|There aren't many goaltenders who embody the attributes|
required to play the position better than Jonathan Quick.
A while back, my editor threw me a curve when he asked me to write a column on "the basic qualities that make a good goaltender." My response? "You're kidding, right?" I mean, books have been written on that topic. Trying to do it justice in under 1,200 words seemed crazy.
But the more I thought about it, the more I warmed up to the idea. It was a challenge, and any goaltender worth his or her salt loves a challenge. Below is what I came up with. Let me know what you think.
The many characteristics needed to be a great goalie
So, you want to be a goaltender? It's an age-old question, one that has challenged youngsters and their parents alike. Why would anyone volunteer to play a position generally considered one of the toughest in sports, a position where you can only lose games, not win them? That's a lot to digest for a young child – boy or girl – just starting out.
I've addressed many aspects of the question over the years with my Goalie Guru column, but when asked to take a look at the "big picture," I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed. It's a daunting undertaking. There are so many factors to consider.
Suffice to say, kids who don't play the position don't understand how tough goaltending can be (much like coaches who never played in the nets). It requires an entirely different skill set, from goalie-specific skating to setting up on your angles. You've got to follow a rock-hard puck, measuring only one-by-three inches, and stop it from entering a four-by-six foot goal. And you've got to do it while trying to move around in bulky gear designed to protect you. That's a tall order for most youngsters.
Plus, you can't take a shift off. Regular players make mistakes all the time, but most of the time those gaffes don't result in goals. Kids rarely notice the errors of their linemates. But they do notice the goals, and if a goalie makes a mistake that leads directly to a goal, that goalie is going to hear about it.
Which is why goalies, even young ones, face tremendous pressure. Even on teams with enlightened coaches, who try to shield their netminders from unwarranted criticism, being the last line of defense is no picnic. If you never play the position, you never develop the appreciation of that particular brand of torture. We live and die a little bit with each save and each goal (that probably goes double for goalie parents).
So, why play goalie? It's a simple question, with a very complicated answer. If I had a dime for every time a parent asked me "How do I know my kid will stick with playing goal?" I'd be a very wealthy man. But there are things that can help parents make an educated guess.
Let's start with the individual child, and consider the emotional, mental, and physical attributes that will assist a nascent goaltender. There are a number of personality traits that are important, if not essential, to succeed between pipes. Different kids will possess these traits in varying degrees. The challenge for goaltenders and their parents and their coaches is to nurture each quality to its fullest.
That's easier said than done. Below are the qualities that I recommend focusing on. Admittedly, there's going to be some overlap. That, I think, speaks to the complexity of the position.
Courage. Despite the improvement in goaltending gear, getting hit with a puck can still hurt. A lot. Much like a positional player can't shy away from the corners, afraid that he might get pancaked by a defenseman or forechecker, a goalie has to accept that he (or she) will occasionally get a stinger. Knowing that, and still bearing down on each shot without flinching, while remaining cool and calm, takes guts.
Toughness. The ability to handle pressure is paramount. You're going to get knocked down. Few goalies go through life without giving up bad goals. And these days, when goalies are becoming so dominant, and goals are even harder to come by, the pressure to be perfect has never been greater. Dealing with that requires intestinal fortitude.
Confidence. Some kids are naturally confident. Others gain a measure through hard work, repetition, and experiencing the success that often results. Confidence isn't arrogance. It's a belief that, no matter shots may have gotten behind you, the next one won't. And it's not enough for a goalie to be sure about his or her own abilities. They have to exude confidence. A team needs to believe in its goaltender. If it doesn't, it's starting the game behind the 8-ball, and will almost certainly play tentatively.
Responsible. The notion of "taking ownership" is vital for goaltenders. As great as he was, Patrick Roy had an annoying habit of showing up his defense when he felt a goal wasn't his "fault." I've got news for St. Patrick – they were all his fault. Because he only had one job, and that was to keep the puck out of the net. Goalies need to accept this reality. If they do, their teammates will play harder in front of them. I guarantee it.
Passion. A goalie has to "want it" to be great. He or she has to care. Passion is what drives a young goaltender to work hard every time he or she is on the ice. Passion means taking care of your gear, getting to the rink early, helping your teammates. Simply, it means doing whatever it takes to win.
A sense of humor. This is one of the most underrated traits for a goaltender. At the end of the day, hockey, for the vast majority of players, is still a game. It's not a job. You have to be able to enjoy it. It's been my experience that the more fun kids have, the less likely they'll burn out. This is really about perspective.
Analytical. For all his physical gifts, Marty Brodeur had an almost uncanny ability to read a hockey game. I believe that was a pivotal part of his greatness. Good goalies are usually students of the game. During actual games, a sharp goalie will pick up on tendencies of the opposing team and other details – is the attacking player a right shot or left? – that help with positioning and instructions for the defense. The flip side is to not "overthink" things. "Read and react" is the goalie's mantra.
Focus. Many goals can be attributed to a momentary loss of concentration (for a particularly glaring example, Google Philadelphia Flyer Steve Mason and the words "bad goal" from this spring's Stanley Cup series against Washington). Goalies must learn to be "on point" the entire time they are on the ice.
Determination. I've seen far too many goaltenders with the requisite physical tools to succeed fall short because they simply didn't have the resolve to put in the grueling hours to maximize those gifts. Many of them could talk the talk, but they wouldn't walk the walk. That's a shame. Great goalies know that practice is where the difference is made.
Competitiveness. This is the "fighting spirit" that often separates average goalies from good goalies, and good goalies from great goalies. You often have to fight for position, or fight to find the puck. You can't shy away from contact, or other challenges that your opponents present. You have to embrace it.
Resiliency. Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending likes to say: "The first rule of goaltending is that you're going to give up goals." He's right. The key is how you respond to those goals. There are good goals and bad goals. But they all count the same, and the key is to not let one bad goal lead to another.
Patience. Another underrated trait. Whether it's flopping to quickly, or being too aggressive, impatience is not the goalie's friend. By the very nature of the position, you have to let the play come to you. That requires discipline, but patience will serve you well.
Size. There's an old basketball adage that "you can't coach height." More and more these days, good size is considered a "must" among hockey goalies. It's not, of course, but it sure helps. If everything else is equal, a bigger goaltender simply takes up more space.
Athleticism. Size, of course, isn't everything. You have to be able to move, and move quickly. Some goalies take more quickly to goalie-specific techniques, but everyone can improve to the point of behind a serviceable backstop with the requisite effort. Still, each of us has a certain level of natural athleticism, and the great netminders are usually granted an extra measure.
Fitness. I'm old enough to remember the days when the big, slow kid got stuck in the net. Perhaps the biggest misconception these days is that you can still get away with that approach. If you're a big goalie, but not fit, you'll be quickly exposed as you travel up the hockey ladder. Goalies who drop too soon, and have difficulty recovering, are like beached whales. And no matter how big, a beached whale isn't going to be a great goalie. That's even more evident at the end of a 60-minute game.
Good eyesight. Top-flight goalies these days are so good that most pundits agree, "If they can see the shot, they can stop it." That's why you'll see so many forwards crowding the slot. I once coached a squirt team that had a goalie who would surrender some comically soft goals. He was a little puck shy by nature (never a good thing), but he was flat out missing on easy shots. Then I saw him walking into the rink on day with glasses. "Danny, what can you see without your glasses," I asked him. "Not much, coach," was his reply. And his folks knew it. I was dumbfounded. Once "Danny" got himself some sport glasses, he started to have more success. To this day, I still can't figure out what his parents were thinking.
Hand-eye coordination. Having 20/20 eyesight is a good start, but you've got to be able to react to what you see. Hand-eye coordination is the ability to translate what you see into action, and get your body (or another piece of equipment) behind the puck.
