The Goalie Guru blog, and all its linked materials, is offered as a one-stop resource to assist ice hockey goaltenders, their coaches and parents (realizing that the latter two are often one and the same) in gaining a better understanding of this truly unique position. Comments, questions, and suggestions welcomed! Reach me at 978-609-7224, or

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Goalies need to be included in situational drills & game plans

To be more effective, goalie coaches should be incorporated into
coaching sessions for the entire team, not just the goaltenders.
Hi gang,

OK double or nothing today (see, I promised I'd get back u to speed). One of the most frustrating aspects of being a goalie coach is the sense, on far too many teams, that you're some kind of appendage, responsible only for making sure that the goalies stop the puck.

But there's much more to goaltending, and to goalie coaching. That's the topic of the following column.  Let me know what you think ...


Goalies need to be included in situational drills & game plans

This month, with the traditional start of club and select hockey already under way, I want to talk to the coaches. Head coaches, and assistant coaches. Sure, goalies and goalie coaches can listen in (and I'll wager that you'll find plenty of material here to advocate either for yourself or your goaltender). But my target audience is the group of coaches who are in charge, especially those running situational drills.

Those "situational" drills include power play, penalty kill, forecheck, breakout, odd-man rushes, and the like. Goalies typically know when these drills are coming, because the coach will often look at them, or the goalie coach, and recommend that they work on something "goalie related" at the other end of the ice. It's as if the goalies really didn't have any use for anything that the coaches would be covering in these situational drills.

Without the slightest exaggeration, I've lost count of the number of times this has happened to me as a coach. I'm willing to bet my house that this experience is the rule, and not the exception. And that reveals an enormous disconnect between the coaching staff and their goaltenders.

I've written about this before. I call it the "Auto Body Approach" to coaching goalies. In short, this method is the favorite of coaches who like to dent and damage their goalies in practice, send them off to a private goalie coach (the auto body shop) to get patched up, and then repeat the entire process all over again. It's an inherently flawed approach.

Basically, here's what's wrong with this thinking. First, it perpetuates the Old School concept that goalies only have one job, and that's to stop the puck. Granted, that's still a goalie's primary responsibility. No debate there. But that thinking only recognizes one of many jobs that a good goalie needs to be concerned about. Which leads directly to my second point.

Goalies need to be coaches on the ice. It is the only position where the action is coming directly to them. It's very similar to a catcher in baseball. Pitches, and ultimately opposing players, are coming to home plate. But 90 percent of the time, the play is out in front of them, which gives them a unique and important perspective on the game. The same holds for goaltenders. While goaltender's skating "area" is fairly limited, we know that eventually the puck is coming right at us.

I often refer to the goaltender as the "eye of the hurricane." That's why we, as goalie coaches, often tell our goaltenders to speak up. The game is played at such a fast pace these days that defenders rarely have the opportunity to process things thoroughly. They have to act on habit, or instinct. Or they can listen to the goaltender. Ideally, the goaltender, with the added "luxury" of time, can assess the game situation and bark accurate instructions to the defensemen.

However, to ensure those commands are in sync with the coach, the goaltenders need the time to observe these "situational" drills in practice. That allows them to fully incorporate how you want the defense to play in a variety of game situations. If you don't include your goaltenders in these sessions, you've really got no right to blame them for shouting the wrong instructions.

Finally, telling the goalie coach to go off and "work with the goalies" denies the team a chance to hear another important voice. And that's the voice of the goalie coach. Yeah, I know that sounds self-serving. But the reality is, few people know more about scoring than goalie coaches, because we're constantly working on stopping the puck in every situation imaginable.

Here's a great example. While recently watching one of my teams run a two-on-one rush, I noticed two things. First, the defenders were wildly inconsistent with how they played the odd-man rush. A big reason was that the goalie and defenders weren't on the same page, and that breakdown in communication resulted in obvious confusion.

However, they were able to get away with it because the second forward (the one without the puck), was often too close to the puckcarrier, or too close to the defender. Both situations made the defender's job much easier. If that second player either drove wide, or drifted to open space instead of directly to the net, they would have given the player with the puck better passing options. That creates more headaches for the defense, and forces the goalie to cover more ground.

Another time, during a one-on-one drill, two of the team's strongest forwards kept trying to deke their defenders. And they hardly ever got a shot off. The problem was that, while both forwards were big and strong, neither were particularly fast, and neither had particularly silky hands. So I pulled them both aside, and suggested that they use the defender as a screen, shot the puck low, and crash the net for rebounds.

Not surprisingly, they started making things happen by making life a whole lot more uncomfortable not only for the goalies, but the defenders as well. That's the idea, right? And it was really rewarding to see these two forwards "get it."

So here's what I recommend. If you're a coach, make sure your goalies are involved in team drills. Every drill. That will help ensure that your netminders have a grasp on how you want your team to play, and can convey that game plan on the ice. At the higher levels of the game, clear, concise communication is critical to team success, especially in the defensive end. That doesn't happen magically in a game. You need to develop it in practice.

