Ten or twenty times a season there is mention of Barry Trotz and David Poile being the only coach/GM to ever be with the Predators organization. We all know the stats and many records they have broken, but this isn’t about them.
This mini-series is about Mitch Korn, the sometimes forgotten goalie coach who has also been there since day one. I hope to write out this five piece series on Mitch Korn and his contributions to the Predators organization.
Part 1 – Beginnings: Dominik Hasek, Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun
Part 1 – Dominik Hasek and Tomas Vokoun
Note: The quotes are from a one on one phone interview where we discussed the first three parts of this write-up.
The Future Hall of Famer
Mitch Korn joined the organization over the summer of 1998, becoming the first goalie coach for the Nashville Predators. As much as I would like to say he came out of obscurity and rose to the top in Nashville (like many of the goalies he’s coached) he was followed by quite the reputation. Korn’s previous gig had been in Buffalo where, through a trade with Chicago, he was joined by Dominik Hasek. The Dominator won four Vezina awards and two (consecutive) Harts in his 7 years alongside Korn. He would go on to win two more Vezina’s in his 16 NHL seasons. Hasek also won a 1998 Olympic Gold Medal and a Stanley Cup in 2002.
Hasek most definitely deserves a lot of credit for this. Starting as a goalie at 5 years old and playing in a under 9 league was his first of many experiences in playing with bigger, faster, older players. But nonetheless Hasek was drafted 199th overall (10th round) by the Chicago Blackhawks and would be one of many late round goalies to be introduced to Mitch Korn. Hasek would play 25 games over two seasons with the Hawks before being traded to Buffalo in 1992.
"It was Thanksgiving 1994 when Fuhr had a knee injury," Korn remembered. Hasek would take the net and the organization never looked back, keeping Hasek as a starting goalie until 2001.
Hasek and Fuhr would combine for the Jennings award that year, given to the goalie tandem with the lowest GAA.
Korn left the Buffalo organization a year after a disagreement in management that lead to a GM being fired and Ted Nolan, a beloved Jack Adams winning head coach, refusing a one year contract renewal and quitting the organization. The fans partially blamed Hasek for the severed relationships, and at the start of 1997 the music staff had to play the audio of cheering fans to drown out the boo's against the starting goalie. The goalie got off to a slow start, but got hot around December and won another Vezina that year.
Reflecting on his time in Buffalo, Korn said it was difficult working in an organization with such low staff retention. "In seven seasons in Buffalo I worked with 4 coaches. Head coaches let you do your thing, but in the end, they decide who plays."
When I mentioned the contrast to Nashville's stable coaching faction, he laughed and pointed out that since leaving Buffalo they've had the same head coach and GM until the middle of last season. He's right of course, Lindy Ruff was the coach in Korn's last year in Buffalo, and was dismissed in February of last season while Darcy Regier also began in Korn's last season and is still with the Sabres.
The Nashville Predators Expansion
In 1998, the Predators were slated to start their first NHL season. They were selected as an expansion franchise the year before and after a hectic year of silly relocation rumors, they were about to hit the ice at the Nashville Arena for the first time on October 10th 1998. The names David Poile, Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn were announced to the fans along with the remainder of the coaching staff. All three remain with the team today.
The Predators selected 5 goalies in the 1998 expansion draft. One of whom was the great Mike Richter who was unprotected by the New York Rangers.The organization knew they wouldn't get Richter who would resign with the Rangers that summer, but Nashville did get a 2nd round pick out of the deal (which turned into either Adam Hall or Jan Lasak, depending on how you read into it.) (In the old NHL, team's would get compensated if a UFA was signed by another team — similar to how RFAs work today.)
They also drafted Frederic Chabot (current goalie coach for Edmonton) and Mikhail Shtalenkov, both of whom had tenuous NHL experience and both of whom were not kept by the team. Chabot didn't sign with Nashville and Shtalenkov was packaged in a trade for Eric Fichaud.
Along with Fichaud, Dunham and Vokoun would be the three goaltenders in the mix for the Predators.
Dunham was a 3rd round University of Maine prospect who had two seasons as Martin Brodeur’s Backup under his belt. With the Devils, he split his time between New Jersey and Albany in the AHL. When he was in the NHL, he had 13 wins in 41 games.
Eric Fichaud was a highly touted 23 year old who was selected in the first round of the 1996 entry draft, but never met expectations due to a shoulder injury that required surgery when he was playing with the Islanders. When he joined the Predatorsm he was just coming off a second round of surgery. He was able to play 9 games with the Preds but was unable to get a win in the history books. He joined Carolina the next year before becoming a travelling warrior amongst the AHL’s ranks.
Dunham got the chance to start in Nashville and out of the shadow of Marty Brodeur he did well as the backstop to a non-contending team. He pitched a .908 save percentage in his first season for a team that finished second last in the west. Dunham also won a Silver Medal at the 2002 Olympics with the American National team. His style wasn’t for all fans as he was very aggressive, which would sometimes get him caught out of position.
In a 2011 interview with Dunham, he talked about his opportunity to work with Mitch Korn, and referred to him as one of the best goaltending coaches in the NHL. He referenced Korn’s influence both on his playing and coaching career.
