|Henrik Lundqvist shares a lighthearted moment|
with teammate and fellow goalie Antti Raanta.
The last of my rapid-fire three-post medley. At our recent Foundation for Goalie Research and Education symposium, a new topic came to the forefront. Actually, not a "new" topic, but one that's finally getting the attention it deserves. And that topic, in a word, is fun.
Sports have become such a high-stakes activity that many of us, including coaches and parents, lose sight of the fact that these are still games. And games are supposed to be fun. Because, if they're not fun, what's the point? Which reminded me of this great column written by all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for The Player's Tribune. Which led to a column of my own. Let me know what you think ...
Lessons from the King: Fun is vital
I'm a big fan of Henrik Lundqvist. The regal Swede has the noble bearing that I love seeing in goaltenders, as if they're almost invincible ("The King" being one of the best, and most appropriate, nicknames in the NHL). Technically, he's a rock star, and beneath that calm exterior is one of the league's fiercest competitors. There have been several years when he's almost single-handedly carried the New York Rangers on his way to collecting 400-plus wins (not to mention the gold and silver Olympic medals in his trophy case). I personally think he's worth every penny of the $9.5 million that the Blueshirts pay him annually.
So when I saw that Lundqvist wrote a "Letter to My Younger Self" in The Players' Tribune, I had to check it out. I wasn't disappointed. Some of his comments to his 8-year-old self are predictable, like the following segment, where he recounts the very first time he put on goalie gear.
"You'll glide to the top of your crease, bend your knees, then glide backward toward the net. And keep gliding. And keep gliding and gliding.
"Eventually, you'll hit the back of the net and topple over. You've fallen, and you can't get up. Nobody told you how heavy the pads were going to be.
"As you're laying there on the ice, completely helpless, your own brother will skate down on a breakaway and bury the puck in the open net. He'll skate away with a big smile on his face, arms in the air, while you lay there staring at the puck in the back of the net. Remember this feeling. It never gets any easier.
"This is just your first practice. In your first game, you'll let in 12 goals. Nowhere to go but up, right? Well, in your second game, you'll let in 18. Don't get discouraged."
These feelings – adjusting to cumbersome gear, feeling embarrassed, dealing with disappointment – are fairly universal in the goaltending community. As is Lundqvist's next thought.
"Believe it or not, this is the start of something beautiful. You have found something that you truly love. No matter how many goals you let in, the feeling of making just one save makes it all worth it. That's how you know you're on the right path."
This is music to my ears. As a goalie, and as a goalie coach, I know exactly how Lundqvist was feeling way back when. I've often told parents, when they ask whether their son or daughter will stick with goaltending, "Oh, don't worry. They'll tell you."
What that means is that the position quickly weeds out kids who simply aren't cut out for the rigors of goaltending. Some will stick it out because they're the only option, or they really enjoy being part of a team. But the ceiling for these kids is always going to be low. Why? Because developing into a really good goaltender takes an incredible amount of hard work and dedication. If you don't love the position, the odds of you committing to those countless hours in the gym and on the ice are slim.
As Lundqvist goes on to say, there's nothing mysterious about becoming great. Good gear will help, but ultimately it isn't the equipment that's going to make a difference. It requires God-given talent, and a willingness to put in the work required to make the most of that talent. It takes heart.
"There's no magic recipe for becoming your hero Pekka Lindmark (the former Swedish national team netminder)," wrote Lundqvist. "You don't need shiny new pads – you won't get your own pair until you're 18 anyway. You don't need expensive camps. You don't even need to be very good yet. The only thing that matters right now is that you keep having fun.
"You can compete like crazy against your brother. But never stop having fun. Be dedicated to having fun."
And that's where The King got me. "Having fun." Such a simple concept, yet so remarkably profound. Despite all the challenges that goalies face, kids who flourish in the position are typically (not always, but typically) the ones having fun. Because if it's not fun, the pressures and expectations of the position can crush you.
Some of my favorite goalies embody this concept. I think of guys like Martin Brodeur and Marc-Andre Fleury, guys who looked like they were absolutely in their element when they were between the pipes, no matter how high the stakes were. Their smiles, their attitudes, were absolutely contagious. One of my favorite clips that airs over and over on the NHL Network is Canadien/Avalanche great Patrick Roy grinning and winking after yet another highlight save.
When I coach young goalies, I still try to nurture, above anything else, a love for the game. If a puck gets by you, try to figure out what happened, try to adjust, but don't agonize over it. Concentrate on what's coming next, not what's in the rear-view mirror. Remember to have fun. After all, it's a game.
I kept playing goalie past my 50th birthday. If my old-goalie hips and back didn't give out, I'd be playing today. I have several friends in their 60s who are still suiting up, and when they complain about this or that hurting them, I tell them to zip it. Because I'm utterly jealous that they're still heading to the rink once, twice, sometimes three times a week. My wife thinks I'm nuts. But, then again, she was never a goalie. There's no way she can understand.
I miss the fun. I miss the chirping, the camaraderie, the physical challenge, the subtle-but-very-real satisfaction of feeling the puck hitting me. Stepping on the ice, fully geared up, was an act of joy. It might not have always seemed like that to others, when my competitive streak occasionally overshadowed the more pleasurable aspects of the game. But, underneath it all, there was no place else I'd rather have been. Because it was fun.
The concept of "fun" is clearly so important to Lundqvist that he ended his missive to his 8-year-old self with this wonderful nugget:
"In fact, let me leave you with one final piece of advice. Tomorrow, when you put on that surprisingly heavy goalie equipment for the first time, right before you step out onto the ice, take a deep breath, block out all your thoughts and worries, and ask yourself a question: 'Why am I doing this?'
"The answer will come to you very quickly. 'I'm doing this because it's fun. I'm doing this because I love to compete. So let's go out there and have a blast.'
"Keep reminding yourself of this when things don't go as planned, even when your stage is Madison Square Garden.
"Being a goalie is 90 percent mental. If you are stuck in your own thoughts or dwelling on negativity you won't have the mental focus necessary to compete and succeed. Nobody tells you this when you're a kid, but the best way to get in the right mindset is to start by having fun. The rest you'll figure out.
"Your life will take you to many interesting places, and many big stages. But it doesn't matter if you're stepping out onto the frozen lake in Åre to battle with Joel, or stepping out onto the ice at Madison Square Garden in front of 18,000 people. It's all the same game.
"It's just ice. It's just a puck. Stopping it is fun."
Words that befit a King. Perfect.