At the risk of sounding redundant given his recent flawless imitation—chest puffed, knees staggered, arms flailing like windsocks in a stiff breeze—understand that Mikhail Berdin has always loved Conor McGregor. Just check the background screen on his cell. Guess whose picture pops up? “My favorite role model,” the 19-year-old Russian goalie says of the 29-year-old Irish mixed martial artist. “I like how he fights, his attitude, his speech when he talks, his show…”
The show. Well, duh.
It was glorious enough when Berdin lobbed a puck the length of the ice and struck an empty net for the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede less than two weeks ago, so scarcely do netminders score at any level, but he went viral for rowdier reasons. As the arena lights raised and the celebratory scrum of teammates around him dispersed, Berdin first dropped to one knee and pumped his blocker pad. Next came a cruise down the home bench for a round of high-fives, followed by two waves to the crowd at Denny Sanford PREMIER Center. Finally he gathered his stick, cocked his limbs and broke into McGregor's billionaire strut, launching a thousand GIFs around the hockey world.
“We know he’s a big fan,” Sioux Falls captain Paul DeNaples says. “That completely topped it off.”
Over the telephone, Ron Hextall laughs. He’s seen the replay of Berdin’s shot, rifled late in the third period while Sioux Falls held a two-goal lead against the Muskegon Lumberjacks, and the ensuing revelry. “I wouldn’t do something like that,” Hextall says. “But I get it. It’s an exciting time. If you’re going to pick someone, I think Conor McGregor’s a good guy to pick.”
More than most, the Flyers general manager indeed understands the singular experience. Only six NHL netminders have ever scored on direct shots like Berdin, and just Hextall has done so twice. As far as individual, regular-season achievements go, surely this ranks among the rarest in the sport; a whopping eight skaters all-time, for instance, have notched six-goal games. In his 1997 video Great Hockey Moments, introducing Hextall’s two moments of offensive glory, none other than Wayne Gretzky says that, “Every NHL goaltender secretly dreams of being a goal-scorer.” Maybe this is true for some, but “A lot of people want to do it,” Hextall says. “But it certainly wasn’t up there on my priority list.”
There were ample reasons to have felt this way. As a kid, tagging along to the rink with his father Bryan Hextall Jr., once a veteran of six NHL teams, young Ron once took notice upon seeing Ed Giacomin attempt a shot that bounced off the boards. “I remember going, That was really cool,” Hextall says, but few goalies bothered with puck-handling when he broke into the league years later. In juniors, the same level Berdin plays at now, a coach once told Hextall that if he didn’t shake the habit of playing pucks, he’d never even reach the NHL. “Which was a little weird,” Hextall says. “So I stopped. Just did what he wanted me to do. Back then we didn’t ask for answers.”
Only a few years later, during Hextall’s rookie year with Philadelphia, did coach Mike Keenan start encouraging his young goalie to venture behind the net. Evidently this opened the floodgates. Pretty soon Flyers fans were cheering for a shot each time Hextall touched the puck and reporters were asking when he would try, too. So Hextall ticked off the ideal situation in his head: Two-goal lead for extra protection should things go south...on the penalty kill, so icing doesn’t apply… “Okay,” he told himself, “if the right opportunity presents itself, I’ll try.”
The wait hardly lasted long. Two months into his second season on Dec. 8, 1987, the Flyers held a late 4-2 advantage at home when Boston emptied its net. As a Bruins player tried dumping the puck behind Hextall from the red line, he slid to the left and intercepted it on his forehand. In stride, Hextall whipped a shot that looped over the neutral zone, hydroplaned past the far blue line and … bullseye. “Sometimes all you can do is elevate the puck down the ice,” Hextall says, “and if that’s your only option, you might as well try to hit the net.”
Hextall wasn’t the first NHL netminder to receive credit for scoring—the Islanders’ Billy Smith earned that honor on Nov. 28, 1979, albeit only thanks to an opposing own-goal that Smith touched last—and Martin Brodeur holds the cumulative record with three to his name. But less than two years after his first strike, Hextall took aim again. In Game 5 of the 1988-99 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, Capitals defenseman Scott Stevens blasted the puck around the end boards, where Hextall met it on his backhand. “Quite honestly that was our play anyway, they’d wrap it around and I’d shoot it out and our guys would fly the zone and chase,” he recalls. “I got a good jump on the puck, corralled it behind the net, and took the shot.”
Once more, Hextall’s aim was true.
“I think every goalie has seen it at one point, thought about it at one point. But everything’s got to happen so perfectly. It’s such a unique thing.”
This is Mike Smith, Calgary goalie and puck-handling extraordinaire. He grew up idolizing goalies like Hextall and Brodeur, even once choosing the former’s number 27 in the minors as a tribute. “Not many guys played the puck well,” Smith says, “and those two guys evolved the game as far as goalies coming out and handling it.”
He paid homage in other ways, too. Some 15 years ago, making his debut for the ECHL’s Lexington Men O’War at Rupp Arena, Smith notched his first professional win, shutout and goal, all in the same night. “I was in shock that it actually happened,” Smith says. “Definitely wasn’t close to the celebration that kid [Berdin] had. It usually happens like that. At the time you might not think it’s a big deal, but after people start talking about it, gets some hype and some publicity, I think it really sets in how cool it is.”
Imagine, then, how Smith felt Oct. 19, 2013. Then playing for the Coyotes, comfortably sitting on a 4-2 lead against Detroit, Smith tracked a long shot into his glove with less than six seconds remaining. No Red Wings were nearby, so Smith set the puck down at the top of the crease, stood quickly and aimed his attempt over everyone’s heads. “The seas parted in front of me,” he says, “and I just went for it.”
