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 brionoc@verizon.net.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Want better goalies? Be sure to appoint a goalie director

A goalie director helps every goalie in your organization.
Hi gang,

With the start of the youth hockey season just about a month away (I know, I know ... way too early), I wanted to share this column on an outstanding suggestion by Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending and the Foundation for Goalie Research and Education. Establishing a "goaltending director" position within your youth hockey organization -- someone who oversees every aspect of the position -- may be one of the best methods of ensuring improvement of every team in the program, top to bottom. Here's why ...

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Want better goalies? Appoint a goalie director

As coaches, my colleagues and I are always telling kids that summer is when they can really make a difference in their game. But they're not the only ones who should be taking advantage of the off-season. This month, I'm imploring parents and officials with youth hockey and select hockey programs to do the same.

Take the quiet summer months to reinvest in your program, and the brave kids who step up to play goalie. Establish a "goaltending director."

Don't delay. Because if you don't create and fill the position during the summer, it will get pushed aside. That's simply unfair to your goalies and their parents. Once September rolls around, board members are going to be up to their eyeballs with issues ranging from team placements and practice times to rink rentals and league schedules.

This is one of the reasons why programs hire goalie outfits like the one I work for – Stop It Goaltending – to provide separate goalie training. But, for reasons I'll get into, that's simply not enough. Programs need a point person to serve as goaltending director.

Now, the standard excuse for not creating this position is this: "We don't have any former goalies among our parents or volunteers." That's simply not good enough. The reality is, you don't need to be an "expert" in goaltending to take on this responsibility. You don't need to have played the position. You simply have to be willing to be an advocate for these kids, and to take the time to learn the basics.

How can I be so sure? I've seen it firsthand. My older brother Sean is an orthopedic surgeon in New Hampshire. He has countless demands on his time, to the point where there literally aren't enough hours to get everything done. Yet, despite that time crunch, he has made himself a very good goaltending coach in girls' lacrosse and field hockey.

Why? Because his daughter Michaela played those sports, and Sean wanted to have a role in helping her teams. Michaela wasn't a goalie, but Sean recognized that the position wasn't getting the attention it deserved. So he went to work, attending clinics, reading how-to books, scouring YouTube for clips on goaltending technique. And he made himself into a fine coach.

We'd sit around his kitchen, chatting about the differences between playing goal in the three sports – field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse. My eldest daughter was considering playing lacrosse goalie, and I leaned on Sean's expertise. He never once gave me bad advice.

The flip side is poor coaching. What we goalie coaches also see, time and time again, is goaltenders who perform really well in camps and clinics, and then regress when we don't see them for a while. I've written about it before. I call it the "Auto Body Shop Approach to Goalie Training."

That approach works like this: A goalie starts the season with his team, and for the first month he gets completely barraged with shots. Then the coaching staff realizes that he or she is starting to falter, maybe even acting a little puck shy (d'uh!). So they decide to send their goalie to us. What we get is usually a kid with potential, but often dented and banged up. We fix them, send them back to their team running like new, and the coaching staff promptly runs them into another tree.

It's frustrating beyond belief. Some of these kids excel despite the "coaching" they get with their team, not because of it. The reality is that too many of the kids we coach go back to a team that has no dedicated goalie coaching. And they suffer, or stagnate, as a result. What's the solution?

Stop It owner Brian Daccord established the Foundation of Goaltending Research and Education to broaden the scope of goalie development. FGRE encourages all youth hockey organizations to institute the position of "Director of Goaltending Development." I agree wholeheartedly.

The following is an abridged description of the position and its function, a blueprint that can be tailored to meet the needs of each organization.

Director of Goaltending Development

The director is responsible for the development of all the organization's goaltenders, including oversight of tryouts, placement, coaching, skills, practice and games as well as education. The director reports directly to the organization's president or board. Being a former goaltender and educated in modern goaltending techniques is preferred, but not a prerequisite.

Tryouts

The director should oversee the organization's tryout procedure for goaltenders. This includes providing a clear understanding of opportunities for goaltenders and communication how the tryout process will be conducted.

Placement

The director should oversee team placement of goaltenders. Once a goaltender is placed, the goaltender and parents should be informed of the name and level of the team, how many goaltenders will be on each team, whether the squad emphasizes "play to win" or "equal ice time," how many games and practices will be included, and whether there will be goaltending-specific skill sessions.

Goalie Roster

The director should create a roster of the organization's goaltenders. This roster should include all contact information of the goaltender and parents, enabling the director to directly contact them to distribute information including educational material.

Goalie Coaching

The director should oversee the structure of goalie coaching within the organization. If each team doesn't have a dedicated goalie coach, the director should work with each team's coaching staff to create an "Assistant Coach responsible for Goalies." Each team should have either a goalie coach or assistant coach responsible for the goalies, a copy of the protocol associated with the assistant coach responsible for goalies, a written policy of how ice time will be distributed for the goalies, and a coaching staff that is informed of what training the goaltenders will receive throughout the season.

