‘The Michigan’s’ mighty comeback

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Episode 60: ‘The Michigan’s’ mighty comeback

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of Listen in Michigan, my guest is sports documentarian and storyteller, Jon Fish, a class of 95 history major and longtime ESPN producer who has brought us many an entertaining College Game Day program and other compelling packages about our favorite athletes.

Jon’s latest passion project comes out just in time for Stanley Cup season as he profiles one of Michigan’s most beloved sports legends, hockey’s Mike Legg. For the uninitiated, Legg earned his spot in U-M lore back in 1996 – on TV — when he pulled a wild, never-before-seen-move that set the Wolverines on course to win Red Berenson’s first national championship in 32 years.

Legg’s dazzling game-changer, dubbed THE MICHIGAN, involves scooping the puck onto the stick and using centrifugal force to tuck it under the net’s crossbar to score a goal. It’s a fast, swirling move that you have to see to believe, not ideal in an audio format, but Jon’s enthusiasm for the move and its ultimate impact, is worth the listen. I promise.

Now, what’s weird about the MICHIGAN is that it burned really bright at first, and then all-but disappeared…

And now, the move is back with renewed vengeance — transforming the sport itself. Thanks to Legg, hockey is no longer played solely on the ice. Think about that for a second.

Fish, an avid hockey fan – and Mike Legg fan, they were on campus at the same time — sensed there was a story in the move’s disappearance and subsequent return. And, he was right of course!

He found Legg in Vancouver, where he’s been a firefighter for about 18 years. Though long-since retired from his seven years in the pros and the Finnish elite division, Legg is a beloved youth coach who’s delighted to teach the Michigan to anybody with a stick and a pair of skates.

OK – let’s get to Fish, a storyteller who favors the sports story behind the story, especially when it’s about a fellow alum he used to watch at Yost. His 30-minute piece on the MICHIGAN will be all over ESPN throughout the playoffs.

So, here’s Jon, to answer my first burning question: Why is the play called “THE MICHIGAN” and not “THE LEGG?”

JON FISH:

I asked the same question. What do you call it? I asked Mike Legg, what do you call it? I think the best I can see is the fact that everybody knew some guy from Michigan pulled it.

When Mike pulled this move, this was in a really, really big-stage game. This was you’re losing to Minnesota at Michigan State and you have a team that can win a national title and yet you’re getting outshot and outplayed. So when he pulls it and Michigan then responds and then goes on to win that game and then win the semifinal and then win the title, it’s almost just become “the Michigan” versus remembering, you know, the Legger or as Bill Armstrong called it the High Rap or the Do It. You know, people had different names for it.

But I think just because like bright yellow jersey and says Michigan it’s just become the Michigan. It’s now officially branded to the state, the school, the name, the name, and so everybody calls it the Michigan and I think a lot of it comes down to ultimately is this was a national TV game. This was a huge stage and that’s kind of why it got the name.

DH: I love it. It’s just so fun to watch.

JF: It’s mesmerizing.

DH: Yeah. So how would you physically describe the move itself?

JF: When Mike and Bill first did it, they would bend down and use kind of leverage to put the blade of the stick to get the puck up on its edge and then scoop it up. And then you’re using basically centrifugal force to keep the puck against the blade of the stick and around and underneath the crossbar. Because the rule is you cannot go over the crossbar. If you go over the crossbar, it’s what they call high sticking in hockey. But if you keep it under the crossbar, then you can do it, so you tuck it in

That’s how it was done.

Now the guys have gotten so good at it, and the sticks are so flexible now. Back when Mike was doing it, those sticks were like wooden pieces of lumber. I mean, maybe a little bit of flex, but I played with them and I have them in the basement. My son laughs at them. People make chairs out of old sticks, you know, but now they’re like carbon flex, synthetic composite, you know, bendable things that it’s unibody shape, poured, molded so that now the sticks can do anything.

And a lot of the NHL guys have gotten so good at it that they literally can do it on the fly: Scoop it up with their blade and do it. So it’s kind of advanced and you’ve seen advancements from there. You’ve seen guys scoop it up and pass it over to the park to a teammate who bats it in. Trevor Zegras pulled it off. So the NHL guys have gotten so good and are so adept at it that it’s really changing the the sport of hockey itself.

The very cool thing about this, this particular move is it’s not just a college hockey move or a pro hockey move. It’s hockey in general.

It happened in 96 and then it disappears. And I really couldn’t figure out why. I mean you’d see it in isolated places in. Far reaches of the hockey world, you’d see it in the Quebec Major Juniors, you’d see it maybe in Europe you’d see grainy footage like Bigfoot, you know of this thing. But it wasn’t something that you saw.