Furthermore, if you're fortunate enough to have a goalie coach, take full advantage of having him (or her) on board. Pick their brains. Get their input. Encourage them to participate. The old adage that goalies are "just weird" is as outdated, and inaccurate, as the effectiveness of trickle-down economics. We know the game. You may not agree with everything we have to offer, which is fine. But being open to different ideas is a hallmark of great coaching.


Lessons from a goaltender who went above and beyond the call

Goaltender Chris Dylewski's greatest contributions
to the Air Force Academy came off the ice.
Hi all,

Sorry for, once again, falling behind on my monthly posts. It's been wacky and unpredictable summer, but I'm hoping to get back up to speed over the next few weeks. And there's probably no better subject to do that with than Chris Dylewski, a recent graduate of  the Air Force Academy and the 2016 winner of the Hockey Humanitarian Award.

So, without further introduction, my column on this remarkable young man. Let me know what you think ...


Lessons from a goaltender who went above and beyond the call

Air Force goaltender Chris Dylewski was not super star.

Aside from the fact that he attended a service academy (and every one of those men and women are all-stars in my book), Dylewski was buried deep on coach Frank Serratore's bench. Just the past April, we at the New England Hockey Journal highlighted the breakout season of Dylewski's teammate, goalie Shane Starrett, a Boston University cast-off who grabbed the starting spot for the Falcons.

The 24-year-old Dylewski wasn't even the Falcons' backup. That job belonged to freshman Billy Christopoulos. But Dylewski was a team leader nonetheless. Don't take my word for it. Take the word of his coach.

"Chris is a vital member of our team who sets the tone in practice, in the weight room and in team meetings," said Serratore. "Despite not seeing a lot of ice time on Friday and Saturday, he absolutely makes us a better team with his work ethic Monday through Thursday. Nobody works harder than Chris."

Serratore didn't stop there.

"(Chris) has been a great mentor on a team with so many young players," said the Air Force bench boss. "He's an excellent student at a challenging academic school. He does everything that being a Division 1 athlete entails, while being an excellent leader in the cadet wing and in the community.

"No one has spare time here at the Air Force Academy, but he finds a way," said Serratore. "That's what makes him so remarkable."

Last spring, during the NCAA's Frozen Four weekend, Dylewski received the Hockey Humanitarian Award. The award recognizes "college hockey's finest citizen, a student-athlete who makes significant contributions not only to his or her team, but also to the community-at-large through leadership in volunteerism."

To be sure, Dylewski was a deserving candidate. His achievements in the Cadet Wing and in his hometown Colorado Springs are beyond impressive. In addition to being a D-1 athlete, Dylewski carried the extra academic workload of two majors (international history and political science), and established a local non-profit organization as well as two cadet clubs, the Guide to Cadet Life and Operation Safe.

In 2014, Dylewski founded RISE, Inc., with the lofty goal of developing ethical and inspirational leadership skills in young people. RISE approaches this mission by supporting young people in running their own community service projects, and providing a mentoring, advisory, and support program to build these skills. The group emphasizes supporting underprivileged youth.

One RISE project was a Cadet Wing shoe drive, which collected more than 900 pairs of shoes that were then donated to needy families in Colorado Springs. The project is now an annual effort.

As a sophomore, Dylewski, moved by a classmate's suicide, founded a program that produces the annual Guide to Cadet Life. The publication is considered an invaluable tool for adjusting to the difficult first year at the Air Force Academy. Last year, Dylewski created Operation Safe, which is committed to raising awareness within the Academy about important humanitarian issues, like sex trafficking.

He also took the lead on several community outreach programs with his teammates, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Walk for the Cure and trips to local schools, emphasizing the importance of education. His volunteer work includes Blue Star Mothers of America, Special Olympics, and visiting nursing homes and community centers. I'm exhausted simply reading the list.

"The things I did outside the classroom and rink helped me in more ways than I helped others, I am sure of that," he said. "It never felt like I didn't have enough time to do things like work with young people with a passion for community service. Those hours were always ones I look forward to. They gave me more energy. I was enormously lucky to be doing things that I love."

But as inspiring as Dylewski's off-ice accomplishments are, it's his role within the locker room that was a real difference-maker in terms of this column. Keep in mind, the only time he got on the ice on game night was during warm-ups, and the between period skate to and from the bench. This season, Dylewski played in two games, collecting six career minutes in net. It's not the career he envisioned 15 years earlier.

"I first put on the pads at Clune Arena at the Air Force Academy," he said. "It was a pretty typical set-up for a Mite team – we just rotated the pads among the members of the team every time out.

"When it was my turn to wear the pads, I decided that I didn't want to give them back. Since then, I think it's really helped shape my personality. I like being counted on, being perpetually involved, and demanding near perfection of myself."

Dylewski personifies one of my rock-solid tenets of goaltending: The position comes with inherent leadership qualities. Goalies are rarely selected captains, but that has more to do with the in-game logistics of being able to talk with the on-ice officials.

But goalies need to lead by example. They need to be exceedingly positive, and self-assured. If they're not upbeat, they can bring the team down. And that's just as important in practice as it is during games.

"I've always felt it was the responsibility of the goalie to set a tone on and off the ice, and project a calm confidence for the team to mirror," said Dylewski.

What Dylewski embodies is that goaltenders aren't some oddball appendage to a team. They're an integral part of the team, even if they're not getting much game time.

