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.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Shout out! Goalies must take charge in the D zone

If you're going to be a leader on the ice, you have to
make sure that you and your coach are on the same page.
Hi gang,

Another month, another column.

This topic is one of my favorites, probably because I was never very quiet in the net. I felt if I was going to be held responsible for any goals that got by me, I was going to take responsibility for telling my guys what to do in front of me. That trait came naturally to me, but was also drilled home by two of my favorite childhood goalies -- Eddie Giacomin of the Rangers, and Billy Smith of the Islanders.

However, it's one of the trickiest traits for me to coach, because goalie coaches are rarely involved in "teaching" game management, or taking a leadership role. In other words, unless we're part of a specific team's staff, we don't won't closely with the goalies about how they ought to quarterback their teammates in the defensive zone.

Instead, that's primarily the job of the head coach. But I've got a few suggestions. Let me know what you think ...

##

Shout out! Goalies must take charge in the D zone

As parents, and coaches, we're often telling kids to "Pipe down!" Usually, it's for a good reason, like before a hockey game, in the locker room, when you're going over a forechecking scheme or a breakout play while all your Squirts are yapping about their latest X-box donnybrook. But, for once, I'm asking coaches to encourage one player in particular – the goaltender – to speak up. Here's why ...

Coaches are usually looking for some kind of an edge. Northeastern coach Jim Madigan, just before the 2013 Beanpot Tournament in February, pulled former Husky and Beanpot MVP Wayne Turner out of his bag of tricks to rally his troops. "He talked about mindset, about mentality," said Madigan after the Huntington Hounds dispatched BU, 3-2, in the opening round. "He talked about how we're not going to get faster in the next two days, we're not going to get smarter the next two days. It's about mindset."

What Turner was saying is that there's no "magic bullet" to improve your game, but you can sharpen your focus in order to make the most of whatever physical gifts you're bringing to the table. In the same vein, I believe that one of the quickest ways for a team to improve is better on-ice communication between the players. That goes double the goaltender.

I always tell my young goalies that the position, by its nature, comes with certain leadership responsibilities. You need to take charge in the defensive zone. Remember, the goaltender is at the center of the action, the proverbial "eye of the hurricane." Even though the action is invariably coming to the goal, it's actually the quietest spot on the ice. Good goaltenders engage their peripheral vision to keep tabs on everything that's swirling around them. They literally have their head on a swivel. It's actually very similar to being a quarterback in the pocket. While the quarterback is surrounded by mayhem, either at the line of scrimmage or dropping back to pass, he has to be able to make smart decisions and guide his team. In other words, be a leader. The same holds for the goaltender. That's why they need to speak up.

How do you, as a coach and/or parent, get youngsters to do that? First, goalies need a big voice, one that can be heard above all the helter-skelter activity that positional players must deal with. I often start most practices by asking my goalies their names. They often look at me as if I'm nuts, because most know that I already know who they are. But what I want to hear is them responding with a big, loud, and clear voice. I usually tell them this in my best imitation of a booming, James Earl Jones baritone (which convinces most of my students that I've lost my marbles, but at least it gets them laughing). But the point is simple – if I can't hear you, standing a few feet away, in a quiet rink, I'm sure as heck not going to understand anything you say in the heat of a game.

Now, I realize some kids are shy or soft-spoken, but that's no excuse for whispering instructions to your teammates. Neither is a mouth guard. If they can't hear you, you're just wasting your breath. You've got to be loud and proud. Positional players – defensemen and forwards – are trying to process a dozen different things in the blink of an eye, while all that blood and adrenaline is rushing between their ears. If goalies want to be heard, they need to pump up the volume, and make sure their voice cuts through all that white noise. The rule of thumb for coaches and parents is whether you can hear your goalie from the bench or stands. If not, they're not loud enough.

Second, goalies must be decisive. Instructions need to be clear, and concise. The game is much too fast for lengthy conversations or complicated explanations. Share the basic instructions you plan to use with your teammates, such as "Screen!" when your defender is blocking your view, "Man on!" when your defender is being pressured, "Time!" when they can take a moment to look up ice, "Reverse it!" when the opposite wing is free, or "Stay home!" when your defender is tempted to leave the slot to go chase the play in the corner. These are just a few examples, and you can use whatever terms you want, but make sure everyone knows the lexicon.

The key here is to make sure you and your teammates are on the same page. Use practices and scrimmages to repeat these verbal instructions often, so your teammates get used to your voice, and understand what each command means. Believe it or not, these commands, when used wisely, are a huge help to your teammates, because it removes the responsibility of decision making. In other words, it's one less thing for them to think about. The goalie, however, needs to make absolutely sure that the instructions are accurate and unambiguous. Precision is critical.

Third, goalies have to encourage. When I say be loud, and be a leader, I'm not talking about yelling for the sake of yelling. Castigating your teammates after a bad play, or a goal, is never a good thing. Hockey is a game of mistakes, and everyone makes them. You don't want your teammates berating you after a soft goal, right? That lesson goes both ways. The best thing you can do after a mishap, or a bad goal, is a tap on the shinpads, and a quick "don't sweat it. Let's get one back." Players love these types of goalies, kids who understand that it's a team game, and everyone needs to contribute to win. Chastising your teammates erodes confidence the same way your own confidence takes a hit when your coach pulls you for goals that aren't your fault. So remember, there's a big difference between barking instructions, and criticizing.

Fourth, coaches need to be inclusive. Here's where coaches need to make sure that the goalies are included in all their chalk talks by the bench during practice, and not sitting in the crease, waiting for the next drill to start. In order for the goalie to be a coach on the ice, he or she has to have a solid understanding of your game plan. What kind of breakout do you want? Where do you want your center to play? Leaving the goalie out of those discussions is not only shortsighted, it's foolhardy.