Goalie Skills

The director should oversee the structure of the organization's goaltending training, presenting training options and working to provide the best training alternatives within the organization's budget. Options include no additional training, providing a goaltending Junior Instructor (current Midget/Junior-level goalie), a goaltending coach (professional) at specified team practices, goaltender-specific skills sessions on the organization's ice time with organization coaches, goaltender-specific skills sessions on the organization's ice time with a contracted goalie development firm, or goaltender-specific training at a professional goaltending training center.

Education

The director is responsible for providing coaches, goalies and parents educational material that might benefit the goalies, including goalie-specific websites, books, magazines, and videos, material on off-ice training, nutrition, and cognitive training, and notifying coaches, goalies and parents on any local workshops or presentations.

Follow Up

The director is responsible for following up with the team's head coach, goalies, and goalie parents to ensure there is either a goalie coach or assistant coach responsible for the goalies, that the protocol for the assistant coach responsible for goalies is being followed, that the policy of distributing ice time is being followed, that there is feedback from everyone involved on the organizations goaltending development training, and providing feedback and suggestions on how the organization can better provide for its goaltenders.

Is this a lot of work? Yup. Is it important? Absolutely. And your goalies are worth it.

For more details on the Foundation of Goaltending Research and Education, visit fgre.org.

FINIS

Thursday, July 5, 2018

For hockey players, variety is the spice of the off-season

Find something else to do this summer besides hockey!
Hi gang,

Just last night, I was watching a great special on youth sports, and it was driving home the point of how important it is to be a multi-sport athlete. The show featured a number of athletes from a variety of sports, including the NHL's Johnny Gaudreau and Nate McKinnon. And all of them had essentially the same message: Playing many sports makes you a better athlete.

So stop listening to all those money-grabbing "elite" sports programs who insist that you'll "fall behind" if you're not playing hockey 24/7, year round. It's a marketing ploy, plain and simple. Here's my Goalie Guru column on the topic. Let me know what you think! And don't forget to get outside!

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 Variety is the spice of the off-season for hockey players

When my editor suggested a training-related column for our annual training issue, I immediately thought of the myriad workout programs that have been developed in the past dozen years that are designed to make you the best goaltender your God-given talents will allow. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like going in a different direction. After all, it's the June issue. And June, unless you're playing in the Stanley Cup finals, is not exactly hockey season.

Now, to be completely up front, I'm not opposed to playing year round. There's an old adage in sports that "champions are made in the off-season." There's a great deal of truth to that saying, provided people don't lose proper perspective. It's important to note, the adage doesn't say anything about playing the same sport 52 weeks a year.

Proponents of sports specialization have taken advantage of that adage, twisting its message to imply that a full-year commitment ought to be a requirement for the serious athlete. In doing so, they've duped thousands of parents who feel like they're doing their little hockey player a disservice if they don't provide year-round instruction and training.

(Full disclosure: I, as a coach with a goalie instruction outfit, recognize that I can potentially be seen as "part of the problem." But at Stop It Goaltending, we actively encourage kids to pursue different activities to complement their goalie training. That's a big difference, to my way of thinking.)

This has been a hot topic lately. Houston Texan defensive end J.J. Watt, an all-world talent, recently took to Twitter to voice his concerns about playing a single sport full-time. Watt, who grew up playing hockey (Can you imagine what a power forward that guy would be?!), was remarkably candid in his criticism of specialization. In a Tweet from early March, Watt wrote: "If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child's best interests in mind."

I agree. I also believe there's far more to Watt's simple statement than appears on the surface. There is an entire youth sports industry – and it continues to grow – that is banking on parents believing that the only way their child will reach the pinnacle of their sport is to have little Jane or Johnny play that sport over and over and over again.

Those parents ought to consider this telling statistic: Of all the athletes selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, nearly 90 percent of them were multi-sport athletes in high school, according to TrackingFootball.com, a website that compiles multi-sport participation data on high school and college football players. Watt played four different sports in high school. Arizona Cardinals All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell told the web-based training site STACK why playing numerous sports helped him become a better football player.

"Playing multiple sports 100 percent made me a better athlete," Campbell said. "When you play different sports, you're forced to do different things. I learned quick-twitch stuff from basketball. Track and field, I learned about my stride, my jumping, my hip thrust. I actually even wrestled for a while, and that helped me learn leverage and momentum. It all transfers over and develops different muscle groups."

My guess is that Campbell also enjoyed switching things up. When I was in high school, I loved the dissimilarities between being a soccer midfielder, where I ran all day between my attacking and defensive responsibilities, being a hockey goaltender, where I was far more confined but had a very important role, and being a third baseman for the baseball team, which I found was the ideal blend of cerebral and physical challenges.

Only in hindsight did I really stop to think how each sport benefited the others. For me, the variety is what I enjoyed most.

