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Goaltending mentor keeps wheels spinning

WORCESTER -- The tutorial ended, the three young goalies under his watch showered and gone, Warren Strelow navigated his motorized coaching cart around the corner of the locker room here at Holy Cross and prepared to leave the rink.

Strelow, 72, is a slow mover these days, but he is also in no particular rush. His pace is his pace, not with the zip that he would prefer, but he has no urge or need to clock life by a speedometer. A kidney transplant, an amputated toe, a leg fracture in three places, separate viral and staph infections that had him perched at death's door . . . all of that can slow a man down.

Or can it?

"Three times," he said, with no particular bravado in his voice, "they figured I wasn't going to make it."

For the first time in more than three years, Strelow, the grandfather of NHL goaltending coaches, is once more able to go from rink to rink, sharing everything he knows about what it takes to play the hardest position in hockey -- and arguably the most difficult position in all sports. He is in his 10th season now as the San Jose Sharks goalie coach, and has spent most of the last month with three of the franchise's top netminding prospects who are assigned to Worcester (AHL).

"Twenty-one years coaching in the NHL," mused Strelow, considering where he's been, and where he is today. "Now I'm coaching in a cart. Do you believe that? Oh, well, better than not coaching at all . . . sometimes."

Strelow was in Toronto last night to bear witness to his close friend, Herb Brooks, being inducted posthumously into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Yet to begin his NHL employment, Strelow was the Team USA goalie coach in 1980 when Brooks led the Yanks to their improbable and now storied Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid. He was also a pallbearer at Brooks's funeral in the summer of 2003, after the lifelong coach perished in an automotive accident that authorities concluded was the result of Brooks falling asleep at the wheel.

"He was a master technician, and a motivator, and he was my best friend," said Strelow, his words exacting, his affection apparent. "He gave me my chance, I know that. He put you in a position to win, and then he let you do your job. A great, great man. The best thing in my life was to be the pallbearer at his funeral."

For nearly a year leading up to Brooks's fatal accident, Strelow's kidney's deteriorated badly. Multiple times each week, whether he was home or on the road, he required dialysis, the blood-cleansing procedure that typically leaves patients drained to the point of exhaustion.

If the Sharks were on the road, said Strelow, there were times when he would land on a team flight at 2 or 3 a.m. and head straight for dialysis. After a dialysis session of up to five hours, he would head to the rink, in order not to miss the day-of-game skate.

"I had a doctor say, 'I don't know how you do it -- you should go to bed,' " recalled Strelow. " 'No thanks,' I said. 'I'm going to work.' "

School mates
For years, Strelow and Brooks were neighbors in suburban Minneapolis, their property lines connecting at adjoining backyards. Strelow, three years Brooks's senior, was a high school teacher in the suburbs, coached hockey, football, and baseball on the side, and dabbled more in his favorite game at summer hockey camps. Brooks eventually brought Strelow to the University of Minnesota as an unpaid assistant in the '70s, and then included him on the Team USA Olympic staff. While at Minnesota, Strelow was part of three NCAA championships.

It was Strelow who ultimately determined which goalies made the Team USA roster, and he also made the decision to go with Boston University netminder Jim Craig for the heavy lifting in Lake Placid.

"The two best weeks of clutch goaltending I've seen in my life," said Strelow, reflecting on Craig's work. "When we beat the Russians, I'm telling you, it was like we had a 10,000-volt wire running through our bench."

Only a week after Brooks's death in 2003, with Strelow's kidneys deteriorating badly, doctors found a donor, aged 52, virtually a perfect match. "Almost like a twin brother," said Strelow.

More shocking, said Strelow, was the dream his wife had the night before the doctors found the donor. Karlene Strelow told him that morning that she dreamed of Brooks, who had visited her in their home, concerned about Warren's health.

"Your hair's going to stand up when I tell you what he says to her," said Strelow. "In the dream, Herb says, 'I am really worried about Warren, how's he doing?' He tells her that he's looking out for me. And she tells him I'm doing OK, she'll check and let him know. Then Herb says to her, 'They don't have telephones where I'm at!'

"Whoa, is that scary or what? And the next day, I get a goddamn kidney? Everyone waits 2-3 years to get a kidney, and I get one in a year, and it's a perfect match?"

However, it has not been a straight road from transplant to getting back on the ice. The donor organ, it turned out, carried a virus that nearly killed Strelow in the days after the operation; it took his medical advisers some 10 days to pinpoint the virus. The amputated toe, the fractured leg (from a postoperative fall in the bathroom at home), and the staph infection were all related to the kidney transplant.

To this day, Strelow continues to fight symptoms related to the kidney, and of late that has meant coping with upward of 40 pounds of fluid buildup.

"Uncomfortable," said Strelow, who, when not on the ice in his motorized cart gets around in a wheelchair. "And not so great for the self-esteem, but . . ."

But he has work to do, and he absolutely loves doing it. Just as that cart gets him around the ice, his passion for the game gets him into the cart, and out of thinking about his health issues. In September, he attended his first training camp since before the transplant. He arrived here in late October, traveled to Toronto over the weekend for the Brooks induction, and plans to watch over all things goaltending in San Jose until Christmas.

Making a difference
Even while holed up in his family room for the better part of 36 months, Strelow remained on the job, watching endless tapes of San Jose goaltending performances. Every week, without fail, he had at least one phone conversation with every netminder in the system, talking to them about what he had seen on tape or simply trading words of everyday life, encouragement. He says his goalies are like kids to him, and that he treats the rink like a classroom.

Through the entire ordeal, emphasized Strelow, the Sharks have paid him every cent of his salary, including bonuses. Here at Worcester, they provided the motorized cart, not to mention the constant care and companionship of Wayne Thomas, ex-NHL goalie and Sharks assistant GM. When Strelow is out West, two motorized carts are at his disposal -- one at the Sharks' home rink, one at the club's practice facility.

"I work for the best organization in hockey," said Strelow. "They take care of me -- Greg Jamison [president and CEO], Doug Wilson [GM], and Wayne. They've been great about my pay, the carts . . . and I thought I'd never coach again. I know I am a little more maintenance than I'd like to be. They've got my loyalty forever, that's for sure."

Wilson said Strelow's presence at training camp this September gave all of the club's goalies an emotional boost.

"He showed up and it was like a missing part of the equation had been found," said Wilson, the one-time great Blackhawk blue liner. "Just to have him around, you could see the body language among our goalies was just different, relaxed.

"In sports, people too easily toss around the terms 'great' and 'unbelievable relationship.' But Warren is truly special with our guys, and they truly, truly missed him. Everything he's been through . . . well, he's really an inspiration. Just a year ago, to be honest, I didn't think he was going to make it."

To have seen him on the ice one recent morning, perched in his ice buggy between the two faceoff circles at the Holy Cross rink, didn't raise any questions about Strelow's physical health or state of mind. However, the three goalies under his charge -- Dimitri Patzold, Thomas Greiss, and Nolan Shaefer -- looked slightly the worse for wear.

"Goalie blowout," explained Strelow, whose tenders were required to simulate saves repeatedly for 30-second intervals. "Sort of a curriculum, you know. Nothing set in stone, but it gets their heart rates going. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Thirty seconds on, a minute off. The key to learning anything is repetition, to the point that you've got it and you don't have to think about it -- you just do it."

Guru of the game
It's all so convincing now, because Strelow has nearly a quarter-century of an NHL track record on his résumé. He got his first break in the pro game shortly after the '80 Olympics when Washington GM David Poile added him to the Capitals staff for $37,000.

"More money than I was making teaching," recalled Strelow. "No one had a goalie coach back then. There were quarterback coaches, and hitting coaches, but hockey was slow. I don't know why.

"And even when he hired me, David said, 'Warren, a goaltending coach is a luxury; sorry, but if we have cutbacks, you'll be the first to go.'

"Hey, it was a shot. I had to take a sabbatical from the teaching job, and every year, for four years, I had to tell them if I was coming back to teach or staying in the NHL."

Over the years, he has tutored some of the best, most notably ex-Sharks netminder Miikka Kiprusoff, who last season won the Vezina Trophy with the Calgary Flames and has had the NHL's lowest goals-against mark two years running. A three-year stint in New Jersey had him working diligently with the Hall of Fame-bound Martin Brodeur. No fewer than a half-dozen of his understudies, including Pete Peeters, have gone on to become NHL goaltending coaches. Peeters fills that role these days with Edmonton.

Strelow is the game's guru goaltending coach.

"That's embarrassing -- I mean, I like it," said Strelow, asked how the nickname suits him. "I just try to do my job, and a lot of the success is based on who you get to work with, and really, that's up to the scouts. We've got a guy [scouting director Tim Burke] who finds some great kids, and as the coach, you're as good as the people you get."

He is embarrassed, too, by the fact that he is no longer on skates, and must rely on his scooter, his wheelchair, and the goodwill of others to get along each day.

"But, hey, at least I'm not dead," he said. "I'm still coaching. I never thought I'd be able to do it again, but here I am, right? After all that went wrong.

"And if this gives hope to some people, if you are handicapped, I hope they think if they really want do it, they can do it. That's how I feel. I'm doing it. I'm here. I'm alive. And I love this job."

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