Again, think of the quarterback in football. He has to know the passing routes, the audibles, the blocking schemes, the snap count, all of it. As a football coach, you want your quarterback thinking just like you. That only happens when the player is fully engaged. It's no different for hockey coaches and their goaltender. Give your goalies the tools to orchestrate your game plan, combined with the freedom to instruct, and the entire team benefits.

FINIS



Monday, November 3, 2014

The hidden dangers of overt practice celebrations

If you want to celebrate a goal in a game,
that's fine! Go ahead. But think twice about
doing it in practice, over and over again.
Hi gang,

The second day of November brought the season's first snowfall. Crazy! Fortunately, it didn't last long, and by today  the white stuff had melted away. But it got me thinking about this column. A good snowfall every now and then is fun. But after a while, if the snow continues to fall, the accumulation can wear on you (especially if you're the one doing all the shoveling).

Similarly, scoring a goal and celebrating, spontaneously, is one of the great joys of hockey. But when it's done repeatedly, or starts to become orchestrated, those celebrations lose their luster. When you celebrate every goal in practice like you've just scored the overtime winner in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, it can have the same effect as that driving snowstorm. When you find a ton of snow dumped on your driveway day after day after day, you can suddenly lose your appreciation for all that fine white fluff.

That's how your goaltender feels when you and your teammates go overboard with each puck that crosses the goal line. It's tiresome. Worse, it can drive some kids from the position, and from the game. And that's a shame ...

##

The hidden dangers of overt practice celebrations

The father's voice on the other end of the line was filled with frustration. For five minutes, I just let him unload, and here's what he told me. His son was a 10-year-old goalie who was rostered on the town's Squirt 2 team. Dad had no problem with the level of team his son was put on, but was troubled by the ongoing antics of a few teammates. To be precise, the young boy's father said several of his son's teammates were celebrating every goal in practice. Not just a fist pump or a shout, but a full-blown celebration straight out of the NHL Network's highlight reels. And the young goaltender was fed up with it. He didn't want to change in the locker room. He didn't want to hang out with his teammates. In fact, said his father, the young boy "didn't feel like part of the team." He was even thinking of quitting.

I couldn't blame the youngster for feeling discouraged, and despondent. It's one thing to be treated like a real-life pincushion during practice (based on the number of shots goalies face in most youth hockey practices, though I'm always hopeful that the tide is turning). It's another thing to be constantly humiliated because the team has a couple of self-centered goofballs partying like they've just won Lord Stanley's cup after every practice tally. It's adding insult to injury. Yet, for some odd reason, this behavior rarely warrants a second look from the coach.

This is one of the great laments of goalie parents. Imagine if your child was a Little League pitcher, and his (or her) teammates started jumping up and down and woofing every time they got a hit. In practice. Or how about if your child was batting, and the pitcher went into an orchestrated touchdown dance every time he got an out. Would you stand for that? I hope not. I know I wouldn't.

Yet, for some reason, this happens all the time in youth hockey practices, and few parents bat an eye. Even if they do notice it, everyone tends to get chalk up to "kids being kids." Everyone, that is, except the parents of the goalies. These ill-advised celebrations have a cumulative effect, and the end result is rarely good. Coaches need to do a better job policing this behavior, pure and simple.

There's an insidiousness to this behavior that coaches need to acknowledge, and should strive to recognize. It's fairly easy to shrug off the occasional celebration, but repetitive partying can wear a young goaltender down, quickly sucking the fun out of the game and taking the child's confidence with it. And once a child's confidence is gone, it's exceedingly difficult to recapture. Remember, these are young kids. An older goalkeeper will usually have the presence, and confidence, to tell his (or her) teammates to knock it off. But a child at the Pee Wee or Squirt level (or younger) may not. And that's where a coach needs to step in and stand up for he netminder.

Now, before you think I've gone soft, I want to be really clear on one point. I'm not saying that the kids who are celebrating are being intentionally mean-spirited, and I'm not saying that the coaches who allow this behavior are cold-hearted. A much more likely explanation is that both groups are simply ignorant. They don't think about the impact that excessive celebrating has on the young netminder. But ignorance is not an excuse.

Furthermore, whether they're cognizant of it or not, these kids are engaged in demeaning behavior. The idea is to embarrass someone else. Want proof? You rarely, if ever, see these demonstrations after a kid puts the puck past a plastic shooter tutor. It just doesn't happen. Why? Because the shooter tutor is an inanimate object. It offers no response. But a young kid with pads on is a perfect target.

There's a reason why the NFL penalizes excessive celebrations. It's unsportsmanlike, because it's showing up your opponent. It's another form of piling on. When a team in a youth hockey game goes up by four or five goals, most youth hockey coaches (though certainly not all) will employ a three-pass rule, or will switch up their line-ups, to avoid intentionally running up the score. Of course, there's the scoreboard serving as a big, bright reminder. In practice, these same coaches tend to turn a blind eye to these post-goal histrionics, shrugging it off with an "it's all in good fun" wave. But it's not fun for the goalie. I assure you.

This is a classic example of kids emulating their heroes, without the requisite maturity to understand when the behavior is appropriate, and when it isn't. They don't grasp the idea that every "celly" undermines the confidence of one of their most important teammates, the goaltender. I've actually had kids tell me they're just practicing their celebrations. Really? I mean, really? I tell them to keep practicing their shot instead.

Here's what I've done in the past to deal with these young chuckleheads. I usually start with a warning, explaining to them why over-the-top celebrations are both unnecessary and insulting. Most kids understand. Some don't (or they understand, but don't feel they need to change their behavior). For this latter group, I take a blunt, decisive approach. I tell them that they will suit up as goalie for the next practice.

