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, 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 ...

##

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.

##

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 ...

##

"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 ...

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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




Thursday, December 21, 2017

Yoga – A goaltender's secret weapon, at any age

Former Bruins star Tim Thomas revived his career with yoga.
Hi gang,

When I was young, I was lucky enough to have a fair amount of natural flexibility. But I still worked at it. I remember doing stretches in the living room of my house in college, and my roommates marveling how I could wrap my hands under the bottom of my feet, and touch my nose to my knees.

As I got older, and work and parenthood squeezed my day, I was less vigilant about my stretching routine. In my 40s and 50s, my once pliable body became stiff as a proverbial board. The solution? Yoga.

Here's my chat with my yoga muse, Kim Johnson. Let me know hat you think ...

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Yoga – A goaltender's secret weapon

Goalies are a defensive bunch. It seems whenever the "powers that be" decide that the game needs more scoring, everyone looks at the size of the goalies, and the size of their equipment. It's far less often that you hear folks talking about how today's goaltenders are better athletes, better coached, employing better techniques.

But what those same people often don't realize is that the techniques we teach these days, while incredibly effective, can wreak havoc on a goalie's body. It's no surprise that we're seeing more lower body injuries, especially the hips. Those in the goalie business have even designed specific exercise programs, which we employ at Stop It Goaltending, to help counter-balance those forces.

And yet, one of the best methods of avoiding butterfly-induced injuries is actually ancient, and much, much older than the game itself. Namely, yoga.

Just this past summer, I sat in as New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider was telling a group of young netminders about a time when he saw elder statesman and fellow Boston College alum Scott Clemmensen on the floor, going through an elaborate stretching routine – including yoga poses – before practice.

"Clemmer, what are you doing?" Schneider recalled asking his teammate. "And he says, 'Don't laugh. It won't be long before you're doing this too.'

"Sure enough, he was right," said the Marblehead, Mass., native with a big smile. "Now that I'm over 30, I'm doing the same stretches. Every day."

Kim Johnson of the Athlete's Yoga in Woburn, Mass., has been working with hockey goalies for more than a decade. They include pros like Schneider, Scott Darling, Mike Condon, Joe Cannata, Clay Witt, as well as a raft of young men and women still in school, from 12 to 22. Goaltending, she says, is "a unique position with unique needs that calls for unique training."

"Today's goalie has to train harder due to stiffer competition, higher standards, college scholarships, etcetera," said Johnson. "In order to gain a competitive advantage, athletes are seeking non-traditional methods of training. These unconventional methods can help avoid boredom, overuse, even fatigue, and yet maintain strength and endurance."

Contrary to the generally accepted notion that goalies are as rubbery as Gumby, Johnson said "surprisingly, many goalies lack 'natural' flexibility, making them more susceptible to injury." That's where yoga can make a difference.

"Flexibility in general helps prevent injury, and unfortunately flexibility is often minimized in relation to the overall strength and conditioning pie," she said. "Coaches often leave it up to the athlete to stretch on their own."

Because of that, a sensible stretching routine is often ignored altogether, or done incorrectly. Neither are good ideas.

"Most stretches are done improperly, or not held long enough," said Johnson. "And they don't breath into the stretch. Also, most athletes do the same stretches over and over again, and the body begins to adapt, and those stretches are no longer effective."

Because correct form is so important in yoga, Johnson recommends that goaltenders of all ages start their regimen under the watchful eye of a trained professional.

"A home practice is great, but proper guidance for the beginner is best," she said. "A qualified yoga instructor can customize a program to meet your specific needs as a goalie.

"Learning the breathing techniques, basic foundations, modifications and alignment are essential to a safe and effective practice," said Johnson. "In addition, so many issues (become apparent) on the mat that don't appear in the gym or in the net. A good instructor will ask questions, pay attention, and notice issues before they lead to injury."

A professional yoga instructor will also keep you on point, making sure you stay with the program.

 "Consistency is the key with a yoga practice, as the benefits are cumulative," said Johnson. "The yoga approach to conditioning is slow and steady in order to build strength and flexibility from the inside out.

"With a consistent practice, the actual resting length of the muscles improves," she said. "Elongated muscles are healthy muscles. Relaxed muscles heal faster. Healing and recovery take place through the breathwork, which relaxes the central nervous system. This is what makes yoga unique. It's a systematic approach that addresses the 'whole' body."