"For me it was most important to focus on what I could contribute on a daily basis," he said. "On a Wednesday before a big game, two-thirds of the way through the season, I remember thinking that we seemed to be lacking a bit of the energy we typically had. So I resolved to be as sharp and energetic as possible on that day and the next."

Dylewski's refreshing outlook also bucks a rather disturbing trend I've seen in hockey over the past few years. In short, there are far too many goalies – good goalies – who somehow feel like they've failed if they didn't win the starting spot.

If nothing else, Dylewski proves that, in hockey, game statistics – wins, losses, save percentage, goals against average – are not the complete measure of the man (or woman).

"I always find myself talking about what I did for others, and what I accomplished during these things, but the real story here is not me," he said. "The real story, as far as I see it, is that I have been given incredible gifts by the hockey world.

"The sport has given me the ability to focus on things greater than myself, to understand what it means to serve others toward a higher goal, helped me understand what it means to focus, train, and perform on a kind of level that is absolutely necessary in whatever pursuit a human being is involved in in today's complex and challenging world," said Dylewski. "My parents, my coaches and teammates, and the Air Force Academy gave me the opportunity to play the game, and I couldn't be more thankful."

Spoken like a true leader.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Requiem for an athlete

True, in a rare moment of repose.
Hi gang,

It's been almost a month since the girls and I had to say goodbye to a very, very special member of our family. Thanks to my editor at the New England Hockey Journal, I was able to pay tribute to our wonderful Labrador retriever, True. 

Anyone who has ever lost a pet, especially a pet dog, can probably appreciate the following. There is a rare and remarkable bond that forms between a pet and her owners. And True was truly remarkable. Let me know what you think ...


Requiem for an athlete

Your indulgence, please. Writing has always been cathartic, and I'm hoping my craft can work its magic this evening.

It is approaching midnight, on the eve of July 4. I'm home, but can't sleep. The long holiday weekend was a tough one. Earlier today, my wife, daughters, and I had to put down our beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Trudell.

Longtime readers of this column might remember True (the nickname I always felt most comfortable with). I wrote about her a few years back, as an example of the perfect goaltender – remarkably quick, agile, and focused.

True celebrated her 10th birthday earlier this year. I realize that's 70 in "dog years," but this dog was still an absolute stud. Her narrow head and lean build was a testament to her lineage as a full-on American field Labrador retriever. True was bred to retrieve waterfowl, even in the most inhospitable environments.

Her father, Zeb, was my father in-law's prized retriever, and he enjoyed needling me that True, as a family pet, was "a waste of a great hunting dog." I always laughed, knowing he was right. In her prime, True was 65 pounds of quick-twitch muscle, sinew, and gray matter hard-wired to fetch.

But even in her "golden years," she continued to personify the qualities that make Labs such phenomenal pets. Good-natured, kind, exuberant. But what really set True apart was her boundless capacity for fun.

When True saw me grab my lacrosse stick and tennis ball, her response was unadulterated joy. Her ears picked up, her tail wagged uncontrollably, her entire body would shake with anticipation. At that moment, she was absolutely locked onto the ball, a pure athlete waiting to pounce. She was the perfect goaltender – coiled, confident, and unfazed by any outside emotions or distractions.

But True, as I would learn, was more than a natural goaltender. She was the ideal teammate. Though she wasn't a "cuddly" pet, she lived and breathed whatever mood filled our house. If we were happy and celebrating, True had to be in the middle of it. Unsuspecting visitors would get smothered with slobbering kisses. If we were upset, True would mope. She embodied our family atmosphere, yet rarely failed to lift our spirits.

Late March, True started showing signs that something was amiss. Her exceptional endurance began to ebb. She was hesitant to jump into the back of the family wagon after a run at the beach, and even struggled to hop onto our bed (her favorite napping spot). Like her father, True developed laryngeal paralysis, making breathing difficult.

Starting in May, True's condition deteriorated rapidly. Her decline happened so fast, we couldn't get ahead of it. Our local vet was visibly stunned when he saw her, just six short weeks after her annual physical. She was stumbling badly, her hindquarters barely able to support her weight.

We had X-rays taken, and were told that True, orthopedically speaking, was flawless. After consulting with four different veterinarians, the consensus appeared to be that True was suffering from some kind of neurological problem. It could have been the result of a tumor on her spine, or brain, or caused by a stroke. We tried steroid supplements, with minimal benefit.

The only option at that point was more expensive testing, which would only tell us what type of more expensive surgery needed to be done. For an aging pet who already was suffering from laryngeal paralysis, it simply didn't make sense. Our vets concurred. Lauri and I resigned ourselves to helping make True as comfortable as possible for however long she was with us.

Over the last two weeks of June, it was clear True's time was coming. She held on for a final visit from my mother in-law, the woman who weaned her as a puppy. On Sunday, Lauri made the courageous decision that True shouldn't have to deal with her declining health any longer. We drove to a clinic in North Andover, our girls cradling their "knucklehound" in the back seat.