You should hear the howls of protest. From the kids, and from their parents. Which always makes me laugh, because I suspect that, deep down, they know exactly how embarrassed they'd feel if they had to endure the same treatment. That's the lesson. Give them a taste of their own medicine.

Think about it another way. How about if the goalies hooted and hollered after every single save? Seems silly, right? So why should it be any different for the players shooting the pucks? The answer, obviously, is that it shouldn't.

One of the most difficult tasks for a goalie coach/advisor is to balance the often-competing concerns between parents and coaches. So I told this particularly parent to address his concerns, and the concerns of his son, with the team's coach. Oftentimes, that's all it takes. As mentioned earlier, this behavior will often go unnoticed only because the coach (or coaches) already has a dozens of issues he's thinking about, from power plays to breakouts to team defense.

However, if the coach dismisses these concerns, it's an indication that there's a disconnect. Don't be afraid to go to the program's board, as a concerned parent. You have that right. I never want to see goaltenders pampered. In fact, it's important to learn how to deal with these shenanigans, because I guarantee that other teams will employ them to unsettle your netminder. On the other hand, teammates ought to be building one another up, not tearing each other down. After all, that is the very essence of "team," and one of the most important lessons that hockey ought to be teaching our sons and daughters.

FINIS

Friday, October 10, 2014

Wanderlust is not the best trait of a quality goalkeeper

You can't always get what you want, and even some
of the world's best goalies (Montreal's Carey Price,
in this instance) spend some time riding the pine.
Hi gang,

Early fall is ice hockey's second "silly season." The first is in the spring, immediately following the end of the actual hockey season. This is when parents start scrambling like mad to find the "right" select team for their young hockey player.

What they don't always understand is that nothing is guaranteed, even in youth hockey. The composition of the team you thought you were joining might well change - and change dramatically - by the time your child suits up in the fall. That can mean the addition of another goalie who will challenge your child for ice time. (Trust me, anyone who takes a "club" or "select" hockey official at his or her "word" is begging to be disappointed.)

And the fallout is all too predictable. Johnny (or Janey) isn't getting as much ice time and Mommy and Daddy think is appropriate. So they start playing "musical teams" with their child, looking for a better situation. I saw one glaring example of this in youth hockey, when a father (I'll call him  "Joey") moved his son ("Billy") to four different teams over two years. Billy was a good kid, always cheerful and smiling, but he wasn't a very good goaltender. Pucks just found their way through him, constantly, regardless of how much additional instruction he got. But Joey kept insisting his child ought to be a starting goalie, which meant he had to keep changing jerseys.

And Billy went along with it, primarily (I'm guessing) because he didn't have a choice. Along the way, I'm convinced Billy actually started to believe what his father was preaching. Billy thought he was better than he was. Which, of course, almost always leads to disappointment. Which got me writing about the topic. Let me know what you think ...

##

Wanderlust is not the best trait of a quality keeper

The youth sports landscape has become increasingly complicated these days. Spring and summer have transformed into bizarre migration seasons for young athletes, where players and their parents move to a new school, a new team, or a new program in the hopes of finding a "better fit."

A better fit, of course, is parent-speak for "a place where my kid will get a fair shake, because he hasn't gotten one yet." I've seen this phenomenon happen at all ages. Many coaches have.

"Yeah, kids are jumping everywhere. If they don't like what's going on, they go somewhere else," Boston University legend Jack Parker told me once. "I will give you an example. When I was recruiting Tony Amonte (in 1987), he was a terrific player at Thayer Academy. He was 17 years old at the time, trying out for the Junior Olympic team. Now, they let him try out, because he was such a talent and they knew he was going to be on the junior team in the future. But there was no way he was going to make the junior team as a 17-year-old kid.

"But they let him try out, and there was a game on the South Shore, and they were playing a junior all-star team," said Parker. "Tony came out after the game with a long face on. His father said, 'What's wrong with you?' And Tony says 'What's wrong with me? I didn't play much. Didn't you watch the game?'

"And his father says, 'That's what's bothering you, Tony?'

"'Yeah, I didn't play enough.'

"'Well, Tony, let me ask you something. Do you want to play more?' And Tony says, 'Yeah, of course I want to play more.'

"And his father says, 'Then play better, Tony.' He didn't say 'The coaches are screwing you,' or 'You're way better than those other kids.' He just said 'Play better.' And that was it."

Youth hockey could use more parents like Mr. Amonte. Jump ahead 22 years, to June 2010, when a 39-year-old Tony Amonte was named the head coach at Thayer Academy. His athletic director, Matt McGuirk (Thayer, class of '92) knew things were going to be different when Amonte returned. Very different.

"When you and I were playing, there was one all-star team in town, and if you didn't make it, you played for your youth team," McGuirk told me three years ago. "Now, there's 55 all-star teams, a lot of for-profit organizations that will, quite frankly, tell you anything you want to hear if you're going to give them $5,000.

"What Tony represents is not so much a complete 180, but the bottom line is, there's no politics involved with his gig," said McGuirk. "You come out, you try out for the team. If you make the team, you're going to be an integral part of the team, whether you're a first-liner or a fourth-liner.

"Tony is all about the Old School meets the New School, and I think that's really important. In this age of enablement, this age that there's always another option, this age of materialism, Tony is all about getting to the core of it. You show up, you go to work, and you go home. The message is so important now, especially with kids today. If you want something bad enough, you can get it. Tony is of the school that you have to earn it. You've got to earn everything you get."

Amonte agreed with his former teammate, noting that the landscape, and its inherent wanderlust, has irrevocably changed, "not only high school hockey, but hockey in general. There are different forces pulling these kids everywhere. Keeping these kids in school is going to be a task, and I think it's going to be a task for every coach."

