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.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Welcome to the real world

Hilary Knight, a member of the USA women’s hockey team,
deflects the puck toward goalie Molly Schaus during a practice 
Hi gang,

Time to revisit one of my favorite topics -- realistic practices for goalies (and, by extension, the rest of the players). I find that I come back to this topic often, only because I continue to see, year after year, coaches running practices that are nowhere close to reality.

Now, I understand that sometimes coaches will be looking to hone specific skills, and that will require taking some "license" with a drill to address that specific need. But those coaches also need to take care not to accidentally encourage bad goaltending habits (such as telling the goalie to keep the puck moving, instead of tying up the rebound).

Here's my New England Hockey Journal column on the topic. Let me know what you think.

##

Practice plans, and the concept of living in the real world

Now that the high school season is well under way (I know, I know, most kids have been playing since Labor Day, but that's another column), it's time to revisit practice habits. Bad practice habits. Or, at the very least, unrealistic practice habits.

What this really comes down to, from a goalie's perspective, is shooting drills that don't mirror reality. Long-time readers of this column know how I feel about the typical youth hockey, club hockey, and high school hockey practice, the ones that have the goaltender bombarded by an avalanche of shots. These drills may be great for promoting survival skills, but they won't produce better goaltenders. In fact, I've long believed goaltenders improve in spite of these shooting drills, not because of them.

You can see this at the highest levels of the game. Mike Valley, goalie coach for the Dallas Stars, recently gave a talk – "Practice Shots vs. Game Shots" – during a goaltending symposium in Wisconsin. He wasn't necessarily concerned about the volume of shots, but the drills that create a certain "type" of shot. Namely, drills that funnel players into the slot, on their forehand, with no defensive pressure, allowing them to rip shots at will.

"I would challenge any coach," said Valley. "They say, 'Goaltending equipment has become too big.' They say there's not enough goal scoring.

"But look at how [goalie coaches] study the game, and how we're training. Look at how much that has changed," he said. "Now compare that to how much practices have changed in the last 30 years. We look at how goaltending styles have changed, how everything has evolved. But practices look the same as they did 20 years ago."

The problem with most practices is twofold. We're creating lazy shooters, and terrified goalies. Valley referred to an April, 2015 article by NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley, who quoted long-time NHL back-up Jason LaBarbera on the challenges that typical practices present. LaBarbera noted that, in a game, players don't have the same time to make a move, which allows him to play deeper.

"In practice, guys have all day, and you start to get tired as practice goes on," said LaBarbera. "And I found I started to be a little more of a skater, take another step out, just to give myself a better chance to make myself feel a bit better."

"It's hard, because you don't want to get away from who you are and how you want to play in a game. But if you play deep in practice, you are [vulnerable] to a point, especially because coaches are looking at you. You want to make sure you are making saves, and looking like you're playing well."

LaBarbera is absolutely correct. He's not emphasizing "depth" as much as he's talking about stopping pucks, looking good while doing it, and cultivating a self-assured "persona." Bad shooting drills are the antithesis of all three.

This isn't just an NHL problem. It happens at every level. As I write this, I'm sitting in a rink, waiting for my daughter's high school game, watching a youth hockey practice. The "warm up" consisted of players coming right down the center of the ice, sometimes two at a time (each with a puck), winding up and firing away. It's nuts.

"What happens in practice, you're standing there, and you're like, 'OK, I know my game plan, I know how I want to play things, I know the depth,'" said Valley. "Then all of a sudden the guys start coming down the middle and they're just zinging it, bar in. And they have time to skate in, nobody's touching them, and it's just shot after shot after shot. You're managing confidence."

Valley's point is clear. If you want to build your goalie's confidence, you have to create more realistic drills to mirror what they can expect to see in a game. To verify his suspicions, Valley commissioned a quick study that revealed, over 1,150 NHL games, only 4.5 percent of the shots came from the mid- to high-slot area, unimpeded. That's right – only 3,063 of 68,174 total shots came from this prime scoring area.

"So I brought this up to my NHL guys," Valley said. "I said 'Are you going to base your confidence level on something that happens only 4.5 percent of the time? That's 1.5 shots per game. You're much better off focusing on being a smart goalie, how you're going to play when the puck's coming down the wing, or they're throwing pucks in from a bad angle, and trying to jam for rebounds. Don't base your confidence off something that's only going to happen only 1.5 times a game.'

"For me, it was a pretty powerful message. Those numbers are pretty revealing," he said. "And if there's anything we can do as [goalie] coaches, it's maybe to try to get the [head] coach to understand that, if we want to increase goal-scoring in the league, why are we practicing something 98 percent of the time that only happens 4.5 percent of the time (in a game). It's just a different way of looking at things."