Reflexes. This is closely related to hand-eye coordination. Hockey is a game of speed. There's no two ways around it. With that advent of composite sticks, even at the intermediate and junior levels, kids and beer leaguers are shooting the puck harder and faster all the time. Being naturally quick is an enormous advantage.
OK, so you think you might have the emotional, mental, and physical make-up to be a goalie? Great. You're halfway there. Yes, there's a lot more to consider. I'll try to keep this brief.
Hockey is an expensive, time-consuming sport. People often say that raising hockey players is a "family commitment," and I'm inclined to agree. Being an ice hockey goalie takes that "expense" part of the equation and takes it to another level.
First is the gear. Even at the youngest levels, goalies deserve adequate protection. That usually means goalie-specific equipment. And the gear, as any goalie parent knows, ain't cheap. But it is important. Good gear will help a good goalie play better.
However, even the best equipment isn't going to transform a dumpy, unmotivated kid into the next Henrik Lundqvist. What youngsters usually don't understand, initially, is that it's not enough to toss on all this cool gear and jump in between the pipes. That equipment, designed to protect them, takes some getting used to, and considerable effort to master. That challenge gets even more difficult if the gear is outdated, incomplete, or ill-fitting.
Be sure to invest in properly sized equipment. Don't buy gear that's too big (no matter how much you think your kid will grow), or too small (no matter how good the deal is). Gloves, pads, chest protectors, and pants are all made in junior, intermediate, and adult sizes. A few items (like pants) can be bought oversized. But most gear that's too large will only inhibit your youngster's ability to move properly.
Goalie skates make a huge difference in a young netminder's ability to execute goalie-specific movements. Regular skates, with their thinner blades and a more rounded radius, are far more unstable. Goalie skates are a much better investment than a goalie helmet at the mite and squirt levels (though a neck dangler is recommended). However, if you do buy a goalie mask, make sure it fits correctly. A loose mask that moves is dangerous.
Finally, parents need to make the extra effort to get their child to the rink on time for the practice as well as the games, because it takes longer for a goalie to suit up. Parents should also to learn how the gear goes on (this is not the coach's job). Help them when they're young, but also encourage them to learn how do it on their own (that's part of the "responsibility" trait mentioned above).
We touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating: The relationship between coaches and goaltenders is critical, especially early in the goalie's development. Look for a program or a team where the coaching staff has at least some understanding of the unique demands that a goaltender faces, and is determined to help cultivate a positive environment were young goalies can flourish.
This has been one of my "hot topics" over the years. Far too many programs and teams still don't understand how easy it is to literally ruin a young goalie with too many shooting drills, and not enough support or encouragement. I've never been a proponent of "babying" goaltenders. But you can't run them into the ground, either. Remember my "20:1 Rule." If you've got 20 players in a shooting drill and a single goaltender, that poor kid in the crease is seeing 20 shots for every one that each player takes. That's crazy.
Then, finally, there are goalie-specific lessons. I know this will sound self-serving, since I make part of my livelihood as a goalie coach. But the reality is that most team coaches, even at select programs, don't have much background in coaching goalies. Fortunately, many youth and select teams do offer some additional goalie coaching separate from routine practices (and, yes, this is where goalie coaches like myself often make our income "in season").
I understand that those "extra lessons" not only equate to extra coin (unless the cost is folded into the program fee, which I advocate), but also extra time (and additional driving, if the coaching outfit has its own facility). And again, parents typically bear that responsibility. But the truth of the matter is that a young goalie will advance more quickly if they get proper instruction early, instead of arriving with a number of bad habits already entrenched in their game.
Breaking bad habits is often more time-consuming, and more thorny, than creating good habits in the first place. That's why I advocate that programs send their coaches as well as their goalies to these private sessions, so they can better understand how to work out a goalie properly.
So, you still want to be a goalie? Great. Join the club. Just be ready to work. Hard.