"It's tough," said Amonte, parsing his words carefully. "There's a lot of competition (for players) out there. There are tons of teams, and everyone wants to win."

As a result, the hockey landscape is filled with bedouin players, nomadic tribesmen roaming from rink to rink, program to program. And the situation is particularly applicable for goaltenders, for one obvious reason. While there can be 12 to 18 positional players per team getting ice time in any given game, there is usually just one goaltender. Most teams carry two or three goaltenders, but too many coaches, with their blinders firmly fastened on in their relentless drive for wins, will ride their No. 1 netminder upwards of 80-90 percent of the time. Sometimes every minute. Which, of course, can lead to disappointment and bruised feelings for the kids who aren't playing. And for Mom and Dad.

"Parents are part of the picture now," said McGuirk. "Being able to solve a problem by moving laterally rather than actually solving he problem through work ethic and determination, is more of the trend now. "

I've seen it firsthand. One glaring example comes to mind, a young man who I've coached since he first strapped on the pads at age six or seven. I've watched him grow, and become a very solid young netminder. Not spectacular, but solid. His freshman year, he attended a nearby prep school, but transferred to another for his sophomore year because his prospects of varsity playing time looked dim. After his junior year, a season in which he was the clear-cut starter, the young man was on the move again, leaving his prep school squad for a junior team. "We felt it was in his best interests," I heard, admittedly second-hand, from a "family adviser."

Really? I'd like to know just what those "best interests" are. I know it's a subjective term, but being the starting goaltender at a prep school with a good academic reputation seems like a pretty sweet arrangement to me. But junior teams offer more games, and supposedly more exposure, which supposedly equates to a better chance for a college scholarship or other opportunities. Clearly, going the prep school route didn't hurt Cory Schneider (Phillips Andover) and Rick DiPietro (St. Sebastian's School), but I recognize that they were exceptional talents. It has to be tougher for the middle-of-the-pack goaltender.

This is where character comes in. Developing character means learning to deal with adversity. And the best way to deal with adversity is to work harder. A determined work ethic is the gritty sandpaper needed to create an exquisite piece of furniture. It is the resolve that will sustain you as you get older, and life throws you curve ball after curve ball.

"That's the big dilemma. Do you take the kid with the heart, or the kid with the skill," said Amonte, when asked what is the greatest character trait he looks for in recruits. "I go for the heart every time. You can teach the skill, you can teach the systems, you can tell them where to be, but if they don't have the work ethnic, it's never going to be there.

"It's a learned skill too," he said. "Every day on the ice is a day you can get better. That's the way I look at it. You can try something new, you can try to get better, and do something you didn't do the day before."

Amen. You don't measure heart or work ethic by the miles that you've logged transferring between programs, or the number of teams you've played for. You measure it in effort you put in during practice and games, and in the weight room, off-season and in-season. As you start your season this fall, recommit yourself to that work ethic, and to your team.

FINIS

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An old goalie and his dog


My knucklehound, True, on full alert.
Hi gang,

You've all heard the adage, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." But that doesn't mean we can't learn a thing or two from our canine companions.

This month's blog post is dedicated to my wonderfully wacky Labrador retriever, True. She is about as pure an athlete as I've ever met. If she comes back in her next life as a human being, with her laser-sharp focus and quick-twitch muscles intact, she could make one heck of a goaltender!

##

An old goalie and his dog

The small chapel at Merrimack College in Andover, Mass., was packed with nearly 100 superb goaltending prospects, ages 14 to 24, and some of the best goaltending coaches from North America and Sweden. It was the first full night of the week-long Prospects Camp, hosted annually by the Goaltending Consultant Group. The day was spent on the physical aspects of the game. The evening would be dedicated to the position's mental challenges.

The speaker was Dr. Saul Miller, a sports psychologist and performance consultant from Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of "Hockey Tough: A Winning Mental Game," among other books. Miller has impressive credentials, having worked with numerous NFL, CFL and Major League Baseball teams, as well as professional golfers and Olympians. In hockey, Miller has consulted with teams and players ranging from youth and recreational programs up through junior and college programs and the professional ranks, including the NHL. The guy knows his stuff.

For an hour, Miller (a former goaltender himself) entertained his young audience, addressing key ideas such as focus, emotional control, mental toughness, mental preparation, attitude, and commitment. I was impressed with how he concentrated on positive reinforcement, being "in the moment," and embracing the Japanese concept of "kaizen," or "commitment to continuous improvement."

At one point during his talk, Miller asked his young listeners what animal embodied the characteristics that they would use to describe their game. I jotted down my own answer, but quickly found out it wasn't shared by the majority. Typical answers were "cheetah," "jaguar," or '"tiger." In short, big cats. Predators. Miller obviously liked the response.

Miller told his audience that, as athletes, they have a choice. They can be the predator or the prey. I agree with that, in large part. Competition, especially in a game as rugged as hockey, is not kind to the meek. There's an unmistakable Darwinism that exists in hockey, particularly at the higher levels. As Miller correctly pointed out, when the fear factor gets bigger, the goalie actually gets smaller.

Plus, I loved Miller's characterization of a short memory, which every goalie knows is critical to success between the pipes. When a lion or cheetah misses a chance to bring down an antelope, for example, there's no judgment. They don't get depressed, or sulk, or throw a tantrum. They simply start hunting again. Goalies who beat themselves up over every goal could learn a great deal from that.

But there was a seriousness to Miller's general message that I couldn't help but feel was a little over the top. If you want to be melodramatic, the whole predator-prey analogy comes down to "kill or be killed," and that's not really hockey. I kept thinking there was a missing element to Miller's discourse, and it hit me when I looked back to the answer I had scribbled earlier.