Woodley, who is also a correspondent for InGoal magazine, had a similar take.

"A good chunk of practice can be counterproductive to good goaltending, leaving the goalie facing situations that can create bad habits," wrote Woodley. "It is the separate sessions with the goalie coach, before and after practice, that are important. If that sounds like a stretch, consider the fact that a large portion of NHL practice time is spent on line rushes which are only occasionally defended, often in the loosest sense of that term. The result is wave after wave of players skating in with passing options and plenty of time to dish or hold and shoot from close range."

Yeah, that happens all the time in a real game, right? The onus, however, is on the coaches during these youth, club, high school or college levels to understand this distinction, and implement drills that are more realistic. I've seen this with my daughter's team. When we have shooting drills coming out of the corners, along the top of the face-off circles, I tell the girls to shoot while "shielding the puck." In other words, if they come around on their backhands, they need to shoot on their backhand.

More often than not, they look at me like I've got three heads.

"But I can't shoot a backhand," is the typical response.

"Exactly," I'll say. "And you'll never learn if you don't practice."

Backhand shots also happen to be one of the toughest shots for a goalie to read. So, while it may not be the sexiest shot going, learning how to take it, and how to save it, is a real win/win.

The same holds for a variety of shots, from a variety of angles, with defensive pressure forcing quick releases. That's what happens in a game. That's what you ought to be trying to create in your practices. It will benefit your goalies, and your team.

##

Postscript: I also want to take a second to give a shout-out to the courageous girls who step up to play goalie for their public high school teams. This is a common predicament for girls' teams in the Northeast. Goalies are a hot commodity, and if you have any talent, there's a good chance that you'll be recruited to play prep school or club hockey. Which means the hometown public school team is typically scrambling to find someone brave enough to take up the crease. I see this happening repeatedly.

Given that situation, I have another appeal to the coaches. If you have a beginner goalie, be patient. The position is unlike any other on the ice. It takes time for goaltenders to develop. It won't happen overnight. The position brings enough pressure even for a veteran netminder. If you're lucky enough to have a player willing to take up the challenge for the good of the team, make sure your support her.

FINIS

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Gear Game ...

There's all sorts of goalie gear, for all sorts of goalies.
Hi gang,

Apologies for the delay in new posts. The bill, once again, has come due for my 45-year goaltending career, and I had to have a high-tech "fluff and buff" on my lower back to remove some arthritic bone between my joints. The good news is that my surgery in early November has me feeling better than I have in months, and the nerves are recovering (albeit slowly). I'm even looking forward to getting back on the ice.

In the meantime, here's some advice for anyone looking to do a little holiday shopping for that favorite goalie on their list (yes, that can include getting gear for yourself ... Santa says that's perfectly legit!). Let me know what you think.

##

The gear game …

This month, I originally intended to write about the benefits of yoga for the hockey goaltender, but circumstances intervened. Over a five-week period starting in early of October, I met no fewer than a dozen parents who were absolutely bewildered by the vagaries of outfitting their young goaltenders. It's a little unsettling to see so many young goaltenders coming to our clinics ill-prepared to face hard rubber.

The reasons for this are numerous, but almost all come down to one simple fact – most parents and coaches aren't familiar with the gear. I don't really blame either group, especially given the changes in equipment in the past decade. But if you have a child who wants to play goalie, whether that child lives under your roof or is on your team, you have an obligation to learn about the gear, and how to put it on correctly (because protective equipment works best only when its worn properly).

That said, I put even more responsibility on the owners and managers of retail stores. If you sell goalie equipment, you need staff members who know how to size it properly and can instruct goalies and their parents about how to wear it. There's simply no excuse for letting customers leave without a full understanding of how to put the gear on.

So, since it's been a while, I'm reprising some thoughts on purchasing goalie gear. With the upcoming holidays, I predict there will be dozens of young goaltenders begging mom and dad to head to their local hockey shop for a little shopping spree. Why not? The fact is, all that cool gear is one of the major reasons so many kids want to play the position these days.

Older goalies (like me) recognize that playing goal "back in the day" was a calling, for one simple reason. You got hurt. It wasn't unusual for me to finish a skate with several welts, each one recording a save. The equipment hadn't caught up to the curved sticks and slap shots, and getting hit by a puck was going to be painful, period. Things are different today. The gear has never been better at protecting the player, but that security comes at a cost.

I appreciate the financial commitment that playing goal brings. Pro-level leg pads, made north of the border, run at least four figures, with the starting point of roughly $1,200. There are exceptions to the rule, such as Simmons, a solid pad manufacturer that doesn't spend big bucks on pro sponsorships. But pads from the major players – Vaughn, Reebok, Bauer, Brian's, CCM – all cost a pretty penny.