We would return home to our small cottage that afternoon, knowing it would seem far too big without True. There would be reminders waiting for us, of course. Tennis balls in the backyard, the water/food dish in the kitchen, couches and carpets covered with her fine blonde fur. I'd miss her appearing out of nowhere every time I opened a peanut butter jar, or a package of cheese. Daily rituals, including her trembling delight at meal times, and our slow walks around the neighborhood (when she had to sniff every blade of grass), would change forever.

Now, though, we were only concerned for True's well being. More than anything, we didn't want her to be in pain. Her tail still thumped vigorously against the floor every time a new person came into the room, a sure sign of her indomitable spirit.

But part of True was clearly resigned. She had fought the good fight. She put her faith in our decision, just as she always had. She trusted us, unequivocally. She seemed perfectly at peace, even as the technician put the catheter into her front leg. The veterinarian then came in, assured us that we were doing the right thing, and explained the process. True, she promised, would not suffer.

Not a minute later, our beautiful True was gone. Her incredibly strong heart stopped beating, her labored breathing stilled. My wife, and our two daughters, took turns lying beside her, sobbing. The love this dog engendered was truly breathtaking. My girls then left, leaving me alone with my True.

I leaned in close, looking into those deep, milky brown eyes that no longer could see me. I apologized to her for being a less-than-perfect owner, for being short tempered at times, for being impatient when her boundless energy prompted her to run off.

Stroking her soft coat, I thanked True for the lessons she taught me, lessons about how to love without conditions, without boundaries of any kind. She taught me about joy – the joy of simple pleasures, joy of physical exertion, and joy of camaraderie, of just "being there." I knew I had to leave True's body behind, but I would take the lessons she taught with me.

Then, with a heavy heart and swollen eyes, I said my final good-byes to this wonderful athlete, to this perfect teammate. True.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What coaches and parents can learn from a caring teacher

Good teachers, like good coaches, lead by example.
Hi everyone,

I can't believe we're almost halfway through July.  Once our summer camps hit full stride, there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day to get everything done.

So I'll post this quickly, with little by way of an introduction. Suffice to say, I owe a great deal of gratitude to Martha Gillespie, my daughter Maddi's third grade teacher. Here's why:


What coaches and parents can learn from a caring teacher

Martha Gillespie is a coaching hero of mine. You probably don't know her. Don't feel bad. Martha Gillespie is not a hockey coach. She isn't famous. She was an elementary school teacher. But the traits she embodied are universal trademarks of good coaching (as well as good teaching, and good parenting).

Mrs. Gillespie espoused four beliefs that every coach, and every parent, can benefit from. First, she cared deeply about each student who walked into her classroom, and would go to bat for them even in the face of bureaucratic inertia. But she still held her students to a high standard, regardless of the challenges a diverse room of 3rd graders presents. That's point No. 2.

Which leads to Nos. 3 and 4. When Martha saw an issue, she was able to communicate with a child's parents clearly and concisely, sharing her concerns. And finally, she upheld the first three points because she never once mailed it in.

Based on her actions, Martha Gillespie never once considered teaching as a job, or obligation. It was a calling. In a great many ways (she abhorred the term "a lot"), that's what separates great coaches – coaches who truly make a difference – from those who are simply meeting a perceived responsibility.

How do I know Martha Gillespie? She was the third grade teacher of my eldest child, Mary. My daughter had struggled through second grade. She loved school, so it wasn't a case of a child who wanted to be elsewhere. But she did have trouble applying herself.

Her second grade teacher simply shrugged off Mary's inconsistent effort, and suggested she was just lazy. "Messy" and "disorganized" were two other adjectives. It wasn't said in a malicious way, but more just a matter-of-fact statement.

Since Mary was our first, my wife and I didn't really know any better when it came to expectations at school. We challenged her to buckle down, while realizing she was only 8. She could frustrate us, but we figured she was just going through the normal progression.

That changed the next year, with Martha Gillespie. A former elementary school librarian, Mrs. Gillespie noticed early on that Mary wasn't keeping pace.

"She recognized that Mary was an inattentive daydreamer, which is a hallmark of ADHD in girls," said my wife, Lauri, an occupational therapist. "It's very different from what most people characterize as ADHD."

When most people hear ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), they think of children who are fidgety, hyperactive, impulsive, and maybe even disruptive. Mary wasn't any of these. But she was slow to transition in the classroom.

Mary was typically the last one to get her materials out for a new project, the last to put things away when the class moved on to another topic, and the last out the door for recess. Not a big deal, right? But Martha Gillespie made a note of it. In a classroom of 22 kids, she recognized that this child was struggling to keep up.

"Martha always had such a clear voice," said Lauri. "What made her special was that she was able to pay so much attention to one child in her class, and advocate for her. She took action. Not many teachers would do that.

"She saw Mary's action within the classroom setting, and recognized that it could be a problem for her long-term, if not addressed early."

Which brings me back to the four major principles that Mrs. Gillespie brought to her profession that any coach can benefit from.

Caring. Like any good coach or parent, Mrs. Gillespie made the effort to look below the surface. She didn't take my daughter at face value, but took the time to see if there was something else going on. She encouraged us to have Mary tested, both by the school, and more importantly, by outside evaluators.