The animal I would emulate, if I was still on the upward curve of my hockey career, is my 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, True. Yes, our family pet. There is not an ounce of "predator" about True. In fact, she can be a total goofball. Once, when I was berating True for being such a knucklehead, my youngest daughter corrected me: "No, Dad, she's a knucklehound." The nickname stuck, for good reason. True can be stubborn to the point of intransigence.

As her narrow head and lean build indicates, True is a full-on American field Lab, bred to retrieve waterfowl, even in the most inhospitable conditions. Her father, Zeb, was one of my father in-law's prized hunting dogs. In fact, anytime he's back east, my father in-law likes to remind me of "what a waste of a great hunting dog" True is. He's probably right. True is 65 pounds of quick-twitch muscle, sinew, and gray matter hard-wired to catch and retrieve. She is an athlete, in every sense of the word.

But she also personifies all those fabulous qualities that make Labrador retrievers such phenomenal pets. Loyalty, kindness, exuberance. But what really sets the Lab apart, in my eyes, is their boundless capacity for fun. Fun. Such a simple word, but it makes a world of difference in so much of what we do. When True sees me grab my lacrosse stick and tennis ball (our favorite form of exercise), her response is sheer, unadulterated joy. Her ears pick up, her tail wags uncontrollably, her entire body practically shakes with anticipation.

Yet, at that moment, she is absolutely locked  onto the ball, a pure athlete waiting to pounce. In that instance, she is the perfect goaltender – coiled, confident, uncluttered by outside emotions or distractions. I'm pretty sure that you'd have to measure the time between when the ball leaves my lacrosse stick and True's initial response in nanoseconds. She is that quick. And when she catches a ball off the bounce, mid-flight, I swear I can feel her sense of pride as she turns in a big, triumphant arch before running back.

Now, don't get me wrong. True is a competitive beast. Fun doesn't change that. If we're at a local ballfield or beach, playing pitch and retrieve, True doesn't mind a little bump-and-run with the other dogs. And, most of the time, she's the first to the ball. But even if she isn't, her spirit never fades. She doesn't mope. She simply trots back, tail wagging, ready for the next toss.

Coaches and parents can learn something from my True as well. I praise her, constantly. As a result, she will run through walls for me. If I scolded her for every ball she "missed," it probably wouldn't be long before she would lose her enthusiasm for our games of catch. Because they would no longer be fun.

That's one of the reasons I always tell my goalies to smile. I work them hard, because I want each and every one of them to enjoy that distinct sense of accomplishment that comes with maximizing their potential. But I never want them (or me) to lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, this is a game.

My coaching experience tells me this – if you're having fun, you're probably going to be a better goaltender, because you won't be as tense. Tense goaltenders play at a disadvantage, because taut, rigid muscles are slow. Relaxed muscles are quick. The same holds, I believe, for your brain. So stay loose, even while working hard. Be kind to yourself. Have fun. Always have fun. If you need a reminder, stop by my place, and watch my knucklehound in action.

FINIS

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Commitment is not a four-letter word

Commitment isn't easy, especially after three overtimes.
Hi gang,

Don't blink! Summer is already half over, and August is beckoning! I swear, the older I get, the faster the seasons seem to race by. But it's often during the dog days of summer when I learn just how committed a goaltender is to his or her craft. 

I'm not talking about attending camp every day, facing a million shots. I'm talking about the little things -- eating right, getting proper rest, staying fit and flexible -- when it would be all too easy to fall into bad habits.

In reality, that goes for all hockey players, and all athletes. The following column, orginally written fro the New England Hockey Journal, addresses team athletes specifically. I hope it serves as a reminder that you're not only responsible for your yourself, but to your teammates. Let me know what you think.

##

Commitment is not a four-letter word

Every year, it seems I write at least one column that I know is going to set people off. So this year, I'm being clever, and switching columns with April "The Hockey Mom" Bowling for my annual grenade launch.

All right, that's only partially true. The real reason I asked for this forum is because the topic I want to discuss isn't just about goalies, goalie parents, goalie gear, or goalie coaches. It's about hockey players. All of them. And all their parents. It's about commitment.

I live in a small town north of Boston where the high school nickname is the Generals, after one of our more famous residents, Gen. George Patton Jr. "Old Blood and Guts" was a complex man, a bold wartime leader who could be equal parts condescending, arrogant, brilliant, and loyal. He could be quick to criticize, and quick to praise. He may not be the perfect school mascot, but his ability to inspire, and no doubt his fame, make him a solid choice. In one corner of the high school gym, up by the rafters, is a banner that reads: "General Pride – Tenacity, Spirit, Commitment." That pretty much sums up Patton. But youth sports? I have my doubts.

It's that last quality that really concerns me. Commitment. Part of me can't resist laughing, acknowledging the irony. As a guy who didn't get married until his mid-30s, I was usually on the wrong side of conversations regarding commitment. But, as I always told my mom, I was just waiting for the right woman. Having just celebrated 19 years of wedded bliss with my wife (23 years together!), I've learned a thing or two about commitment.

Which brings me back to youth sports. I've witnessed an erosion of commitment over the past two decades, and I place responsibility for that phenomenon largely on parents. Not every parent, mind you. But far too many parents allow their children to pursue as many pastimes as they'd like, oblivious of schedules. Admittedly, sometimes conflicts are unavoidable, given the lead times when you have to sign up. Other times, however, parents just take a shotgun approach. It apparently doesn't matter how many conflicts are created, or what effect those conflicts might have on the kid's team, as long as Little Johnny or Little Jennifer get what they want. Or what Mom and Dad want (say, skiing every other weekend).

So I'm going to ask you – the parents – to consider something radical. For once, stop and consider the other kids on the team before thinking about your own child. Why? Because it's a "team" sport, that's why. If we should be teaching our kids anything, it's that the team in more important than the individual (a basic tenet of hockey, by the way).