I've lost count of the number of parents I've talked to who would bemoan that their sons and daughters weren't all that motivated to play during the summer. These are the same parents who have their kids attending skating clinics (on and off ice), shooting clinics, and stickhandling clinics almost non-stop. I haven't found a polite way to say: "Can't you hear yourself? No wonder your kid wants a break."

Except for the very rare instance, kids crave diversity. Can you imagine a math whiz going to school and taking nothing but algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, etcetera? Really? Of course not. We want our children to be well rounded academically. Well, the same holds true for athletic pursuits. Variety is a good thing, not only from the perspective of development, but also to prevent overuse injuries.

The reality is that sports specialization is nothing new. I remember writing about it as a cub reporter in the spring of 1983. Yup, 34 years ago. Things have only gotten worse since then, and it's all driven by one factor: The Almighty Dollar. There is a ton of money to be made in the sports development landscape.

Those folks aren't going to make much money by telling their kids to "just go ride your mountain bike." But I'm telling you, that's exactly what you, as a parent, ought to do. Let the kids play.

Here's my chief concern. Advances in goalie training have created an entire generation of robotic goaltenders. They're strong and quick and technically proficient, but they're not necessarily better athletes. I compare them to a mountain biker on a familiar slice of technical singletrack trail. When that mountain biker knows every twist, turn, and obstacle on the trail, he can anticipate what's coming and rip a pretty clean line. But put the same cyclist on a trail he's never seen before, and he'll be more tentative, more cautious, slower.

A hockey game is much more like that unknown ribbon of technical singletrack. Out of necessity, many of the drills we develop and employ during goalie clinics and camps mirror the well-known trail. We want to build muscle memory. But coaches also need to recognize when goalies start performing "to the drill," instead of simply reacting. That's why, at Stop It, we always try to end each session with "game time."

The beauty of game time is that it's organic, and unpredictable. Our games are design to make the goalies employ what they've just learned, but also to improvise. That's when you find out who your competitors are. It's also when you discover who the better athletes are.

Over time, I believe kids gradually discover the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete (though they may not understand it in the moment). Their movements become more fluid, more natural. In a very subtle sense, they become more confident, which allows them to be more patient, and let the game come to them.

So get out of the rink. Expand your horizons, and enjoy other sports. Ride your bike, surf, play tennis, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, volleyball, baseball. Anything other than hockey. Have fun. Laugh. You'll be a better goaltender.

FINIS

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The King's rule: Fun is vital

Henrik Lundqvist shares a lighthearted moment
with teammate and fellow goalie Antti Raanta.
Hi gang,

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 ...

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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.

FINIS

Monday, May 7, 2018

Making the most of your goalie camp investment

Good communication is a hallmark of a good goalie camp.
Hi gang,

As promised, Round 2 of my early May post blast. If you haven't already signed your young netminder up for a summer goalie camp, here's a laundry list of items to consider to ensure you maximize your dollars. Just make sure your child isn't playing hockey every day this summer. It is, after all, the off-season ... And, as always, let me know what you think.

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Making the most of your goalie camp investment

It's that baffling time of year, even before the end of the youth league season (and just after the close of the high school campaign), when parents are already looking ahead to summer camp options. I know that sounds crazy, but it's simply the reality of year-round hockey.

Now, I'm a big proponent of down time, as opposed to playing hockey 24/7, 365 days a year. I don't believe players – not even the most diehard hockey fanatic – can maintain that level of enthusiasm year round.

But summer camps are important, because they give goaltenders a chance to work on their technique without the additional pressure of game results. Brian Daccord, founder of Stop It Goaltending in Massachusetts, refers to off-season camps and clinics as "developmental" training.

In season, it's all about "performance," or preparing for the next game, said Daccord. During the season, goalies (and coaches) don't have the luxury to work on new techniques or tweaks to their game. They have to focus on the task at hand, and that's winning. It's all about results. Consider the basketball player who needs to improve his free throws. Can you expect him to try something new in a game, when every point counts? Of course not. He's going to default to what he's most familiar with, regardless of the success rate.

The same is true for goaltending. The game is simply too fast to consciously think through every movement. There's no time for indecision. Reactions have to be automatic. So you need enough time to put in the repetitions needed to create adequate muscle memory without any related concern over game results.

Spring and summer training allow goalies time, and a pressure-free environment, to explore and experiment. Comfortable with the "load" on the post (or "VH," for vertical-horizontal), but want to try to "lean" (or "Reverse VH")? Off-season camps and clinics are the time to try it out. Like many techniques, the "lean" requires time to get comfortable with, much less master.

So, all that said, there are a number of questions that parents and players should ask before selecting a summer camp. In other words, to quote Daccord, "you should know what you're paying for."

First and foremost, does the camp have a "curriculum" that spells out exactly what goalies and their parents can expect? For example, at Stop It, we have a well-established 8-week program – called "blocks" – that is specifically designed to establish a foundation that goalies can build on. As any contractor will tell you, a strong, sturdy, reliable foundation is the key for a solid structure.