However, yoga is not a "one size fits all" discipline. Johnson stresses that goaltenders of different ages need to take different approaches.

With middle and high school goalies, Johnson said she keeps things simple, focusing on breathwork, simple stretches, body and spatial awareness, coordination, strengthening, core development, managing stress, and basic functional movements.

At the college and pro level, she concentrates of injury prevention, opening the hips and groin as well as developing strength in those areas, functional movement and functional strength, range of motion, balance, core strength, recovery and healing, fluidity of movement, balance, mental toughness, focus, breathing techniques, meditation, visualization, and stress management. Whew!

"Goalies peak later, but that's when the body shows signs of wear and tear," said Johnson. "Yoga keeps the body young and moving with ease and efficiency. A customized yoga program can improve their flexibility and complement their existing strength and conditioning program. Because we focus on flexibility and strength, the goalie gets a well-rounded, comprehensive training program."

Even beer-leaguers can benefit.

"Flexibility and balance wane as we age. Flexibility keeps the joints and muscles healthy, enhancing range of motion," said Johnson. "Balance means enhanced coordination and control over how the body moves. This translates to better form and technique. Skating alone requires proper technique, attention to detail, balance, rhythm and coordination, all of which correlate with yoga."

Regardless of your age, the reality is that goaltending is tough on the body. With sports specification becoming all the rage, there's precious little off-season, and that constant pounding can take a toll.

"Overuse is a big issue due to playing the same sport all year," said Johnson. "Hip issues in young goalies is epidemic. My concern is the future of their bodies. Most goalies careers will end after high school, yet they need their bodies to be healthy for life in order to lead an active lifestyle.

"I emphasize core and gluteal activation, so there is ease of movement, less exertion, less stress on the joints," she said. "Use those big, meaty muscles to keep the hips and groins safe. The core is continually engaged while you practice yoga, so in essence you train the core to fire in games, practices or any workout. It becomes habitual."

Johnson also accentuates the mental aspect of yoga, which incorporates meditation with movement.

"Just as you would train the body, meditation trains the mind," she said. "Every practice ends in Savasana, where you are still, eyes closed, resting on your mat. This is where the magic happens, giving the mind and body a chance to process and generalize what it just learned.

"This calming effect translates to the net so that nothing rattles you. Better poise, control and composure," said Johnson. "Feedback from our goalies indicates that they use the breathing techniques before and during games to calm nerves. I like to teach them 'One breath at a time, one puck at a time.'"

FINIS


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trying new things, from techniques to technology

Apple iPads are an excellent teaching tool for goalies.
Hi gang,

Where in the world did the last four months go? My apologies for not paying proper attention to The Goalie Guru, and keeping my blog up to date. But rather than a long-winded explanation of why I've been off the grid, how about if I just post a recent column?

Let me know what you think!

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Trying new things, from techniques to technology

For the most part, I think of myself as a hands-on, Old School kind of coach. Much of that comes from my own experience, growing up wanting to be a goaltender, but having very little coaching available. I was self-taught, reading and rereading books by Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and New York Ranger coach Emile "The Cat" Francis (a former goaltender himself).

Frankly, I couldn't get enough of those "how to" books. Plante's "On Goaltending," released way back in 1972, even featured a "Question & Answer" chapter with Chicago Blackhawk star Tony Esposito on the newfangled "butterfly" technique (years before Patrick Roy became a household name). This revealed Plante's willingness to think outside the box, and consider styles that were radically different from his own. (Plante was a more traditional "stand-up" goaltender who relied on his flawless angle play, keen anticipation, and well-honed athleticism.)

As a Plante disciple, I adopted his acceptance of different styles, and different approaches, to playing the position. I'm willing to bet that just about every goalie I've worked with, at almost every age, has heard me say: "There are dozens of ways to stop the puck. You've got to find what's right for you."

Another favorite is this: "I'm not asking you to use this technique all the time. I'm just asking you to try it, and see if it's something that works for you."

This is the major reason I'm suspicious of any goalie-coaching program that touts only one way to play. Goalies come in all shapes and sizes, with various skill sets, with all sorts of different strengths and weaknesses. The key is maximizing those strengths, while minimizing thosee weaknesses. And that means finding out what works for each individual.