My own experience was pretty straightforward. Mom, who raised six kids, supported any pastime we wanted to pursue, with two crucial caveats. First, we had to keep our grades up. If our schoolwork suffered, the pastimes would go away until we set things right. Priorities. Second, if we made the decision to join a team, we honored that commitment. For me, that meant missing family ski vacations in high school so I could make hockey practices.

Now, the obvious dilemma is the question of "When?" When do you start requiring kids to make a more serious commitment. We want youngsters to have a broad array of experiences, so they can learn what they like best, what motivates them. However, reinforcing this approach during developmental years creates a culture where kids (and their parents) accept that it's fine and dandy to show up whenever they please. I draw the line at middle school travel teams. It's a perfect time of transition, for academics and for athletics.

I've attended countless practices – both on the soccer pitch and at the hockey rink – when only a handful players show up. Games are problematic too, but missing practice is a major stumbling block. The absent kids not only fall behind in getting fit and learning the requisite skills, but they also lag in developing a sense of teamwork. That becomes painfully obvious during games. How many of you have seen everyone suddenly show up for a playoff game, only to realize that the kids don't know how to play together?

Here's another example. This past spring, I was an assistant coach for my daughter's 8th grade soccer team. We had 18 players, 11 of which could be on the field at any time. Seven extra players seemed like a lot, but manageable. During practices, we were lucky to get half the squad, and game-day attendance was a constant question mark.

So, halfway through the season, I wrote a lengthy email to the parents, detailing our shortcomings. I finished with the following: "In short, soccer isn't a game you can 'dabble' in, especially now that the girls are on the big fields. Players who aren't in shape, or don't know where to be, or can't control the ball, or make simple passes, are easily exposed. And I think that's exactly what's happened to us. Former Patriots coach Bill Parcells once said 'You are what your record says you are.' I think our 0-3-1 record is indicative of where we're at. I'd really like to see the [team] turn it around for the second half. But that requires everyone to be all in."

Not one parent replied. At least not directly to me. Instead, one mom wrote to the head coach. That parent's daughter was a quiet girl who wasn't a gifted athlete, but worked hard. When she was at practice. Which, unfortunately, wasn't often.
Here's what her mom said: "Many kids do pull on their boots in the spring for the pure joy and sole pursuit of dabbling in the beautiful game. The fast, slow, fit, unfit, tactical and tactically challenged, bring to the field the athletic gifts they have and are willing to share. Increasingly uniquely with no try outs, [the town program] offers all comers the opportunity to continue the experience of team sport. Some choose not to sit, but go out and join their efforts with others, not to win but to take part. And I am proud of all those youthful dabblers who make our town such a joyful and colorful celebration of sport every weekend."

That sounds like a really sweet sentiment, on the surface. I see it differently. I would like that mom to explain to her daughter's teammates why they had no substitutes (including her daughter) during a Saturday game played in 95-degree heat. Not exactly "a joyful and colorful celebration of sport."

But that's exactly what can happen with this type of "my kid first" parenting style. What was accomplished by this child missing half of her team's practices and games? Certainly not an "opportunity to continue the experience of team sport."

Of course, this parent probably never gave it a thought. When parents lack any awareness of how their actions affect their child's teammates, they can drag down the entire team. That's wrong.

If you're still with me, I'll emphasize that I believe the hockey season is too long. No question. Many programs and leagues are run by people more concerned about profits than our kids. I understand that, and fully support my local program's policy of encouraging kids to play a fall sport (for the last three years, my daughter's first hockey game was scheduled before her first soccer game; how crazy is that?).
Once the fall season ends, though, I ask my players to focus on the winter sport they signed up for. Make practices, and make the games. If you can't make practices, don't be surprised if your playing time on game day gets trimmed. Because playing time isn't something that's guaranteed just because you show up, or something Mommy and Daddy pay for. It's something you have to earn.

FINIS

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bouncing back - developing mental toughness is key

Tuukka Rask, your 2014 Vezina Trophy winner.
Hi gang,

I can't help but think that the timing of this post is somewhat serendipitous. In the spring of 2013, I wrote the following column for the New England Hockey Journal, before the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs. At the risk of bringing up bad memories for Boston Bruins fans, those playoffs ended badly for the Black and Gold, and their star goaltender, Tuukka Rask. The Chicago Blackhawks score two goals in the last two minutes to stun the Bruins in Game 6, and taking home Lord Stanley's Cup in the process.

It was a devastating loss for Rask and the Bruins, but the young Finnish netminder bounced back this past season, recently winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender. It was more proof that Rask has got the mental toughness to not only play at the highest levels, but to be a champ. I'm glad he's in Boston. Let me know what you think of the column.

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Bouncing back - developing mental toughness is key

By the time you read this, the 2013 Stanley Cup will have been hoisted, and whether it was Chicago's Corey Crawford or Boston's Tuukka Rask celebrating, both goalies played huge roles in getting their teams to the final. Crawford not only rebounded from a disastrous 2012 playoffs, but also a less-than-stellar second round series against the Detroit Red Wings to backbone the Blackhawks when they knocked off the defending champion L.A. Kings.

Rask, though, was even better through the early rounds. After the Bruins miraculous comeback win over Toronto in Game 7 of the opening round, Rask settled down and was the major reason Boston jumped out to a 3-games-to-none lead over the New York Rangers. Then, in Game 4, with the Bruins holding a 2-0 lead, Tuukka had his fall-down-go-boom moment. Just 54 seconds after the Bruins went up 2-0, Rask appeared to catch an edge when moving right to left, stumbled and fell just as New York's Carl Hagelin threw a soft backhander on net. Rask, sitting on his backside, took a swipe at the puck but missed as it trickled over the line.