Here are some other key factors:

THE FORMAT

Weeklong camp or a series of clinics? I personally like a series of clinics that stretch over the course of a several months, maybe once or twice a week, for an hour to 90 minutes per session. This keeps things fresh (and, let's face it, there are worse places to be than an ice rink on a steamy summer day). This approach also works well if your child is skating in a low-key spring or summer league. For the last two years my daughter Brynne played in the New England Women's Hockey League. This league was more like organized pick-up, giving all the kids a chance to try something new without worrying about costing their team the game. That kind of freedom is liberating.

The weeklong camp is what Daccord calls an "experience." It's typically an intense setting, with 16 hours (four hours a day over four days) on the ice, covering a wide range of skills and game situations. It's the goalie camp version of cramming for a big exam. The downside is that they don't always allow for the repetition that's so important in creating muscle memory. So it's on the goalie to remember what they've learned, and continue to work on that skill set in the weeks following camp. On the positive side of the ledger, weeklong camps typically expose goalies to a number of different coaches – and coaching philosophies – and other goaltenders. And that's fun.

Is the camp goalie specific? One of the reasons that goalie-specific training is so popular is that goalies rarely get enough individualized attention in a typical "team practice" environment (this holds for youth as well as high school and junior programs). Mixed camps, offering instruction to forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders, can have the same pitfalls. "You're going to get X amount of minutes of training or instruction, and then get stuck in the net to be a target," said Daccord. "At the end of the day, is that what you signed up for?"

Do the camps offer large groups or small groups? This really comes down to ratio of coaches to goalies. On a regular sheet, we at Stop It can have as many eight stations running simultaneously, but each station has a qualified coach, working with one to four goalies. So even though we've occasionally got up upwards of 24 kids on the ice, all are getting personalized attention. That's key.

Does the camp stress basic skills, like skating and puck handling? Footwork is essential, because getting to the right place at the right time in the right position is the hallmark of good goaltending. Being able to handle the puck often separates starters from back-ups. Look for a camp that doesn't ignore these details.

Technology. Keeping up with the times is a big bonus. We employ tablets with video delays, so campers can actually see what we see, and can immediately apply what we're teaching. This is particularly useful for "visual" learners, but almost every goalie enjoys watching himself or herself in action. If they're getting lit up, watching might be less fun, but it's more important from a coaching perspective.

ANCILLARY ACTIVITIES

Closely related to "the format," camps can be judge by what they offer for off-ice activities as well as on-ice instruction.

Is there a strength-training component? Whether you're a butterfly netminder or prefer the hybrid style, modern goaltending requires strength and endurance. No matter what level you're currently playing at, getting stronger will make you better. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Proper weight training instruction is invaluable.

How about nutrition? You are what you eat. My mom said it, more than 50 years ago. Today's nutritionists pretty much say the same thing. In order to get stronger, and have durable connective tissue that aids in flexibility, you need to eat right.

Yoga/flexibility/mindfulness. I've lumped these together because the crossover benefits are almost countless. Knowing how your body works, how your mind works, and how the two work together are crucial to improvement. I don't break the position down into percentages (physical and mental). Suffice to say that both are necessary to reach your full potential. Instruction here will pay big dividends on the ice.

What are the non-hockey activities? Softball, Ultimate Frisbee, volleyball, basketball, soccer, and similar sports are all beneficial. They not only keep kids active, working those quick-twitch muscles and honing coordination, but they'll also ensure that everyone will sleep well at night.

LEVEL OF COACHING

This one is tricky, because there are so many qualities that make for a good coach, and not all of those qualities are readily apparent. For starters, you want experience, enthusiasm, and technical expertise.

Experience. Most camps employ a combination of full-time professional coaches and part-time coaches, plus college and high school "junior" instructors. Do some homework, and check the bios of the coaches (reputable camps will list those on their web sites). If you're selecting a camp with a "name" coach, first ask how long that coach has been instructing, since playing at a high level and coaching at a high level are two very different things. Oh, and make sure the "name" coach actually plans to be in attendance and coaching (see "Tim Thomas").

Enthusiasm. There is no substitute for an upbeat staff that understands how important it is to be a positive. Goaltending is hard enough. At Stop It, we set the bar high, but then we're relentless in our encouragement to help kids reach and exceed that bar. Similarly, the best coaches are not only students of the game, they're also students of human nature. There are significant differences in my approach to coaching girls and boys, women and men. And there's an almost infinite number of subtle differences in the "proper" approach within those groups. Every child, or young adult, is different. Find a coach, or a coaching outfit, that takes pride in getting to know each camper.

Technical expertise. Flexibility is equally important for coaches. In short, a good coach is open-minded and well-versed in a number of goaltending "styles." The ability to pair a goaltender with the correct style is vital to that goalie's chance of success. Beware any coaching program that boasts a "one size fits all" approach. That's the goaltending equivalent of squeezing a square peg into a round hole.

