Welcome to StrongSide Shoutout, a new feature where we’ll pay homage to a player, coach, team, or other sports-adjacent person in town. Sometimes, it will be for something exciting. Other times, a dramatic moment. And still others, because something hilarious went down. It’s our way of providing a little extra shine toward someone or something that merits it.
Today, that’s Sergei Zubov, the Hall of Fame defenseman whose No. 56 jersey will be retired prior to the Stars’ home game tonight against Washington. It’s a moment long in the making for one of the essential components of the 1999 Stanley Cup team.
Tonight, I’ll be thinking about the cigarettes.
Sergei Zubov smoked truckloads of them during his 16-year NHL career, nowhere more memorable than the Dallas Stars team shower. Because, as Sean Shapiro, my former colleague at The Athletic, learned a few years back, Zubov had a ritual after each game. Win, lose, or draw, he’d immediately hit the shower, where his ashtray would be waiting. Then he’d puff to his heart’s content before getting on with his evening.
“This guy just played 30 minutes, doesn’t look tired at all, and he’s going to smoke a cigarette,” former Stars goaltender Marty Turco told Shapiro. “I just lost 12 pounds in a game and can’t do anything, and Zubie’s lighting up a dart in the shower.
That story always stuck with me. There are the obvious reasons: smoking is more or less anathema among modern athletes, and here’s one of the greatest to ever skate in a Dallas Stars uniform brazenly doing it in front of his teammates multiple nights a week. The sheer mechanics of it, too. How, exactly, did Zubov even keep the cigarette lit? I have this image of it perpetually smoldering despite rivulets of water pouring down his receding hairline onto his perma-mugged face, which couldn’t really be how it went down.
But, most of all, it’s Turco’s quote about the ease of the thing that stands out. Of course it would be; everything about Sergei Zubov was. He is not only the best defenseman the Stars have ever employed but the smoothest as well, the one who snapped millimeter-perfect passes and ran the power play with metronomic precision. He was brilliant, but he was no specimen: big—he was listed 6-foot-1, 200 pounds—yet hardly towering; a strong skater, yet no one’s idea of a burner. Like every athletic overachiever, then, he was meticulous. He claims to have needed a full decade of tinkering just to pinpoint the right setup for his stick. As a Star, he developed a pregame contest with Mike Modano solely to help them acclimate to the quirks of Reunion Arena’s choppy ice.
But Zubov’s brilliance came in how rarely the seams showed. His movements and decisions—so well-considered, so calculating—always came off as natural, elegant, as though becoming one of the premier offensive defensemen of his era was merely a calling rather than the culmination of decades of polish. It was special then, and it’s become even more so since his departure following the 2008-2009 season. The Stars have fielded plenty of great players in the ensuing 13 years, but most came with styles that were more obvious (Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov) or more effortful (Jamie Benn, Brenden Morrow). Miro Heiskanen, the 22-year-old Finnish sensation, is the first to approximate Zubov’s skill and subtlety, albeit without nearly as much scoring punch early in his career. John Klingberg, who could be run out of town in a matter of weeks, is the only defenseman who comes close to replicating his impact in the offensive zone.
This hasn’t done Zubov as many favors as it should have in terms of recognition. He never won a Norris Trophy and didn’t even crack the top three in voting until he was 35 years old. Some of this owed itself to being contemporaries with Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time winner and the only defenseman to rack up more points from 1996 through 2007. But more of it probably comes down to how understated Zubov could make the spectacular seem—and, befitting that, how disinclined he was to draw attention to himself for any of it. Hence it taking Zubov a full decade to get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hence tonight’s retirement ceremony taking even longer. This was overdue—our sports teams have a tendency to drag these things out—but, to the Stars’ credit, they seem eager to make up for any delays with all the pomp and circumstance he deserves, right down to a green carpet leading into the arena.
A spectacle like this might not be how Sergei Zubov prefers it, and it definitely won’t reflect how he played. There could not be a more appropriate exception to the rule.