It was the kind of goal that gives goalies nightmares. Worse, Rask's gaffe opened the door for the Rangers, and the Blueshirts ultimately tied the game on a strike from Brian Boyle and won it on a deft redirection in overtime from Chris Kreider. And then the Boston media went bonkers (which, I understand, is a bit of a redundancy).

Fans, haunted by playoff disasters of the past, were besides themselves. Doubt crept into the collective mindset of Bruins Nation. After all, it was Rask who was in the Boston nets in 2010, when the Bruins pulled off an epic collapse against Philadelphia, blowing a 3-games-to-none lead (and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 at home) to lose the Eastern Conference finals. The nervous laughter was everywhere – "That couldn't happen again, could it?"

Adding fuel to the fire was that Rask has a history of histrionics. His talent is undeniable (the trade of Andrew Raycroft to Toronto for the young Finnish prospect in 2006 was one of the best by the Boston brass), but he hasn't always exhibited the requisite maturity to deal with bad goals, or losses. Don't believe me? Just Google "Tuukka Rask" and "temper tantrum" for a sampling.

But this is not Tuukka Rask circa 2010. He has grown up considerably in the past three years, harnessing all that fire and talent with a steely resiliency. Rask quieted the naysayers, providing air-tight goaltending in the Bruins series-clinching Game 5 win over New York. He then was absolutely lights out in the Eastern finals against the vaunted Penguins, stifling Pittsburgh's high-powered offense and allowing only two goals in four games. Which leads me to this month's topic; the importance of bouncing back from a bad goal.

Mental toughness has always been a hallmark of great goaltenders. Of course, for many, many years, they had to be tough, period, due to the ridiculously inadequate "protective" equipment goalies once wore. With the recent revolution in gear, goalies today don't face the same prospect of physical harm (though it still takes guts to stand in front of a 90 mile an hour slap shot). Which makes the mental game one of the key factors in determining just how good you're going to be.

Dealing with the pressure – the mental anguish – of goaltending is nothing new. In his 1973 classic, "Goaltending," the late, great Jacques Plante quoted another excellent netminder, Roger Crozier: "There is no way people will understand our particular kind of pressure. Anyone who isn't a goaltender probably won't experience once what we experience hundreds of times; even players don't know what the goalies go through in a game." Hall of Famer Tony Esposito was more succinct, calling it "plain torture."

It's not enough to simply develop a thick skin, and deflect any criticism that comes your way (justified or not). You have to be able to bounce back. "Oh, you'll goof once in a while – who doesn't – but try not to make a habit of it," said Plante in 1973. "You must firmly believe that you can stop every shot, or you'll never be an A-1 goalie."

Joe Bertagna, who is celebrating his 40th year of goalie coaching, wrote in 1976: "Russian Coach Anatoli Tarasov once said: 'The concept of courage must be identical to the word hockey player. There is simply no place in the game for cowards, squeamish or weak-willed people – there is simply no reason for such people to come out on the ice.'"

"If this is true for hockey players in general, it is even more so for goaltenders," wrote Bertagna.

That's because no goalie is perfect. Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending says the No. 1 rule of goaltending is that "you're going to give up goals." Of course, you try to make sure that your opponents "earn" their goals. But what about those howlers, the goals you should have had? What what enables a goaltender to bounce back from a bad goal? Start by forgiving yourself. Be secure in the knowledge that it's happened to every goaltender who has ever strapped on the pads.

"The first thing to realize is that simply because you have been scored upon doesn't mean the world has come to an end," wrote Fred Quistgard in 1996, in his book "Controlling the Crease: A Survival Guide for Modern Goaltenders" (you have to love that title). "If you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders each time your opponents score, you are taking the game too seriously. Put a goal in proper perspective. One goal doesn't signify a bad game unless you allow it to."

I really like Quistgard's advice. Hockey is still a game, and sometimes we forget that (OK, it's a job for Rask, but I'm talking about the other 98 percent of us). Lighten up. Coaches and parents should take note of that point as well. Don't forget that your response can either relieve or ratchet up the pressure on a goalie.

Meanwhile, goalies have to remember that what's done is done. Once a puck gets past you, it's in the past, and there's nothing you can do to change that. In game, I try to encourage my goalies not to let one bad goal lead to a second bad goal. Shake it off, and stay positive.

After the game, take stock. Bertagna recommends quiet, unemotional analysis of each goal, so you can evaluate what you might have done differently and make adjustments. Over time, you may begin to see a pattern, and then you can get to work to address those flaws. Work breeds confidence, which is really the key in handling the occasional bad goal. It's similar to a student who goes into finals well-prepared, compared to one who was up late the night before cramming, just "hoping" to do well. Self-assured goalies are less likely to get rattled.

"Confidence, that's the key to goaltending," said Daccord. "You got to feel like you're going to stop the puck. You can't be worried about letting in a goal, you have to be thinking about stopping the puck."

FINIS

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Summer fun that prepares you for the first puck drop

Mountain biking is a great summer option for goalies.
Hi gang,

Hard to believe that June has arrived, and that the start of summer camps is just around the corner. Although I love working summer camps -- Really, is there any better place to be on a hot, sticky day than an ice rink? -- I always approach the season with just a little apprehension. That's because I think kids need a summer vacation from hockey almost as much as they do from schoolwork.

As a result, my approach to summer camps and clinics is to keep them light and a little less serious. It's a mental break as much as anything. We'll work hard, but in short bursts, and without the pressures of winning and losing. And the rest of the time, I want my younger goalies branching out, pursuing other activities, and playing different sports. Here are a few thoughts on the topic, originally written for the New England Hockey Journal and the New York Hockey Journal. Let me know what you think ... 