In that way, Martha Gillespie displayed a rare and special attention to detail. That’s what coaches need to do. Kids aren't created equal. You need to get to know each one of them, and understand what makes them tick. That's a tall order. But it's also what makes coaches special.

Accountability. For Martha Gillespie, "caring" was a two-way street. Her students had to care as well. She never made any excuses for Mary, and I assume that she held our child to the same standard as every other youngster in her class. That was important to Lauri and me. Moreover, this is where Mrs. Gillespie was able to establish a level of expectation that applied to every child.

This is not semantics. Children will have different strengths and weaknesses, in the classroom and in the playing arena. So it's OK for teachers, and coaches, to adjust their expectations based on those individual qualities. But the one constant is effort. Martha Gillespie insisted that Mary try. And she had our full support.

Communication. Here's another "two-way" street. Identifying an issue is only the start. If you're a coach, you need to be able to talk to the parents of a child if there's an issue interfering with the team's chemistry. Conversely, parents have a two-fold responsibility.

First, if your child does have a disability, you coach deserves to know. Don't assume it won't be an issue (I'm speaking from experience here). Second, if you've taken that step, and you feel it's falling on deaf ears, you need to advocate for your child. That's not always easy, but it's necessary.

Commitment. Teaching, like coaching, ought to be a calling first, and a profession second. Martha Gillespie did what she felt was the right thing to do, regardless of what the consequences might be. How many of us can say that?

Like Mary's second-grade teacher, Mrs. Gillespie could have let our daughter coast. Her grades were satisfactory, if unexceptional, and she would have graduated. That wasn't acceptable to Martha. Instead, she went to bat for a child who she felt had potential, but wouldn't fulfill that promise without extra help.

Though I have no hard evidence, I'm convinced that having Mrs. Gillespie serve as such a strong advocate for Mary made it easier for Lauri and I to get our child the assistance she needed. We had her tested at Children's Hospital, and they confirmed Mrs. Gillespie's suspicions.

Our local school district was very supportive, "but that was driven by how attentive Martha was," said Lauri. "These were subtle things. They weren't blatant."

This past June, Mary graduated from high school, with a 3.4 grade point average. To say I'm immensely proud of this young woman would be an understatement. This child, together with my wife, worked her tail off, and made herself into a better student. As you read this, she'll be a freshman at the University of New England, pursuing a degree in sports medicine, and playing for the Nor'easters volleyball team.

At her graduation, my wife and I invited Mary's high school volleyball coach, who was tremendous advocate for our daughter, and one former teacher. That teacher was Martha Gillespie. She brought a scrapbook that her students had made for her, nine years earlier. The fact that she kept that memento was another testament to what her students meant to her.

As she was preparing to leave, I pulled Mrs. Gillespie aside. I told her I couldn't let her go without saying "Thank you," and sharing the immense sense of gratitude that came from the bottom of my heart.

"Please, you're going to make me cry," she said.

But I was way ahead of her. My eyes welled up with tears as I told this woman what an important role she played in helping to pave the road that would allow my daughter to succeed, not only in school, but also in life. Whatever this child achieves going forward, she will owe a debt to her third grade teacher.

What a wonderful legacy for any teacher. Or coach.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Back to the basics

Goalies, on your mark, get set ...
Hi gang,

The importance of skating to the position of goaltending was drilled into my head a long, long time ago. Hall of Fame netminder Jacques Plante, in his famous instructional manual, "Goaltending," repeated the time-honored adage that "goalies have to be the best skaters on the ice." And I took particular pride, in high school, in making sure I didn't finish in last place during sprints and suicide drills.

Times have changed in the four decades since I laced up my skates for the Manchester Central Little Green. The skating techniques that goalies need to master today are much, much different than the ones I first learned, and even from those of positional players. Yes, there are still C-cuts, shuffles and T-glides (or drop steps), but there's much more to how a goaltending moves around the crease now.

Yet the emphasis on being a great skater, and becoming proficient in goalie-specific techniques, is more important than ever. Here's a column on the topic, based on my experiences last summer with Stop It Goaltending's summer camps at Merrimack College. Let me know what you think ...


Back to the basics

Each summer during goalie camp season, I work several sessions that focus strictly on skating and stickhandling. It would be a gross understatement to say that these sessions are typically met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from the campers. After all, they're goaltenders. And goaltenders live for stopping pucks. As our neighbors in Quebec might say, that's a goaltender's "raison d'etre," or reason for being. Making saves is fun. Skating and stickhandling? That's work.

However, it's important work. As a 50-something goalie coach, who has now seen generations of goaltenders come and go, I know just how foundational good skating is. The single most important aspect of good goaltending is getting to the right pace at the right time, in the right position. Do that, and you'll be successful most of the time. But to do that, you've got to be able to skate.

Still, try telling that to a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds. I've gotten pretty good with my snake-oil sales pitch, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like a snake-oil sales pitch. I believe in what I'm selling; I just don't believe that my audience is all that receptive.

Here's a great example. Last month, I had a group of 12-year-old netminders for a 6 p.m. skate session, and a half a sheet to work with. These 10 boys had already been on the ice for two hours earlier in the day, and had done some off-ice training as well. So when I got them, their energy level was still pretty good, but their collective attention span left something to be desired.

Knowing that, I prepared my usual spiel about how even the best goaltenders work on their skating constantly. As in, all the time. I also try to remind my campers that the ability to handle the puck, and pass, is another crucial tool in the goaltending toolbox that far too many netminders, male and female, don't work on enough. And when coaches have two goaltenders who can stop the puck, they'll often go with the one with a more complete toolbox. Blah blah blah. This was going to be a hard sell, and I knew it.

Fortunately for me, I got a last-second assist. There's nothing better having a couple of National Hockey League netminders on hand to drive home the point. On the other half of the ice was Cory Schneider and Scott Darling, pro goaltenders with the New Jersey Devils and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively. Darling can even call himself a Stanley Cup champion these days, after he provided some quality performances this spring while backing up starter Corey Crawford. Darling was so effective, in fact, that the Blackhawks signed him to a new two-year deal.

So, in short, both Schneider and Darling have that "street cred" that an old coach like myself can only hope for. Since the two got on the ice a few minutes before my group, all I had to do was get my kids to watch them. Schneider and Darling set up a "four-puck drill," with the pucks forming a small square. The idea is to skate from puck to puck, first in a clockwise direction, and then in reverse. It's a simple drill, at first, but gets more complicated as you add more and more elements.

The pair started with drop steps (or T-pushes), and then began to add shuffles, butterfly slides, butterfly pushes, recoveries, and "momentum continuation" maneuvers (recovering to the next puck without stopping, using the back leg). Then they started adding pivots around each puck (clockwise and counterclockwise), and then literally moving pucks to pucks, working their stickhandling. Each movement was crisp and precise, with a corresponding head snap to find the next puck, while maintaining a quiet upper body. Each movement was also accompanied by the clean, distinct sound of their skate edges carving the ice. Ice shavings flew with each stop.

In 10 short minutes of flawless effort, both Schneider and Darling had worked up a good sweat, and came by the bench for a drink. While my young campers looked on, wide-eyed, I asked Darling how often he did skating exercises. "Every time I'm on the ice," he replied. "No shortcuts."

That's all he had to say. My campers were on the ice in a heartbeat, and we had a great workout. We skated almost non-stop for 40 minutes, concentrating strictly on the basics. The same thing happened the next day, and the day after, for the entire week. Each session, these kids worked their tails off, without a single inspirational speech from me.

By the end of the week, these youngsters were better goaltenders, in part because they bought into the value of hard work, and mastering the basics. All because they saw how important those basics are to goaltenders playing at the very top of the game.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Too much of a good thing is potentially bad for goalies

Goaltenders could learn a great deal from the Chinese philosophy
of yin and yang, where contrary or opposite forces are actually
complementary and interconnected in the natural world.
Hi gang,

Back after a brief sabbatical. Boy, there's nothing quite like serious hip surgery to help an old goalie regain his perspective. So I thought "perspective" would be a good topic to tackle this month.

Far too often, goalies (and young athletes in a variety of different sports) concentrate far too much on their chosen craft. There's a fine line between commitment (a good thing), and going overboard (a bad thing). And if you can't identify and respect where that line is, you risk losing perspective. Here's a column I did on the topic for the New England Hockey Journal. Let me know what you think.

All the best,


Too much of a good thing is potentially bad for goalies

"Get the balance right … "
-Depeche Mode

Almost every summer, I do a column or two on taking advantage of the off-season to work on improving your technique and keeping fit. Or improving your fitness. Because, as the old adage asserts, championships are won in the off-season.

One highly regarded goalie coach I work with delineates his roles between the off-season, when he calls himself a "development coach," and in-season, when he's a "performance coach." Translation? During the season, it's all about results. Just win, baby. The off-season is when he works on the big picture, the goalie's overall game. That's why summer camps are important. You can really push yourself, find out what works, and find out what doesn't, because you have time to assess the results without worrying about whether those results are affecting your team.

In-season is not the time to overhaul your game, or even experiment with new equipment (unless your old stuff is getting you hurt). You can tweak things, like your technique and your fitness level. It's always a good idea to be continuously mindful of what's working and what's not. Self-assessment is a trademark of all good goaltenders.

The same goes for hard work. Most goalies I know – especially the ones with a true competitive streak – will double down on their workouts if they feel their game is slipping. But there are limits.

Sometimes, we lose sight of a very simple, and very profound rule of athletics. You need time off. Your mind, and your body, need a break. The reality is that exhaustion, both mental and physical, can lead to poor performance. In other words, it's perfectly OK to chill from time to time. And that's something that parents, coaches, and even instructors like myself need to keep in mind.

"There's a growing enthusiasm, and a huge market, for training, teaching and supporting young athletes," said Dr. Adam Naylor, director of Telos Sport Psychology Coaching. "Elite sports performance and medicine services are available to all with a credit card, and if a family desires, a passionate and competent coach and advisor can be hired. This may not be a good thing.

"Forget the popular – yet very real – concern that pushing a young athlete toward athletic excellence can lead to burnout, dropout, and even mistreatment or abuse," he said. "Surprisingly, research has shown that encouraging youth to achieve athletic excellence can also lead to young athletes not fulfilling their athletic potential."