So what's a goalie parent to do? First, if your young netminder is still growing (ages 6-16), don't go crazy on top-notch gear. Kids will want matching gear, probably the same stuff their heroes wear. Don't do it. Get them what they need, and save what you can (you'll need it later if your goalie stays with it).

Younger goalies (Mites and Squirts) don't need bulletproof protection, because their teammates can't shoot the puck that hard (the coaches might get carried away, but that's another story). Don't take the "he'll grow into it" approach. Equipment needs to fit correctly, and be relatively lightweight. If the pads don't fit, you're setting your child up for frustration at best, and failure and injury at worse.

In this regard, secondhand gear is a great choice, because it depreciates so quickly, and you can find reasonable prices online at sites such as Craig's List, or stores like Play It Again Sports and Replay Sports. I've had great luck on Ebay, but that's because I know exactly what I'm looking for. That's a little trickier for parents, since you're buying the item "blind."

If you're new to the world of goalie gear, you want to actually see the stuff you're buying, and you want to make sure it's a good fit.

Most importantly, make sure your child's knee (with skates on) fits squarely into the middle of the knee cradle of the leg pads, and that the elastic cradle strap will keep the knee in place (if that strap has lost its elasticity, replace it). Newer pads are specifically designed to move with the goaltender, but only if they fit correctly. Likewise, the chest and arm protector should fit comfortably – buying this item over-sized will only prevent your young prodigy from being able to move without difficulty.

Since these pads only going to be using it for a season or two, you might also opt for newer pads on the lower end of the price spectrum. To help take the sting out of outfitting a young netminder, most major gear manufacturers now offer equipment made overseas, and the quality of this gear has improved dramatically recently.

Again, make sure to deal with a shop that has people who can show you the correct way to put the pads on (pay special attention to the toe strings). We've had kids get on the ice with the pads on the wrong leg (yes, there are "left" and "right" pads). Remember, putting on pads, for most parents, is akin to me changing the brakes on my car. If you've never been shown how, it can be puzzling. Take the time to learn, and encourage your young goaltender to do the same (for example, newer pads are designed to be worn loose, so the pad can rotate when the goalie drops into the butterfly).

Likewise, show them how to take care of their gear (don't for example, let them just leave it in the bag, where mold and mildew will flourish). Get a stick that fits properly – with the blocker hand at the top of the “paddle,” the stick blade should rest on the ice when the goalie is in a nice, comfortable stance, with knees bent. Don't go crazy with taping the stick; that only makes it heavier and more unwieldy. Gloves should open and close relatively easily, and allow the young goalie to hold the stick properly. Goalie skates might seem like a luxury, but they're far superior to regular skates for the specific movements the position requires.

For PeeWees and Bantams (ages 11-15), you want to emphasize protection. Kids start shooting faster and harder, and the puck isn't getting any softer. Better gear is not just an option; it's a necessity. Upgrade goalie pants, chest and arm protector, and probably a mask with a plastic neck protector (or dangler).

Knee/thigh pads are also important. Many smaller, kid-size leg pads expose the area just above the knee, just below their hockey pants, when a young goalie drops on the ice. Some pads have "thigh boards," but in less expensive models, these boards rarely stay in place. Knee/thigh protectors are an inexpensive piece of gear to prevent injuries to this very susceptible (and sensitive) part of the leg.

Again, go the secondhand route if money is a concern. You can find good gear at 25 to 40 cents on the dollar, and your child will benefit from the added measure of safety. Compared to my gear from the 1970s, today's equipment is far superior, which is one of the biggest reasons goaltending is becoming so popular. It simply doesn't hurt as much. That's a good thing.

Just make sure you know what you're buying. Ask lots of questions. If you're not getting answers that you're comfortable with, find another shop. Because it's not worth risking your young netminder getting hurt.

And be sure to check back next month for my thoughts on yoga as part of your fitness regimen.

FINIS

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Goalies need to be included in situational drills & game plans

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

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

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

##

Goalies need to be included in situational drills & game plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINIS


Lessons from a goaltender who went above and beyond the call

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

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

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

##

Lessons from a goaltender who went above and beyond the call

Air Force goaltender Chris Dylewski was not super star.

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

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

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

Serratore didn't stop there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoken like a true leader.

FINIS

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Requiem for an athlete


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

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

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

##

Requiem for an athlete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINIS

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What coaches and parents can learn from a caring teacher

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

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

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

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What coaches and parents can learn from a caring teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a wonderful legacy for any teacher. Or coach.

FINIS

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Back to the basics


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

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

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

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

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Back to the basics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINIS