championship today - Boston College or Wisconsin?

Boston College

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Now go cheer on the Kings today at 1pm in their regular-season finale at home. Then, watch the NCAA hockey championship later tonight.

As noted in my interview with former Wisconsin Badger Gary Shuchuk on Thursday, I agree with Stauber...BC all the way.

The Mayor

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