According to Naylor, we've become enamored with the works of researchers and authors like Anders Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell (author of "Outliers") that indicate it takes 10 years and/or 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a certain activity, whether its computer programming, being a musician, or mastering a particular sport. Likewise, research by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania has studied the value of "grit" in the classroom, and that has been applied to the playing field (or the ice, in the case of hockey).

Grit, according to Duckworth, is the "tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals," while self-control is "the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions." Both, it's safe to say, are considered attributes for a position as demanding as goaltending.

However, both concepts – repetition and grit – can be taken to extremes.

"In both cases, the message is loud and clear: train relentlessly and regularly and greatness is within grasp," said Naylor. "Unfortunately, this is an example of society and sports being deaf to nuance.

"Failure to understand Ericsson's entire conception of deliberate practice can make much athletic striving time ill-spent," he said. "Even if one is fortunate enough to have found excellent coaches and a sufficient number of competitive opportunities, striving toward excellence requires regular rest."

There's the rub. Athletes who push themselves to the breaking point, no matter how well-intentioned that effort is, risk breaking down. This past season, I was working with a freshman goaltender who was a coach's dream. The youngster was an absolute sponge when we talked about the technical aspects of the position, and he worked his tail off when we applied those lessons on the ice.

Then, one day, Andy (not his real name) was really dragging. He had no "pop" to his movements, and was continually dropping too quickly, instead of waiting on the shot. Once he dropped, he stayed down. So I asked him what was going on.

"I'm exhausted, coach," he said. "I did a leg workout after practice yesterday, and the day before. Today, I've got nothing."

"Well, d'uh," I replied. "You can't just keep running yourself into the ground, Andy. You've got to make sure you give yourself a chance to recover."

My response was almost a knee-jerk reaction, and had more to do with my prior life as an amateur mountain bike racer than my current role as a goalie coach. In my 30s, urged on by a few cycling pals, I started competing in mountain bike races. I wasn't ever very good, but I still wanted to get better. So I started training like a maniac, burying myself in these brutal training sessions day after day. Not exactly a scientific regimen.

Instead, I subscribed to the "No pain, no gain" theory so prevalent in the 1990s. If a one-hour training session was good, a 90-minute session was better. And, come the weekend, at the starting line, I had … nothing. Just like my freshman goaltender, I was toast. It didn't mean I couldn't race, but it was a slog.

So I started doing my homework, including long talks with my racing friends who had far more experience. The first thing they taught me was the "recovery ride." On Mondays and Tuesdays, especially post-race weekend, the gang would go out and soft pedal, spinning an easy gear just to encourage blood flow. We maintain a "conversational" pace, and never pushed our heart rates.

By mid-week, my legs had that "snap" that cyclist's love. I could push hard on Wednesday and Thursday, and then taper briefly on Friday. Then, come Saturday and Sunday, I had the lungs and legs to compete. Not that I was any threat to the top racers in the pack, but I could bring my best. Even better, I was having fun. Which is exactly what Naylor believes is a critical byproduct of rest.

"Physical and mental breaks during practice sessions, throughout seasons, and over the course of the year are necessary for an athlete to rebuild and return to play stronger and stronger," said Naylor.

"Hours of practice and participation in hyper-focused sports environments can saddle athletes with unnecessary expectations, where mistakes on the playing field are failures and stumbles feel like letting coaches and families down," said Naylor. "At the end of the day, sports is 'play.' When adults enthusiastically provide these opportunities but remove 'play' from the equation, something is amiss."

I couldn’t agree more.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bullying has no place on the ice, or in the locker room

Whether between boys or girls, bullying is wrong. Period.
Hey gang,

Heavy topic today. Bully is a very important topic for me, because it's the antithesis of what team sports should be about. Team sports are meant to build character, not tear it down. They should be an example that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, not a vehicle that allows some players to gain some misguided "advantage" over their teammates.

After my sophomore year in high school, my family moved, from New Jersey to New Hampshire. It was there, during my first season with the Central High hockey team, that I saw bullying in all its ugliness. The seniors wanted to "initiate" me. I wasn't going to let that happen, and I got into a few locker-room brawls because I wouldn't back down. To make things worse (for me), I wouldn't let the seniors initiate the freshmen either, because I wouldn't stand by idly while these 15- and 16-year-olds were bullied. That's not what my parents, and former coaches, taught me.

Of course, my actions had repercussions, and that season was pretty miserable, from a team standpoint (though I did make some great friends who weren't among the seniors). However, three decades later, one of those freshman reached out to me, via Facebook, and told me that he never forgot how I stood up for him. Whatever modest success I had as an athlete, none of it compared to getting that note.

The column below prompted a small firestorm among some readers of the New England Hockey Journal, because they recognized the players and schools involved (although I refrained from using the real names of any player or any school). Those people missed the point. This column is about the deleterious effects of bullying, and why it should never be accepted, at any level. Let me know what you think ...And thanks for reading!


Bullying has no place on the ice, or locker room

After a half century in the game of hockey, I thought I'd see it all (shades of Barry Melrose, who made the same comment after BU's Matt O'Connor handed Providence the tying goal in the 2015 NCAA final). Wrong.

