Anaheim Ducks rookie Trevor Zegras is ending his first National Hockey League season as either one of the game’s most exciting new players or a flashy kid lacking respect for the game’s traditions — depending on your point of view.
His divisive status is thanks to a lacrosse-style trick shot that Zegras has made a regular part of his arsenal. The shot involves catching a puck on the blade of the hockey stick before flinging it toward the goal. It’s been around since the mid-1990s, when it was dubbed “The Michigan” for the college team that first scored with it at a major level. It’s perfectly legal, but rare enough that it usually prompts a few questions.
Zegras, however, has taken it into the stratosphere, deploying it three times on plays that resulted in goals this season. And that’s creating an uncomfortable debate for a league that is desperate to appeal to a wider, younger fan base, and a sport whose unwritten rules can sometimes stifle innovation. Zegras is suddenly an idol to young hockey players — and getting hit more on the ice by unamused opponents.
“Is it a ‘hot dog move’ where you’re trying to embarrass your opponent, or is it a once-in-a-lifetime move where you pull it out of your bag of tricks?” asked Red Berenson, the former longtime Michigan hockey coach who vividly remembers watching Mike Legg score the first such goal in 1996.
“We’re at a point in time where the game is evolving a little bit. And Trevor seems to be on the front line with it, ”said Gary Zegras, the rookie’s father who has watched his son unsuccessfully try the Michigan at every stop of his hockey career from PeeWee to Anaheim. “The first time it worked was in an NHL game, which is hysterical.”
Zegras’s first lacrosse-style highlight in early December was actually an assist. With a Buffalo defender incoming, Zegras scooped the puck on to his stick and lofted it over the back of the net to his slightly stunned teammate Sonny Milano, who poked the puck in over Sabers goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s shoulder.
“I expected him to do ‘The Michigan’ by himself before I even called for it,” Milano said after the game.
Only one person more dumbfounded by the ludicrous pass than Milano.
“I still can’t believe it worked,” Zegras said at the time. “I tried it a couple times and haven’t even come close. For him [Sonny] to whack it out of the air and keep it under the crossbar is pretty incredible. ”
The goal was so jaw-dropping that it got celebrities far removed from the hockey bubble, like actor Michael B. Jordan, sharing the highlight on Instagram. It was a golden moment of unexpected exposure for a franchise literally founded because of a movie and a league clamoring to gain the same pop culture cache as the NFL or NBA.
Zegras’s crazy assist isn’t how “The Michigan” goal is usually drawn up. Legg’s iconic 1996 goal was a solo effort during the regional round of the NCAA Tournament against Minnesota. Tied at 2 in the second period, a Michigan skater lost the puck while sliding behind the net. Legg was there to steady it on his stick. He crouched low and the Golden Gophers’ goalie snapped his head to the front of the goal, where he was expecting Legg to pass. Instead, Legg twirled his stick around and guided the puck into the top right corner of the net.
“I was there and I was shocked,” Berenson recalled. “Like Holy Jeez he’s going to pull it off.”
Legg’s stick has been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But the most famous goal in college hockey might not have happened if Legg hadn’t gotten a gentle nudge from Berenson.
“One day I saw him do this move [after practice] and I said to him, ‘Legger, when are you going to pull that off in a game?’ Berenson said. Until that moment, Legg said he wasn’t even sure if the move was legal [it is].
Years later, Zegras started toying with replicating the goal as a middle schooler.
“It was sort of like a progression: he’d come up with stuff in his bedroom, he’d work on it in the driveway on Rollerblades and then he would practice it on the ice,” said Gary Zegras. “He would do that nonstop every day until he perfected it.”
His father suspects his son first saw Legg’s goal on YouTube and was inspired to try it because he already had a decent handle for that motion: born and raised in Bedford, NY, in the lacrosse hotbed of Westchester County, Zegras played the sport from age 6 through freshman year of high school.
“Some day in practice I’d see him down screwing around… doing that stupid thing flipping it around his stick lacrosse style,” said John Gardener his former coach at Avon Old Farms, the elite Connecticut prep school where Zegras spent one year before joining USA Hockey’s national team development program at age 16. “I’d scream at him, ‘What the hell are you doing? Pass the puck ‘. ”
Zegras didn’t score any Michigans during his sole season for Boston University in 2019-20. But he has suddenly found the groove in the NHL. After his spectacular assist on Dec. 8, Zegras netted a solo “Michigan” against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 27, albeit in an empty Bell Center due to health restrictions in Canada. Then on April 1, he did it again against Arizona — this time wrapping the puck not only around the post, but also the back of Milan.
The last time was controversial because it came on the road against the dying Coyotes with the Ducks already up 2-0 halfway into the first period. Anaheim paid for it late in the third period, when Arizona’s Jay Beagle cross checked Zegras and threw punches at Troy Terry, the Ducks’ leading scorer. Terry left Phoenix with an ugly shiner. Beagle didn’t explicitly say that he was trying to send Zegras a message, but justified the tussle by alleging that Zegras bumped into Arizona’s goalie, a big no-no for hockey’s unwritten rules of decorum that usually begets a fight. Zegras said he was merely chasing a loose puck and ripped Beagle for his “humiliating” behavior.
Zegras’s father has said he’s noticed his son has been getting tossed around more. Data backs this up: Zegras went from being hit about once per game prior to scoring a Michigan against Montreal to 1.48 times per game since. To be sure, Zegras has taken on a larger role in the Ducks’ offense and hits are one of the privileges that come with playing on better lines.
Some NHL veterans see the upside of a new kind of excitement in the league.
“I think it’s pretty damn good,” Andrei Svechnikov said earlier this month before his Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Ducks. “Younger guys, they have more skill and I think we’re going to see that more and maybe some new things as well.”
Svechnikov would know: He’s one of the few active players to successfully score a Michigan in the NHL. The right wing has actually scored two, most recently in 2019, despite growing up in Russia and never having watched Legg’s iconic goal.
Gardener, who once tried to get Zegras to leave The Michigan alone, recognizes that what his former player is doing with the Ducks is having a positive impact, particularly among young athletes who will make up the next generation of hockey players and fans.
At a skills clinic he hosted last month in Connecticut, Gardener said that dozens of kids asked him whether it was true that he once coached Zegras.
“They’re like, ‘Is he the best player you’ve ever coached?’ Of course not, ”said Gardener, who has coached dozens of professional hockey players over his 47 seasons at Avon Old Farms. “But [to] any young kid, he’s like their idol. ”
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