The puck landed at the opposing blue line with two seconds left … passed the hashmark with one second left … and crossed the goal line right as the final buzzer sounded. At the time Smith actually thought that time had ran out, which explains why he didn’t celebrate. “You don’t want to look like an idiot,” he says. As officials conducted their review, teammates swarmed Smith. “They’re not going to take it away now,” one told him. Sure enough, the official box score reads:
19:59 EV-EN PHX M.SMITH(1) unassisted
Like Hextall, Smith watched the replay of Berdin’s goal. On several occasions, in fact. “Gotten a chuckle every time,” he says. “I think the ending was pretty impressive.”
Not all goals are created equal.
Joining Hextall and Smith in the exclusive club of direct-shot scorers are Brodeur (‘97 playoffs), Chris Osgood (March ‘96), Jose Theodore (Jan. ‘01) and Evgeni Nabokov (March ‘02). Seven other times, starting with Smith and twice including Brodeur, a netminder has indirectly gotten lucky. Like Carolina’s Cam Ward. “Forever I’ll be in the record books,” the veteran says. “It would’ve been a lot cooler if I shot the puck.”
Alas. Goaltenders can’t be choosers. Nursing a late 3-2 lead against New Jersey the day after Christmas 2011, Ward made an otherwise routine blocker save on a 46-foot wrister from Patrik Elias. As the puck caromed into the corner, Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk gained possession and slid a pass toward the blue line, but caught teammate Adam Henrique off-balance and, a few seconds later, hit New Jersey’s net.
“It was one of those things that took a second for everybody to realize that I was the last one to touch the puck, but it dawned on me right away,” Ward says. “Now, it didn’t dawn on me to go race down the bench and give the high-fives and all that stuff. I think emotionally it’d be a lot different if I shot the puck. Nonetheless I think it’s pretty cool.”
Like they do with any first NHL goal, the Hurricanes stuck the puck onto a plaque and presented it to Ward, accompanied by a picture of teammate Bryan Allen hugging him on the ice. Now it hangs in the man cave on the top floor of his house, along with oodles of other memorabilia such as a signed Mario Lemieux jersey and his gear from backstopping Carolina to the 2006 Stanley Cup. Hextall received a plaque too—the Flyers framed game sheets for every player after he scored against Boston—but figures it’s stashed away in a box somewhere at home. Smith didn’t receive a gift, at least not in the long-lasting sense. “There were definitely some beverages consumed that night, some dinner after with the guys,” he says.
In the respect-your-elders NHL, strutting and waving like Berdin might spark a line brawl … or worse. That’s what one Sioux Falls assistant coach told DeNaples, who was injured during the game that Berdin scored, as they watched the celebration in disbelief. Shown the video recently, one Eastern Conference goalie began shaking his head at the McGregor walk and said, “Oh my god. What a loser. I’d hope no one would celebrate like that after a goal.”
Then again, consider Ward’s perspective: “You’re in the moment. You’re enjoying it. The game’s supposed to be fun. Why not give it a good celly?”
Berdin was raised in Ufa, Russia, the riverside capital city of the Bashkortostan Republic, located several hours from the Eurasian border. His parents both played professional volleyball, but he gravitated to hockey during grade school. For six months he alternated between forward and goalie—three practices up front, three practices in the crease—before settling on the latter position because he enjoyed feeling like the backbone of the team.
After a strong season for Russia’s under-18 team in ‘15-16, Berdin was drafted in the sixth round by Winnipeg, at No. 157. (He was back home, attending his girlfriend’s high school graduation, when the Jets announced their pick and his phone promptly detonated with hundreds of text messages.) He hadn’t traveled to North America prior to training camp and knew few English words beyond “hi.” On the first day, he sat next to hulking defenseman Dustin Byfuglien in the locker room. “One of the bigger, scarier guys,” he says. “Just nervous.”
Clearly Berdin emerged from his shell over a season-plus stateside. He likes learning English, developed a preference for American food, and enjoys living with his billet family. In Sioux Falls, where he currently ranks third among USHL goalies in save percentage (.933) and seventh in goals against average (2.47), the language barrier has become a comedic crutch; sometimes Berdin pretends not to hear coaches or teammates’ instructions before flashing a knowing smile their way. “Always being a different, funny character,” DeNaples says. “His personality’s unique. A little bit crazier than the other guys. A lot more energy than some of the other guys.”
Unlike Hextall’s fuddy-duddy bench boss from juniors, Berdin also received the backing to become an active goalie. “My first coach, we talk about Brodeur, how he plays with the stick,” Berdin says, still learning English through weekly lessons. “I like to play after him.” Now he’s always clearing pucks on penalty kills, making breakout passes, launching stretch feeds to forwards. He tried for a goal earlier this year at a rookie tournament against Vancouver, but a Canucks defenseman caught the puck in the neutral zone. “It’s a little nerve-wracking at times,” Stampede coach Scott Owens says, “but the majority of the times he’s spot on and makes plays, which really helps us.”
Then he made the play that no one expected. Three and a half minutes remained against Muskegon when Berdin gathered a rimming puck on his backhand, wheeled onto his strong side behind the net, and fired. As the puck slid past center-ice, Berdin had a good sense where it was headed. “They change goalie, I got a puck, forwards don’t block me, and I shoot.”
Among Stampede teammates, the most common response was, “Can’t believe you did that.” Knowing Berdin like he does, though, DeNaples wasn’t surprised at how the everything unfolded. “I figured he was going to do something crazy, but that was pretty good.” In the aftermath, which included an appearance at No. 6 on SportsCenter’s top 10, several players started referring to him as Conor McGregor. “Typical Berdin,” says Owens. “And he covered the full gambit there didn’t he? The players, the high-fiving, little bit of a dance, a salute to the fans.”
“It happened in the moment,” he says. “I think I did a good job. This is fun, you know?”