Take New Jersey Devils all-star netminder Cory Schneider. The Boston College product is one of the best goalies in the NHL. One of Schneider's greatest strengths is his cerebral approach to his position. If you look closely, there are several subtle elements to his game that bear this out.

For example, the "generally accepted" method of playing wide-angle shots (really wide, as in almost down by the goal line) has evolved over the years. Standing upright along the post with the leg pads stacked like pillars gave way to the "load," or "vertical horizontal" (VH for short), where the pad against the post is vertical, but the knee is bent and the inside pad is along the ice, or horizontal. The idea is that the goalie still gets a good seal, but can push off the upright, post-side edge in the puck comes into the slot.

Then a few creative goalies, particularly the Swedes and the Finns, started revolutionizing edge work and began using the post as a platform to push off of, and found they could quicker while on their knees. That led to the development of the "lean," or "reverse VH," to seal the post against wide-angle threats. In many (but not all) coaching circles, it's become go-to move in those situations.

Enter Schneider. The Marblehead, MA, native has adapted his game to his own strengths. As a result, he employs the Reverse VH to the blocker (or stick) side post, but relies on the more traditional VH on the glove side post. It is, he told me, simply what he's more comfortable with. And no one can argue with Schneider's success.

It's also hard to argue with Schneider's reasoning. Being comfortable usually leads to being more efficient, and more effective. But Schneider never would have found that comfort level if he wasn't willing to try new techniques. That's the lesson.

Of course, that also applies to coaching. I haven't always accepted new technology with open arms. Since my own "style" developed through the typical "trial and error" methods, I just prefer working with goalies one-on-one, explaining or demonstrating techniques and then letting my goalies try them out for themselves.

That works most of the time. But not always. Some goalies don't realize they're executing a certain technique – such as keeping their stick blade on the ice, or keeping their gloves in proper position – incorrectly.

This really hit home recently, when I read Lisa Lane Brown's blog post, "The 6 Ugly Mistakes Coaches Make That De-Motivates Their Athletes And How To Avoid Them." Lane Brown, the founder of "Courage to Win" and an expert on developing mental toughness, examined several "mistakes," including being too nice to your athletes, being too negative, and failing to believe in them. But the one that jumped out at me was "trying to 'help' athletes by correcting them." Here's what she wrote:

What do most coaches do when they see an athlete make a mistake? Right! They try to "help" the athlete perform better, usually by correcting them. The problem with this approach is that it rarely works. 

It's true that about 5 to 10 percent of athletes (usually the best ones) will take a verbal correction and implement it immediately. The rest will nod, smile, say "Okay, Coach" and then pretty much go back to exactly what they were doing. Infuriating. This doesn't work for two reasons.


First, you are sending them the message, "You're not doing it right. And if you want the answer on how to do it right, listen to me." This violates the athlete's basic code, which is: "I want to figure it out on my own by FEELING the move."

The second reason this doesn't work is that your athlete actually does not REALLY understand your correction. Let's say you're trying to get a hockey player to skate with his knees more bent, because he'll get more power and speed that way.

"Tom, bend your knees!" you might say.

Perfect suggestion. Only, here's the problem. In Tom's brain, his knees ALREADY ARE bent. In his mind, he's skating perfectly (or he wouldn't be skating that way in the first place. No athlete makes an error on purpose).

See, Tom's BODY doesn't know what it feels like to skate with his knees super-bent.

But he THINKS he does.

Am I saying you can never correct your athletes? Not at all. I'm saying that the vast majority of VERBAL corrections won't work, and there is a better way.

 For goalie coaches, that "better way" is often video. That meant I needed to get over my technophobia, and get more comfortable with an iPad, my iPhone, or other video devices.

At Stop It Goaltending, we use iPads equipped with a simple and cheap ($4.99) app called "Bust A Move," which provides a delayed video and allows us to show our goalies exactly what they're doing right, and what they're doing wrong.

The impact has been tremendous. Some kids (and adults) are simply visual learners. They may not "hear" instructions, but when the "see" themselves, things click. As the old saying goes, sometimes "a picture is worth a 1,000 words."

And the technology has proved that even this old dog can learn new tricks.

FINIS