In December 2002, Mike Dunham was dealt to the New York Rangers in exchange for Rem Murray, Tomas Klouchek and Marek Zidlicky. Somewhat ironically, the Rangers were interested in Dunham as they needed a replacement for the then-injury riddled Mike Richter.
As a little after fact – Chris Mason also saw 6 games during the 1998 inaugural season as he was called on to backup Vokoun during a time where Dunham and Fichaud were injured.
Vokoun and the Playoff Berth
Lurking just out of the limelight during Dunham’s reign as starting goaltender was Tomas Vokoun, the other goalie selected and kept in the expansion draft. A late draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens (9th rd, 226 ovr), the European was playing with the Fredericton Canadiens in the AHL (my home town by the way, no big deal) when he was selected in the expansion draft.
Before joining the Predators, he had played in 1 NHL game, where he allowed four goals on 14 shots and was pulled after the first period. His AHL numbers weren’t much better – winning far less than 50% of games and allowing on average more than 3 goals per game.
On Vokoun's chance with the Predators, Korn said: "(Vokoun) was going to Milwaukee, no if's, and's, or but's about it. There was no reason to think Vokoun could play in the NHL. But at that time, we were going through the big goaltending renaissance. The little guys were disappearing, Fichaud was all of 5'10."
Fichaud's size and injury history enabled Vokoun to crack the NHL roster.
In his first season at 22 and only one game’s experience, Vokoun played 37 games, had 12 wins, 1 shutout and a .908 save %, which was better than both his years in the AHL.
Somewhere along the line of goaltending experience, backing up the successful Dunham, and the expert mental and physical coaching of Mitch Korn, Vokoun became a goaltending monster.
He would split the first 4 seasons with Dunham, and got the starting job after the trade. In his second full season during 2003-4, he was nominated to the all-star team with teammate Kimmo Timonen. Vokoun, Dwayne Roloson, and Marty Turco split the duties for the NHL West team. Jose Theodore (who played with Vokoun on the AHL Fredericton Canadiens), Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur played for the East. East beat West 6-4.
The All Star game was most definitely not the highlight for Vokoun though. No, friends, the highlight that season would have been his playoff crusades. Giving Nashville their first ever playoff berth in 2004, Vokoun delivered as the 8th place Predators gave the 1st place, President’s Trophy winning, leading the league in goal-scoring Red Wings a run for the money forcing 6 games, two more than anyone would have given them credit for.
While he played well in the first two games all 18 shots in the first two periods of game one, and 26 in the second game (where Detroit won on an unfortunate deflection), he really excelled in the games that followed.
Vokoun was awarded the first star in Games 3 and 4, both on home ice. In Game Three, he made 41 saves for a 3-1 victory. The .971 save percentage against a team as talented as the 2004 Red Wings was noticed league wide. But Vokoun topped it in game four, making 40 saves for the shutout.
Reading back through the summary of these games does justice to Vokoun’s legendary play. In the first game, for instance, Nashville was outshot 15 – 1 in the first 15 minutes and made 21 saves in the third period. Here’s a quote by Brendan Shanahan, who played with the Wings at the time, “Those weren't routine saves that he was making. A few of them he didn't even see the puck, so we're getting good traffic, getting good shots. [We've] just got to stick with it."
In the second home game, fourth game of the series, Vokoun was at it again. He made 16 saves in the first period where the Preds were outshot 16 – 3. Although unrelated to Vokoun, quote from the post game write up would have to be “The Predators fed off the energy from their ecstatic fans once again. Detroit had a few more supporters in the stands this time, but when they tried to rev up the 'Let's go Red Wings; chant, it was quickly drowned out by 'Chelios is a sissy.'"
The next season was unfortunately a lockout, and Vokoun had to carry his playoff momentum closer to home, where he reached a .940 save percentage and a 1.83 GAA in the SM-Liiga.
The 2005 to 2007 seasons were good for the goaltender as he became one of the most popular players on the team (if not the most popular). Although out of action in the 2006 playoffs, Vokoun’s regular season numbers were respectable.
He was affected by blood clots at the end of 2006 and a thumb injury in 2007, both of which allowed Chris Mason to take the net and Predators fans saw the beginning of another goalie transition.
Vokoun would back the Preds through the playoffs again in 2007 with a team that included Forsberg, Kariya, Arnott, Dumont, Legwand, Hartnell, Radulove, Suter, Weber, Timonen and Zidlicky. Vokoun had a .902 SV% and a 2.97 GAA in a 4-1 series defeat to the San Jose Sharks.
The offseason of 2007 was the mass exodus of Predators, as rumors about relocation were abound and the team was looking to slash its player payroll where possible. On draft day, the 30 year old, 226th overall Tomas Vokoun was traded to Florida for a 2007 second round pick (Nick Spaling), a 2008 first round pick (which after a few trades turned into Colin Wilson) and a 2007/2008 conditional pick (Aaron Ness, 2nd round 2008).
He has since has since played for Florida, Washington and Pittsburgh. This past season, at 37, he came into relieve Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs and allowed the team to bounce back against first round opponent New York Islanders. Vokoun remained the starter for the remainder of the playoffs, until Pittsburgh was eliminated in the Conference finals.
Vokoun also won a Bronze Medal with the Czech Republic at the 2006 Olympics. [END OF PART 1]