Until now, I had never, ever, seen a mid-game fight between two high school goalies. Girls. On the same team. On the ice. During the break between periods, as the coach was giving instructions. In a lighthearted spring pick-up league. Crazy.

It was so surreal, that other parents and I thought the two girls were just goofing around. My daughter, who was on the same team as the combatants and on the bench right in front of the goalies, thought the same thing. When she realized that it was a genuine brawl, she stepped on the ice to separate the two, but she wasn't as quick as the coach.

That coach, to her credit, was on the girls in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, the mother of one of the goalies started screaming from the stands, and running toward the rink door.

"I've had enough of this," she hollered menacingly, pointing an accusatory finger directly at the girl who was tussling with her daughter.

It was a scene right out of some Fellini movie, unnerving and uncomfortable. Unless you knew the back-story. I did know part of that back-story, and quickly put the pieces together.

Just by chance, I had an opportunity to talk with the same mother before the game. It wasn't planned (at least not on my part). We had seen each other for the better part of the past two years, but never really had any serious conversation. But this afternoon, we found ourselves sitting together on a lobby bench, and we got to gabbing.

Her daughter, Abigail, was a high school freshman at Holy Name Prep (I'm refraining from using real names – people or schools – since I didn't have a chance to fully investigated the story). I say "was," because she transferred out of Holy Name in February, to another private school. The reasons, according to her mom, that precipitated that move were pretty disturbing.

Again, according to her mom, Abigail came to Holy Name the year before as an 8th grader, and was one of four goaltenders on the team. That's a dicey situation right off the bat. Most girls' high school teams are desperate for one goalie. Two is a luxury. Four is a problem, for obvious reasons. There's only one net, and one goalie plays. That meant Holy Name had three goalies in a back-up role.

During Abigail's 8th grade year, Holy Name had a senior goaltender who was the clear-cut starter. A natural order was established.

But, apparently, Abigail's stable mates – two freshman last year – were looking to the future, a future without the senior goaltender. So, according to Abigail's mother, the two targeted her daughter. The hazing started early, and soon became relentless. It ranged from annoying (a missing glove or other piece of equipment) to tampering (removing the edge from her skates) to physical abuse. Beatings. The mom said she regrets not taking pictures of the bruises that dotted her daughter's back and rib cage.

She said she went to school administrators, who told her she needed to talk to the coach (a male). She said she talked to the coach, but he said she needed to talk to school administrators. Talk about going in circles. Mom confided that it was clear that no one wanted to take responsibility. That's a damn same.

There's usually (but not always) two sides to every story. That's Journalism 101. But I've also learned that sometimes the story is simply the story. When a school, and a coach, stonewalls a parent, it typically raises suspicion. But rather than fight a deck that she felt was stacked against her daughter, the mom decided to enroll Abigail at another school. I told her that I hoped things would work out for her daughter, and went into the rink to watch some hockey.

That's when things went completely sideways. Abigail played the first half, and nothing seemed out of place. But, during the intermission between halves (again, this was springtime practice hockey), Abigail and the other goalie on her team started flailing away at each other.

A third goalie whom I happen to know, and who was skating as a forward in the same game, got off the ice at the same time as the goalies, and followed Abigail into the locker room to console her. When that girl came by the stands, I called her over, and asked if the second girl also went to Holy Name. "Yes," she said. "How did you know?"

Of course, I didn't, at least not until an hour before the game. But once I saw the girls taking swings, it made perfect sense. "Just a hunch," I said.

"Yeah, they've got history," said the girl.

And that was it. The first girl walked straight out of the rink, likely for the last time. Abigail and her parents spoke briefly to the rink manager, before also calling it a day. The game went on, and the little pas de deux between netminders was quickly forgotten. But I walked out of the rink that day with two long-time lessons being reinforced.

The first, of course, is you rarely know the entire story. If I hadn't had that chance conversation with Abigail's mother before the game, I would have cast the entire incident in an entirely different light. Even my daughter, who doesn't know either girl and was still puzzled by the whole incident afterward, said she was taken aback when the other goalie leveled Abigail.

All that said, I'm not buying the story Abigail's mom shared completely, not without getting both sides. But I've been around the game long enough to now that when a parent feels that strongly, there's usually some basis to her concerns.

The second, and equally important, is that bullying can never, ever be tolerated. Ever. I don't buy the "boys will be boys" or "girls will be girls" argument. Not anymore. I've seen this up close, and any coach that dismisses parental concerns out of hand probably ought to be dismissed.

Coaching a high school team goes far beyond X's and O's. Coaches need to accept and embrace the responsibility of how each player on their team behaves. The locker room is the coach's locker room. If they fail to police it adequately, they not only fail the boys and/or girls in that locker room, but also the parents who entrust their children to that particular program. That's especially true for men who coach girls' programs, because they don't have the same locker room access. It's imperative that they create a culture where bullying is not tolerated. At all.

I don't know everything that happened at Holy Name Prep, and what exactly led to Abigail feeling like she had no choice but to transfer to a different school. But I've seen far too many coaches fail in their responsibility to make sure that every child knows the locker room is a safe haven. There is no place for hazing, or bullying. None.