It’s like releasing a song 25 years ago. And people think it’s awesome at the time, but then it kind of goes away. But then two and half decades later the song’s a hit again.

So it’s it’s almost it’s it’s it’s a hard thing to wrap your head around.

It was a confluence of circumstances where – Andrei Svechnikov who plays for the Carolina Hurricanes. When he’s a kid in Siberia – and this guy Mikael Granlund pulls this move in 2011 and at the time Svechnikov is he is a little roughly 11 years old. So he then teaches himself how to do it well.

Flash forward to 2019 and he pulls it off in the NHL. And once he did that, it was like October of 2019, EA Sports sees it and says “Oh my God we gotta put this in the video game,” and then what happens? COVID happens and the world shuts down. So now you have all these athletes with this time on their hands.

Hockey guys, they can’t get into the rink. What are they doing? They’re messing around with the puck. Ohh, I saw this cool move by Svechnikov. Ohh wait, there’s this move in the EA Sports game. Ohh wait. EA Sports puts Mike Legg in the game. Hey wait a second, there’s this YouTube/Instagram influencer named Zac Bell up in Canada. And he’s messing around at the side of the road, flipping the puck around. I wanna be like Zac Bell. How does Zac Bell do that? Let’s pick the puck up.

So all of a sudden, all these kids learn it over COVID, right? And they’re practicing. They have the time on their hands to do it because you’re not at practice. You can’t go to the rinks. You’re not even in school. So you’re just like in between your zoom classes, you’re like teaching yourself stuff. And then suddenly we have this generation of hockey guys that are like, “hey, we can do really cool things with the hockey puck” and come out of COVID and now it’s everywhere. Because at the time when Svechnikov pulled it in 2019, Connor Bedard, who’s the biggest star in the NHL right now, he’s 14 years old. That’s exactly when you are teaching yourself how to do things like this with the puck.

And it’s really changed the game because the sport’s become much more creative. It’s thinking outside of the box. It’s not just pass the puck on the ice from one taped blade to another taped blade and shoot the puck and score.

In many ways Mike’s goal, you know, opened that up visually and creatively and you have players that weren’t even born when this happened that are stars in the NHL that can do this with the flick of a wrist, and it’s incredible. And the sport of hockey is now benefiting from it. So, and it’s in video games and it’s in social media. And if you’re, you know, in the hockey world, it’s a big thing.

It’s broken through now because every time someone scores one of these goals, it goes viral and it doesn’t matter what you’re a fan of if you’re a fan of sport at all, to see this move happen so sensational.

It’s a pure sports story and it’s a pure origin story and people love origin stories because there is an arc to it. It’s not just something that happened in a game; there’s a real story arc to — it was done, it went away and now it’s back. And here are the reasons why. And here’s how it happened and. Here is the person that got you from point A and the other person that got you from point A to to to now.

You have Red Berenson, who’s basically the hockey equivalent of a Bo Schembechler, a very old-school traditional but an innovator. Berenson was the first hockey player professionally to wear a helmet. Here’s a guy, he’s the first guy to go from college to pro. So an innovator, even though he comes from that old world school and so Berenson has to sign off on it. Legg has to have the the hutzpah to pull it off in that moment. And then the referees have to call it a goal.

It’s almost like if you if you looked at it from a 10,000 foot view and you say, OK, this is going on now, it’s almost mind blowing. That this happened and how it’s changed the sport now it’s just crazy.

Can’t imagine being an athlete who created a play and that it’s not necessarily named after him, but everyone knows he’s the guy.

He learned it from Bill Armstrong. He immediately gives Bill credit for that. We interviewed Bill for this as well as Mike. I think it’s amazing to them that all these years later it’s suddenly become part of the fabric of the game when back in the day when they first did it, it wasn’t really looked that fondly upon by some of the hockey purists.

I think they’re both very low-key about it. Mike is the nicest guy in the world. He’s very low-key. I just think that he just gets joy it and then it makes people happy and I think Bill feels the same way that it just to see this having changed the game, it’s very

The only thing I can compare this to is that once did a story on the man who invented the jump shot for basketball — Kenny Sailors who basically would play against his brother and his brother was was taller than him so he would jump to get elevation on the shot. It’s now so commonplace when you play basketball. It’s like someone invented the jump shot like. How who? Yeah, there is like there’s like pictures from Life magazine from 1943 of him clearly elevating, clearly shooting a jump shot. So it’s of that level.

There’s about two or three. It’s the Fosbury Flop. When you used to do the high jump, used to scissor kick, you’d run up and then you’d put one leg and then you put the other to get over.

Now if you watch High Jump, you run up to the bar, you turn your back to the bar and you jump. Oh, OK. And that’s called the Fosbury Flop, was invented by a man named Dick Fosbury in the 60s. He would go on the winning gold medal.

You couldn’t imagine high jumping without the Fosbury flop. You certainly couldn’t play basketball without the jump shot. And now the Michigan is kind of reaching that where you see it

In the days before Christmas you had Connor Bedard and Trevor Zegras pull them off some within hours of each other in the NHL. And that’s really when people around the office were like, I guess it really is a thing. I’m like, ohh it’s a thing…

DH: Guess we’ll let you do that story

JF: Exactly.

We went out and interviewed Mike and we thought maybe it would be a five or six minute piece and now it’s growing into 1/2 hour documentary. So it’s really incredible and it’s a real tip of the cap to. Um, you know, the management at ESPN and say, you know what, this is a really cool story. Let’s do it.

So yeah

DH: And he’s a great character, you know, doing it. Wonderful job, being a good person, still working with kids and doing hockey.

JF: He’s the best. He’s really the best. He’s an incredible alum of the university.

You know, that’s been kind of fun because we’re basically classmates. I’m class of 95, he’s class of 97. So it’s really fun because … degrees of separation and did you know people and we’re remembering things from the same time frame and we lived them at the same time and that’s why this story for me has been so special because unlike the stories that I do where I’m doing current athletes who are living Michigan at a different time in this in this sphere, but for me to be able to do it, to tell Mike’s story, someone I knew so well, someone that had such an impact in the university at a time when I was there – it’s super cool because it’s like: I remember that. Do you remember this? And I remember this.

When we drove to shoot that open, we’re in the car for four hours, just like sharing stories, you know? So it’s great.

DH: So did you guys know each other in school at all?

JF: We didn’t. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know any of the hockey guys. I just, we were in different, you know, different worlds. Obviously, he was very busy as a student athlete, an absolutely incredible hockey player on an incredible hockey team. And it was a great, it was a magical time to be at Michigan. There was a lot of cool stuff going on at Michigan at the time. We had just come out of the Desmond Howard and we had the Fab 5 and I mean that time period in the early 90s of the University of Michigan is really a special time in the school’s athletic history.

Even something like tracking down the video. I had to track down the WOLV guys. And I was like, I didn’t realize that you started in South Quad in 1994. I would have gone and worked with you if I’d known it existed. Instead, I was at WCBN … even tracking down those guys has been a lot of fun because I’ve just been able to kind of call people and touch base or call my buddy who I work with at ESPN who worked for the Daily and he’s he said to me “Oh yeah I used to cover the hockey team and I remember Red coming up into the stands” and have a conversation with him and so it’s.

It’s really been nice, a nice way to reconnect with people that that you knew from Michigan or didn’t know or knew people in common.

Telling Mike’s story has been really, really special. He’s just so down to earth and such a great guy and such an amazing hockey player, and to be able to tell his story has been incredible. Anytime I get a chance to do any of the stories I do, I’m always very cognizant of the fact that people are opening themselves up. To me as a producer, I wanna make sure that I get it right and to tell Mike Legg’s story right and to tell the story of the Michigan goal right.

It’s been nice to be able to do that and for them to have the trust and the, you know, the university’s been great and the hockey program has been great to help us out. You know, the people associated – John Bacon’s been wonderful. There’s been a lot of people that are associated with the school that have really been able to reconnect and this is just such a great story because it’s just such a pure sports story.

DH: Yeah

JF: ALL SPORT.  And that’s really nice because it’s sports for the sports fan about a magical moment and a magical moment that has changed one of the big four sports that the world plays.

The fact that it’s taken so long in this particular case for it to catch on …  Is amazing, and a lot of that is due to the world we now live in, social media, the phone, everything’s everywhere quickly.

The story behind the game has always been more interesting to me and that’s you know, listen, I’m a big sports fan. It does mean something for me when teams win or teams that I root for win. But I was always more interested in who the person was, why and what their motivation was, and where they came from than their day-to-day, he’s got six goals and his plus minus is, you know, -1 or…

Some people really get into that. It was just never something that interested me.

I grew up in Lexington, Mass, with birthplace of American history. Like that’s.. History and the kind of documentary background, stories of why things happened and when they happened and how they happened, that’s just always been a fascination for me. And I’ve just kind of taken that to sports because I always love sports.

Like I’m an alum and he’s an alum and we’re an alum at the same time. And it’s funny when we went up to he’s a firefighter in Vancouver and originally we were going to film the open — I had this big, I mean I imagined this cool visual and we’re gonna fly helicopters up into the mountains outside of Vancouver. But then internally they’re kind of like do we really need you know like helicopter and risk management and that stuff like. So ultimately we decided to go to. Jasper, Alberta, which is 4 hours west of Edmonton, it’s there’s a rank and there’s the mountains. And I said well that’s exactly what we needed. So we went out And so it’s just fun to be two alums.

DH: Well yeah. And then you get to see your like right there while he’s doing it.

JF: Yeh, because that’s. That’s my job is to tell the camera crew, like, get this, get that, that type of stuff.

DH: So did it just bedazzle you even more?  I mean it’s just so cool.

JF: It’s mesmerizing. We must have had him pull at least 400 of them in a row. You know, like, I can’t really tell you how many he pulled. But he just can  pull it over and over and over again.

DH: I love that.

JF: It’s an amazing thing. That’s Mike Legg!

DH: Well, be ready to get mesmerized at ESPN this hockey season, by Fish’s doc and the playoffs themselves. Whatever you do, keep an eye out for the guys who pull the MICHIGAN. OK, that’s it for now. Thanks for listening. And till next time, as always, GO BLUE.

This magic moment

Mike Legg in maize hockey jersey in 1995.

Legg, the student-athlete, circa 1995. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Once in a great while, an athlete comes along and changes a sport forever. There’s Kenny Sailors, an American basketball player who “invented” the jump shot in the early 1940s. And what about Olympic gold medalist and high jumper Dick Fosbury who introduced the “Fosbury Flop” to his chosen sport? Well, Michigan fans have their own sports legend to celebrate in hockey’s Mike Legg. He’s the Wolverine who galvanized the 1996 team to win the NCAA national championship after dazzling the crowd with his heart-stopping play, “the Michigan.”

Fans surely recall the dramatic matchup with Minnesota at Michigan State when the Wolverines, projected to take the national title, were nearly ousted from contention by a Gophers squad that was outshooting them 13-3. Desperate to shift the momentum, Legg decided to pull an unorthodox move from his arsenal, taught to him by Western Michigan’s Bill Armstrong. During warmups prior to the game, Legg checked in with Coach Red Berenson and game officials. He explained what he planned to do and asked whether it would be legal should he score.

“Mike would bend down and use leverage on the blade of the stick to get the puck up on its edge and then scoop it up,” says Jon Fish, BA ’95, a producer at ESPN. He recently wrapped a 30-minute documentary on the move and the player who popularized it. “Then he’d use centrifugal force to keep the puck against the blade of the stick so he could flip it around and underneath the crossbar to tuck it in the net.”

The officials gave Legg the green light. He pulled the move. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement. The momentum of that game took the Wolverines on to victory over Minnesota and then to the hockey program’s first national championship in 32 years. Hockey players at every level of the sport began trying it themselves.

“Everyone knew that a guy from Michigan pulled the move,” Fish says, explaining why such names as the “Do It” or the “High Rap” never caught on.

See ‘The Michigan’ on ESPN in May and June

‘Oh, it’s a thing…’

Hockey purists dismissed the unusual lacrosse-type move and forced it into relative obscurity for two-and-a-half decades. Then, a confluence of circumstances brought it back to the ice with a vengeance, so much so that in December 2023, the NHL’s Connor Bedard (Chicago Blackhawks) and Trevor Zegras (Anaheim Ducks) pulled the Michigan within hours of each other. Fish’s ESPN colleagues, dubious about his story pitch at first, were forced to admit “that it really is a thing” to which Fish replied, “Oh, it’s a thing.”

His documentary, airing on ESPN in May and June tracks the Michigan’s life cycle in what Fish describes as a “pure origin story.” Its universal theme should captivate viewers of all kinds, whether they enjoy sports or not, he says.

“People love origin stories. This is not just something that happened in a game; there’s a real story arc here. It was done, it went away, and now it’s back. And here are the reasons why.”

The high rap?

Hockey player scores goal, dressed in maize. Outside on a rink surrounded by pines and mountains.

Legg pulled the move hundreds of times while they were shooting the documentary, much to Fish’s delight. (Image credit: Dale MacMillan, courtesy of ESPN.)

As Fish tells it, an 11-year-old Andrei Svechnikov, who now plays for the Carolina Hurricanes, was living near Siberia when he saw Mikael Granlund of the senior Finnish national team pull the move in 2011. Bedazzled, Svechnikov taught himself the move and pulled it himself as an NHL player in 2019. Bedard, arguably the biggest star in the NHL today, was 14 when he saw it, “exactly the age when you start teaching yourself how to do things like this with the puck,” Fish says. EA Sports put the move into a video game, added Mike Legg, and the legend took hold.

When the 2020 COVID pandemic hit and the world shut down (five months after Svechnikov’s goal for Carolina), aspiring hockey pros spent their time perfecting the move in driveways, in basements, and on the outdoor ice. Social media’s “Hockey Jedi” Zac Bell posted clips of himself pulling the Michigan on the side of the road, inspiring even more housebound athletes. Once COVID restrictions were finally lifted, the players brought it to the rinks and, ultimately, the NHL.

“A lot of the NHL guys have gotten so good at it that they literally can do it on the fly,” says Fish. It helps that modern-day sticks are made of more flexible material than the ‘90s-era equipment Legg was using, he says. “The players are so adept that it’s really changing the sport of hockey itself. It’s opened up the game creatively and visually.”

Do it

Fish’s 30-minute documentary will air on ESPN multiple times leading up to the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs Finals. If you’re reading this before 8:59 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, you can catch the first airing at 9 a.m. on ESPN2.

Cameraman and producer point camera at hockey player wearing maize jersey, no. 15.

Hockey fan Fish produces an ESPN documentary with fellow alum Mike Legg. (Image credit: Dale MacMillan, via ESPN.)

For this longtime producer who favors the story behind the story, his piece on the Michigan and Legg is a career high. Though they never met as classmates, the two Wolverines were on campus at the same time and shared many of the same memories and experiences. Researching the piece reconnected Fish with colleagues, alumni, and current staff from Michigan Athletics and WOLV-TV, WCBN, and the Michigan Daily. Sportswriter and Michigan grad John Bacon appears in the piece, as does former coach Berenson. A number of professional hockey players also weigh in.

“This is a sports story for the sports fan about a magical moment that has changed one of the big four sports that the world plays,” Fish says.

Legg played seven years in the pros and the Finnish elite division. Today he lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he has been a firefighter for nearly 20 years. He stays active in hockey by coaching local youth teams. He is humble about his contribution to the sport, Fish says, which is amazing in light of its impact.

Hockey player catches air. Dressed in maize jersey on an outside rink rimmed by pines.

Legg helped open the game visually and creatively to the point that hockey is no longer played solely on the ice. (Image credit: Dale MacMillan, courtesy of ESPN.)

“Telling Mike’s story been really, really special. He’s just so down-to-earth and such a great guy. And he’s such an amazing hockey player,” Fish says.

The documentarian relishes the proximity his job affords to the athletes he admires. He’s won multiple Emmys and is a producer on the popular “College Game Day” program, which brings him back to campus during football season. His picturesque sequences with Legg were shot at an outdoor rink in Jasper, Alberta, with mountains and pine trees in the background. Fish estimates Legg pulled the move hundreds of times for his ESPN camera crew.

“It was mesmerizing,” he says, allowing his inner fan to come out. “I mean, that’s Mike Legg!”

For updates on more airings, check @jonfish2 on Twitter and Instagram. 

(Lead image by Dale MacMillan, courtesy of ESPN.)

 

Comments

  1. Chris Kushmaul - 1996, 2014

    This is a wonderful piece on Mike Legg and Michigan Hockey! That season was so very special. What a great time to be a student at the University of Michigan. Go Blue!!

    Reply

  2. Shari Krasnow-Renzi - 1988

    Love UM hockey! Loved this piece! GO BLUE!

    Reply

  3. John Haeussler - 1989, 1990

    I was sitting near the goal line at Munn in 1996 and it was surreal to see the goal happen. I had to see the replay before I truly believed it. Mike is the embodiment of “down to earth”, which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever met Chuck and/or Kathy, his parents. Great to see them in the video, such a beautiful family. Well done Jon and Deborah! You brought back a lot of wonderful memories as well as making the story current.

    Reply

  4. Andy Peterson - 1997, 2006

    This was a game that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be at. I can say I was there. I just wasn’t close enough to appreciate the magic that happened. I couldn’t tell what happened. I just knew we scored.

    This was also a time I had to wait for Sportscenter to see the shot after getting to my friends house in E. Lansing. No phones or even digital video cameras or social media. This was probably even still lucky because college hockey wasn’t covered except THIS was CCHA post-season and the amazement of the shot of course.

    Reply

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