Goalies, on your mark, get set ...
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 ...
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 understate
ment 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.