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Summer fun that prepares you for the first puck drop

Old-timers like myself vividly remember the days when goalies were mercilessly stereotyped. Not only were we thought to be a few cents short of a dollar, but we were the big, slow (and often overweight) kids who couldn't keep up with the game, so we got stuck between the pipes. And, like most stereotypes, this one is a combination of fact and fiction.

Much like today, there were kids in my day (growing up in the 1960s and '70s) who absolutely loved playing goal, who were more than willing to take on the challenge of stopping an entire team from scoring. Those of us enamored with the position were usually in pretty decent shape, because we were driven not just to be goalkeepers, but good goalkeepers.

Likewise, there were also plenty of kids who found a sort of refuge in the nets, dumpy kids who just wanted to be part of the action despite not being particularly gifted. And they could could away with it, for two reasons. One, you didn't need to be a great athlete, or in great shape; you just needed a relatively high pain threshold. Two, the rest of the kids were happy to have anyone with a pulse put on the pads.

There will always be kids who gravitate to goal, but the ones who do so because they think it requires less effort, and less fitness, are in for a rude awakening. Those days – like my cherished youth – are long, long gone. From the way the game is played (think 100-yard dash, instead of a Sunday jog) to the way we teach the position, goalies need to be fit. Notice I didn't say "great athletes." Of course, that helps. But a youngster with the desire and requisite physical fitness can accomplish great things between the pipes.

On the other hand, come June, kids need a break. Playing hockey – especially goalie – 12 months a year concerns me a little. I think of Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance character in "The Shining," with his obsessive "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" mantra. Talk about scary. I believe it's really important to have an off-season, to recharge our batteries, to work different muscle groups and learn different skills. To have fun.

So, with school out for summer and the start of a new hockey season at least three months away, here are a few of my favorite off-ice activities to ensure that you'll get the break you need, but ready to go when the puck drops in the fall. One important point regarding team sports, such as lacrosse and soccer – don't play goal. Again, give your mind, and your nerves, a vacation. It's summer, after all.

Mountain biking
For my money, the best off-season exercise comes with two knobby tires underneath you. Mountain biking is a full-body workout, improving stamina, explosive power, reflexes, balance, and proprioception (body awareness). Plus, it's a hoot to play in the dirt. Just remember, I'm not suggesting a casual little pedal along a rail trail. If you want to get the greatest benefit, hit the singletrack. The tighter and more technical the terrain, the better. Toss in some vertical, which will really build your quad strength and lung capacity, and your on-ice workouts will seem like a snap by comparison (Interesting side note: I was recently listening to an NHL Classic broadcast of the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, with color analyst John Davidson talking about how Kings goalie Kelly Hrudy got super fit by mountain biking in the hills outside of Los Angeles).

Tennis
Lateral quickness, instincts, reading the play, superior footwork, hand-eye coordination, mercurial bursts of action, endurance, a willingness to battle for every point? Sounds a lot like goaltending to me. Of all my suggested summer pursuits, tennis is probably the closest corollary to playing goal. The best part is you only need one other person (and a court) to really work up a good sweat. Racquetball and squash are terrific options as well, but since this is summer, and I'm an outdoor fanatic, the nod goes to tennis.

Basketball
I love hoops. The game rewards skill, athleticism, hustle, peripheral vision, teamwork, and tough defense. In basketball, if you can't keep up, you get left behind. Period. That's how I want my goalies to think. They need to be in the same shape as their teammates, if not better. Plus, I love the critical thinking skills that basketball develops. You've got to process a lot of information in a hurry, and act on it.

Lacrosse
Hockey's off-ice cousin, lacrosse has all the attributes of hoops, with the added element of a lacrosse stick and (in some instances) a lot more physicality. But, as I said earlier, think twice about playing goalie. I have a neighbor who plays goal in both hockey and lacrosse, and I'm just a tad concerned he'll burn out. It hasn't happened yet (and I hope it doesn't), but I prefer hockey goalies get out and run in the off-season. Play forward. Score some goals!

Soccer
Those who mock soccer can't play it. In reality, the world's best soccer players make the game look ridiculously easy (much like the world's best hockey goaltenders). But the skill and footwork required to play the game at a high level is exceptional. Don't believe me? Just try it. I have a coaching colleague who constantly ridicules soccer, so I've invited him to come play with my group of Over-50 geezers. I've repeated the offer several times over the past few years, but he won't step up. Why? I suspect he knows just how difficult this sport is. So will you, once you try it. But stick with it. The rewards are tremendous.

Baseball
It saddens me to see our national pastime falling by the wayside in many parts of the country, in large part because of the rising popularity of lacrosse. But it's a great game, and if you're a goaltender, there are several positions that are ideal. I played third base, and I loved the hot corner. It teaches you patience, because you need to be alert on every single pitch, or you risk getting your head split open. If you want to be more involved, and really employ some of your goaltending talents, consider picking up the "tools of ignorance" and playing catcher. Is it any surprise the Vancouver goaltender Cory Schneider was also a top-notch backstop for his Philips Andover high school team?

Yoga
This isn't just for old guys (and gals). Athletes of every age can benefit from the flexibility, strength, discipline, and core balance that yoga offers. This is a low-impact exercise (unlike most of the others mentioned above), so it's joint friendly. And if you're friendly to your joints now, they'll repay the favor later on.

Last, if you get a chance to skate, skate out. Put on regular skates, and pick up a regular stick. You'll see the game from an entirely different perspective, which is refreshing. You'll use different parts of your body, and, more importantly, different parts of your brain. Similar to my belief that positional players should don goaltending gear at least a couple of times to appreciate what netminders deal with, I think goalies should rub elbows in the corners and find out just how difficult the game can be for positional players.

FINIS