THE SHOOTERS

I've said this in prior columns, but it bears repeating. You might have the best coaches on the planet, but without good shooters, the instruction is limited. Having really good shooters takes your instruction to another level. And by "good," I'm not just talking "talented." I'm referring to kids who can bring it, but are also willing to do exactly what they're told. Often, that means paid shooters.

"The other question parents never ask is, 'Do the coaches coach, or do they coach and shoot?'" said Daccord. "When a coach shooting, they're putting their head down. They're not watching, they get tired, and their coaching suffers."

Having quality shooters allow coaches to do what they do best, and that's coach. That's what you're paying for. Make sure you get your money's worth.

FINIS

Sunday, May 6, 2018

"Elite" hockey is no panacea ... Do your homework

Expect a crowd at elite team tryouts.
Hi gang,

Having just wrapped up a weekend conference with Brian Daccord's Foundation of Goalie Research and Education (FGRE) in Woburn, Mass., I was reminded that I've fallen behind on my blog. So I'll try to make up for lost time ... Here's the first of three posts, starting with one of my favorite topics -- so-called "elite" or "select" programs.

In short, the phrase "buyer beware" instantly comes to mind. These programs don't always provide an "elite" experience for your child, and you should do everything you can to learn more before signing on the dotted line, and committing hundreds of dollars, to make sure the program will be a good fit. In fact, several coaches this weekend told stories of appalling behavior by some programs, which were willing to back-stab players they had already selected if if meant an upgrade (telling me that this topic is, unfortunately, still current).

The lesson? You need to advocate for your child, because too many of these programs won't. Let me know what you think ...

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"Elite" hockey is no panacea … Do your homework

Select and elite hockey programs will promise you the world. I'm here to put a pin in their over-inflated balloon. That doesn't reflect any deep-seated malice. I do it because my only loyalty is to my readers. My goalies, their parents, their coaches. That gives me a certain freedom. Directors of "select" and "elite" programs don't have that luxury. They are beholden to their bottom lines.

Here's my cautionary tale. By the time you read this, my daughter will have finished her high school career. That's liberating. Like any parent, I was hesitant to criticize any organization that Brynne played for, concerned about in-season retribution (which, believe, happens, and happens often). But they often deserved criticism.

The following observations are generalized, occasionally focusing on goalies. In her first two years of "select" hockey, Brynne (a defenseman) played for a program on Massachusetts's North Shore. Her first year was a dream, with two great coaches who were dedicated to their players. It was an incredibly rewarding experience for Brynne as she transitioned from her co-ed youth hockey program.

The bubble burst a year later. Brynne was placed on a Tier 2 full-season team (the right placement, based on her tryout), despite my telling the program director that she was playing for her high school team. "That's OK," the director replied. "We want our girls getting more ice time."

The director's tone changed completely a month into the season. She and the coach realized that half the team was playing high school hockey, and MIAA rules often prevented those girls from participating in practices and games. The team struggled. The director called a parent meeting, asking for more commitment. We reminded her that she knew these girls were playing high school hockey.

Brynne switched to another "North Shore" program the following year, joining several high school teammates. Brynne's U-16 team had a "coach" who showed up for maybe half the games. Not a good sign. Since I was driving Brynne, I volunteered repeatedly to work with the goalies. I never once got a reply. Bad sign No. 2.

The next year, we got lucky. Brynne's Tier 2 U-19 team had several girls from the same prep school (for car-pooling purposes). Again, no coach was provided. Instead, two of the prep school parents and I volunteered to work the games, and the girls had a terrific season. But the goalies didn't get any in-practice instruction. The assumption was they'd find outside help.

This past season was the breaking point. Tryouts were a joke. After the last one, girls got herded into waiting area, and called in individually, best players first. They were asked to sign on immediately, before the director called in the next girl. After an hour, he sent everyone else home. We had to wait two days before learning that Brynne was again placed on a Tier 2 U-19 team, which was a mild disappointment (especially after we discovered some Tier 1 players never tried out).

However, one of Brynne's best friends was also on the team, and the director promised a high school coach. So we agreed to sign up. The first red flag was that coach missing the Beantown Classic, a summer tourney. The director advertised pre-tourney practices, but charged extra. Those practices conflicted with a camp that Brynne was already participating in, which we'd paid for. We declined, despite the director's complaints, realizing the practices were nothing more than a money grab.

The second flag shot up when the "coach" apparently hurt her foot before the season, and bailed. Just quit. The director again asked parents to pitch in. So, for the third straight year, Brynne's team didn't have a paid coach. No, there was no corresponding discount in the cost. Guess who pocketed that difference?

And our poor goalies – one a freshman playing for a U-19 team, and another who clearly needed instruction – got no help. Practices were a shooting gallery. Great, huh?

This stuff happens on the boys' side as well. Last July, I was talking to a pair of goalie dads. One I've known for years. The other had just moved his family to the area. During our chat, I learned the son of the new guy had displaced another young goalie we work with. In mid-summer, when team rosters are already set.

But the program these kids play for didn't care. They thought they found a better goalie, so they just cut the other boy. Here's your deposit, see you later. Oh, did I mention these kids are 12? What does that tell you about the program's commitment to each youngster?

The reality is that these programs are about winning, first and foremost. Because winning records (and trophies) draw more players. Better players. Which leads to more winning. What gets lost in that formula? Any genuine commitment to the players. They become replaceable. For an organization that purports to support youth development, that's reprehensible.

Keep this in mind if your youngster isn't an absolute stud: Don't expect equal instruction for equal payment. Some programs might provide that, but many don't. Talk to plenty of people before choosing a program, especially parents. Program directors often lie. Parents have far more likely to give you the straight scoop.

And, just to absolutely clear (and fair), these problems can happen at other levels. Here's an example of bad adult behavior at a town program.

I got a call last summer from a friend who is also a hockey mom. She was livid. Her son, "Pete," had played for a local youth hockey program for years, alternating between goalie and defense. He was very good at both.

With middle school looming, my friend's son decided to retire his goalie gear. The youth program had different ideas. Pete tried out as a defenseman. But when the team placements came out, my friend and her son got a rude surprise. Here's the email exchange between mom and program.

Town hockey program email No. 1: "We spend a LOT of time deciding on what team is right for your child, based on your child's tryout."

Town hockey program email No. 2: "Your child is assigned to Team X, at Goalie."

Mom's email reply: "My child didn't try out as a goalie."

Town hockey program: Crickets.

The placement was patently unfair. Courageous kids – those who volunteer to play goal – often get a raw deal when no one else has the guts to step up. That's wrong. To prejudice any child because of his or her ability to play the position is even worse.

The program was notified beforehand that Pete wasn't playing goal. By all accounts, he was one of the better defenders at tryouts. But with enough players for three teams, and only a single goalie, the program's "adults" took matters into their own hands, and assigned Pete to a Tier 2 PeeWee team, separating him from his friends on the Tier 1 squad.

Mom called the program president to reiterate that Pete didn't try out as a goalie. She got a voicemail from another board member, asking her to reconsider.

"I got seven unsolicited emails today from other parents incredulous that (Pete) wasn't on the 1's roster, skating out," she told me. "And (program organizers) wonder why enrollment has plummeted."

I don't blame my friend one bit. Hockey parents have a well-deserved rap of being a little unhinged. This isn't one of those cases. The organization put her, and her son, in an untenable position, simply because he had experience playing goal. That's unacceptable.

FINIS

Friday, February 23, 2018

Being a back-up isn't the end of the world

Tyler Stilling's superb prep school career didn't translate to
college, but that didn't stop him from being a great teammate.
Hi gang,

If there was ever the perfect example of the importance of having a quality back-up, Super Bowl 52 was it.

Yes, I was rooting for my hometown New England Patriots, but there's no denying that the Philadelphia Eagles and their MVP quarterback, Nick Foles (yes, a back -up to Carson Wentz) were deserving champions.

All too often we get hung up on a team's stars, forgetting that it's still a "team" game. There's only one QB, just like there's only one goaltender, that plays at any given time. But everyone on the team plays a critical role. My friend Tyler Stillings is proof. Let me know what you think ...

##

Being a back-up isn't the end of the world

I come today to praise that time-honored and often under-appreciated teammate – the back-up goaltender.

Talk about a thankless job. The back-up goalie's chief responsibility, during games, is opening and closing the bench door. Or being chief cheerleader while teammates are gasping for air. You've got to be ready to play, at your best, even though you rarely know if you're actually getting into the game.

In practice, the back-up is typically the pin cushion, the target who absorbs all the extra shots after the starter calls off the dogs. Yet no one embodies the bedrock truths of this remarkable game – hard work, teamwork, perseverance, humility, and sacrifice – more than the back-up goalie.

Almost nobody sets out to be the second-string goalie. I say "almost," because I've met players who are more than content to be on the team, without worrying about the requisite pressures of being a starter. This column isn't about them.

Instead, I'm writing to those kids who have every intention of grabbing the crease, but fall short due to any number of circumstances. They're an inch too small, a second too slow, a year too young. No matter what the reason – whether timing or talent – these goalies don't become starters. But they're members of the team nonetheless.

I recently read an article in a national hockey magazine about "non-stars." The author contended that every player – even the kids on the end of the bench – has an important role in a team's success. And parents need to appreciate that their son and/or daughter, no matter whether they're a stud or fourth-line winger, is "an integral part of the hockey team," he wrote.

The irony is that the article's author owns a development program that's Exhibit No. 1 in a youth hockey culture that deifies these pre-teen "stars." The program's ads – in print and on television – are specifically designed to feed the parental mindset that, if you want your kids to be great, they need the extra edge that the program offers.

Of course, the author isn't alone. Plenty of camps and skills programs do this, as do "select" teams. I see it over and over and over again. God forbid your child isn't on a particular program's "Tier I" team; you'll quickly discover what it's like to be a second-class skater despite paying a first-class fee. But that's another column. The point is that all these organization fuel "the dream." I get it. It's a business.

(To be fair, the author does mention several great attributes of those "non-stars," such as being vocal and supportive on the bench and in the locker room, being a leader regardless of playing time, being the first on the ice and the last off during practices, and always putting the team goals before individual accolades. I'm on board with all of those.)

For goaltenders, there's definitely merit to playing. All things being equal, game experience is the single biggest delineation between "good" and "great" players. The prevailing wisdom is, find the highest level of play that guarantees your child plenty of game time. Which leads to this crazy contest of musical chairs, with goalies constantly changing teams and programs to find the "right fit."

Now, I'm Old School. I'm OK with the high school model where you earn your starting spot. That means, unless you're a freshman with all-world talent (in reality, not just your parents' minds), you pay your dues. All things being equal, I'm giving the starting nod to the upperclassmen. They've been in the trenches for two-plus years. They deserve that shot.

A few years back, I had a very promising young goalie try out for his school team as a freshman. Ahead of him were two solid netminders, a junior and a senior, who were virtually interchangeable in the coach's mind. On any given day, any of the goalies could have been the best at practice. But the freshman never got a start, and he chafed at that snub. I counseled patience, pointing out that he was steadily improving, and the coaches could see that. His time would come.

But after his first year, this goalie realized he'd still be sharing the job with the junior, who would now be a senior. So he bolted for a prep school, and got the playing time he craved. I hope it works out. It's a solid school, in a decent league with good academics.

Still, part of me worries this young man may one day regret not playing with his childhood buddies. And he better hope he's always "the man." Prep schools recruit, and the coaching staff won't think twice about bringing in a younger, better goaltender.

Conversely, I really hope coaches make the effort to let their second- and third-string goalies know how valuable they are. That's important for several reasons. One, the coaching staff is just an injury away from having to rely on that back-up goalie (a big reason why I'm a proponent of finding game time for all goalies, any time you can).

Two, coaches can't forget that their raison d'être (literally "reason for being") is not simply winning games, but developing young men and women. That brings me to Tyler Stillings. For the past five years, I've had the pleasure of working with Tyler, who played at the Brooks School in Massachusetts before moving on to Assumption College. But Tyler's career with the Greyhounds didn't go as planned. Injuries and poor play limited his game time.

During our Stop It summer camps, Tyler was one of my favorites. He was never the most talented player on the ice, but he worked his tail off. He could get frustrated, and sometimes "over thought" the position. But Tyler played with heart, and almost always a smile. It was impossible not to root for him.

After his senior year, when he again rode the pine, Tyler wrote about his experiences. He acknowledged that he lived and breathed hockey as a teenager, but eventually learned, like 98 percent of youth players, there was more to life than the game. At Assumption, he became an orientation leader, an alumni ambassador and a tutor in the academic support center.

"Hockey will always be a large part of who I am," wrote Tyler. "But it is just that: part of a complicated human being. At the end of this weird journey, Tyler Stillings the college hockey player may be considered a failure. But Tyler Stillings the person certainly won't be. I’m excited to see where he goes next."

I quickly reached out to Tyler, and told him that he wasn't even remotely close to being a failure in my eyes. He responded with a laugh, saying "underachieved is probably more mature diction."

Wrong again. Tyler Stillings was and is a hockey player. Period. He was a great teammate, who led by word and deed. Being a hockey player is not a separate entity. It is part of who Tyler is. That made him a success by any measure. Even as a back-up goalie.

FINIS

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Bringing the goalie coach on board for team practices

Goalies need a coach who understands the position,
and how the position fits into the team concepts.
Hi gang,

My annual mid-season campaign to encourage hockey teams -- at every level -- to incorporate a goalie coach into their team practices. This is such an important part of overall team success, yet is ignored time and time again. The hesitancy to have a goalie coach work with the head coach and staff absolute mystifies me. Winning programs do this, which is one of the reasons they're winning programs.

Let me know what you think ...

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Bringing the goalie coach on board for team practices

So, coaches, we're now a full month (or more) into the season. How's your goaltending situation holding up? I hope it's faring better than I have.

This has been a particularly challenging season so far for me, as I recover from November surgery to fix a pair of herniated discs and arthritis-induced nerve damage (my rough-and-tumble lifestyle, and 45 years of playing goal, finally caught up to me). I haven't been on the ice since early August. Frankly, it's driving me nuts.

But the forced time off allowed me to reassess the position, and the role of the goalie coach. I've watched numerous games, from the World Cup of Hockey to the NHL to college tilts to U-19 fall girls hockey. This past weekend, my daughter's high school squad launched its season with a tournament at a local prep school. Brynne's team had mixed results, winning once and losing twice. They gave up 15 goals in those three games, which is not a recipe for success.

My chief frustration, following the tournament, was that I couldn't get on the ice to work with the team's young goaltender (she's a sophomore, having picked up the position just two years ago). More importantly, I knew I couldn't work with the team. Because not all 15 goals were on the goalie.

Sitting in the stands reinforced my firm belief that a goalie coach needs to be an integral part of a team's coaching staff. I saw numerous mistakes, made by the goalie, made by the defense, and made by the forwards (like changing lines during an opponent's odd-man rush). Last year, as a volunteer coach, I could plan with the staff to incorporate certain drills to help improve defensive zone play in general, and more specifically make sure the goalie and positional players were working together.

But since I'm officially "on the shelf," I can't even make suggestions. That's just reality of a coach who isn't on the ice. And I don't mean to suggest I have all the answers. I don't. What I mean is that there's one less voice – and the goalie's perspective – being taken into account.

I'm one of those goalie coaches who doesn't mind pulling back the curtain on that man in the corner. Goalie coaching can be very, very intricate, depending on the level your team is playing at, but it's not quantum physics. Seriously. The basics are, well, pretty basic. Anytime a goalie "expert" tries to convince you that it's rocket science, you should see a giant red flag.

This is one of my annual appeals to coaches. Please, please don't treat goalie coaches like some weird appendage to your staff. Don't separate them; bring them on board. Don't treat goalie coaches like the doctor you send your starting netminder to in order to repair a high ankle sprain or knee injury. Because, let's be honest, you don't care if you ever actually see that doctor. You just want the doctor to fix your goalie, and get him (or her) back between the pipes as soon as safely possible.

But the really, really good doctors are involved. Over the past two months, I emailed my surgeon – Dr. Russell Brummett of Concord Orthopaedics in New Hampshire – regular updates about my progress. Being a writer, I provided more detail than he probably cared for. But he always replied, always offering words of encouragement. Once, when five days went by without any exchange, he reached out to me. Just to check in. How cool is that?

Not all surgeons are like Dr. Brummett, unfortunately. Many (probably most) simply move on to the next patient. Don't get me wrong. They want to know whether the surgery was a success. They'll dutifully follow up – at one month, three months, one year – to make sure things are A-OK. Basically, they're happy if you're happy.

The better analogy, to my way of thinking, is a good family counselor. A good counselor is far more vested in your development, and the family's development, day in and day out, individually and as a group. A good counselor keeps close tabs on your progress and, perhaps more importantly, the times you slip up. A good counselor understands the value of communication. A good counselor is a confidante a well as a coach, someone who understands that integrating a group of people into a single entity can be a complex and wonderful thing. Much like a hockey team.

Most of my colleagues at Stop It Goaltending work with college, high school, and junior programs. One of the recurring themes that crops up is the inability of those coaches without goaltending experience to understand the many facets of the position, and the number of things that can lead to a scoring opportunity. A common question is, "How did that goal go it?" Sometimes the answer is simple. Sometimes it's purely on the goalie. They're human. They make errors.

But oftentimes the breakdowns that lead to a quality scoring chance happen two, three, or more moves beforehand. A bad line change, a bad read, a bad gap, a missed assignment. As goalies, we've spent years watching the game come to us. In other words, we see things. When we see a mistake, we like to have it addressed. It's often more than "just stopping the puck." That integrated approach makes for better team defense.

Here's another reason for having a goalie coach on board that's worth repeating. Better goalie drills make for better shooters. Every summer, the college and junior shooters who work our Stop It camps always remark how learning more about goaltending makes them better scorers. There's another win/win.

So my plea is that coaches, and programs, do more to bring goalie coaches into the fold, sharing ice and ideas. Yes, I understand that often comes with an added expense (more than individual sessions at a mini-ice). Talk to your boosters. Talk to your athletic director, and your parents. Would you rather have fancy new warm-up suits, or an airtight defense? Having a goalie coach on staff won't do much for the former, but can get you much closer to the latter.

Just remember: Defense wins championships.

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Postscript: Here's a special shout out to Minnesota's Tony Bruns, a senior and four-year starter at Morris/Benson High. Bruns tallied 98 saves in a 12-0 loss to Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato two tdays after Thanksgiving. That's 110 shots altogether! The 98 saves set a state and national record (breaking Michigan's Jamey Ramsey's national mark from 1987 by 14 saves).

Of course, that wasn’t enough for some "media" clowns who don't understand hockey, or goaltending. One bonehead panelist on ESPN's "Around the Horn" actually disparaged Bruns's effort, saying it amounted to "only" a .890 save percentage. What this goofball didn't mention is that all those shots came in a 51-minute game (17-minute periods). That's more than two shots per minute, not to mention all the work that goes into preparing for each shot. It was, to be kind, a shooting gallery.

Dalen Jones, a former youth hockey goaltender, was one of the official scorekeepers counting shots. "The guy played out of his mind," Jones told Minnesota's StarTribune. "It was ridiculous. I was getting sore just watching him."

Me too. Bruns ought to be proud of his accomplishment, no matter the final score.

FINIS