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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When a goalie's body language speaks loud and clear

In goaltending, as with most sports, it's not how often
you fall that matters. It's how often you get back up.
Hi gang,

After spending last weekend evaluating young goalies at the MassHockey/CCM High Performance Festival, I thought this column on body language was particularly appropriate. It was quite remarkable how you could see, even from a distance, which goalies had confidence, and which ones doubted themselves.

Confidence, of course, is a tricky and sometimes elusive thing. Some kids are born with it. Others develop it as they experience success. But its definitely a characteristic that can be nurtured and developed. And that starts with body language. It's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you project an air of confidence, the more likely you'll assume the actual trait of being self-assured.

Let me know what you think. Thanks.


Body language that speaks loud and clear

During summer camps, we goalie coaches spend most of our time on the ice teaching technique, the physical tools required to stop the puck. We concentrate on things like skating (and more skating), angles and positioning, head trajectory, reading shots, proper stance, the butterfly, butterfly slides, butterfly pushes, and recovery.

For younger goalies, we'll also assess equipment. We want to make sure it fits properly, so the gear can do its job and protect the person wearing it. But there are other facets to the position that, while subtle, can be very important. Good camps, and good goalie coaches, will make an effort to focus on those aspects as well.

When covering team settings, we often discuss communication, and the goalie's responsibility to be a quarterback of sorts, providing instructions and encouragement to teammates. There's also non-verbal communication, which can have an enormous impact on a team's fortunes. In short, body language can speak volumes.

The way a goaltender carries himself (or herself) is vitally important to both individual success and team success. The position, as the last line of defense, brings with it inherent leadership qualities. A goaltender needs to exude confidence (even if his knees are shaking underneath those pricey leg pads). A goalie who looks nervous will typically play nervous. It's a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. And that nervousness can infect an entire team. Defensemen start playing tentative, and forwards are apt to take fewer chances.

Furthermore, goalies who look nervous gives their opponents a big boost. Hockey forwards – good hockey forwards – are predators. And like any predator, they go for the weak link. The last thing any team, or goalie, wants to do is give their opponents any additional edge.

Confidence, of course, is built through good practice habits, and exacting repetition. The "appearance" of confidence, I believe, breeds genuine confidence. So, during camp, I encourage my goalies to take chances. When I ask for a goalie to demonstrate a drill, I want them all racing for the net. Though a simple step, it reveals a willingness to step into the spotlight, and to take chances. That's essential.

Here's another example of how body language can affect both your team, and your opponents. How do you react when you give up a bad goal, or when your defense hangs you out to dry? Do you throw a tantrum, slamming your stick, or yelling at your teammates? Trust me, that isn't passion. It's immaturity. And, more often than not, an immature goalie is a liability.

I don't allow these little hissy fits during camp. In fact, I'll stop a drill to let the goalie know, in no uncertain terms, that these outbursts are never acceptable. Typically, a young goalie will say, "But I won't do that in a game." I don't believe it. One of the great truths of hockey, and goaltending specifically, is that you typically play the way you practice.

In a recent USA Hockey article, Boston University sports psychologist Adam Naylor talked about the importance of hockey players developing a healthy sense of "swagger."

"Body language is one of those funky things where our emotions can shape our body language and vice-versa," said Naylor. "Our body language can shape our emotions. We usually don't appreciate that blend.

"So I always tell players to go beyond what they look like to others," he said. "How will your body language feed your performance?"

A goaltender with bad body language can almost appear to shrink in the net. Positive body language, meanwhile, helps a goalie look bigger, can buoy an entire team, and demoralize opponents.

"To me, there's so much more than putting a fake smile on it," Naylor told USA Hockey. "I always talk about that with hockey teams: how do you spread emotions? I think it's just awareness and knowing the performance benefits."

Again, practice is where you develop that veneer of invincibility. Summer camps are also a great setting. Why? Because no one there is judging you. At least no one that really matters. Your coach isn't there, and your teammates probably aren't there either. You're not going to win the starting position during summer camp. But you can build the foundation that will allow you to compete for that starting spot, or league all-star honors. Whatever goals you set for yourself, attaining them starts well before the season.

On that point, it's important to address one influential group that is present during summer camps: Parents.

My advice to parents is to dial back their expectations during the summer. Yes, I appreciate the investment. You're footing the bill, and you want to make sure it's money well spent. I get it. But I can tell you from experience, as a coach and as a hockey parent myself, that you can undermine your child's development by being overly analytical.

You can demand effort. Absolutely. There's no substitute for hard work. You can expect that your child be engaged, as opposed to simply going through the motions (yes, kids, we can tell the difference). But try not to get into the habit of dissecting every drill, and every goal. I learned this the hard way, with my own daughter.

I wanted so much for Brynne to improve – believing that the better you are, the more you enjoy the game – that I risked squeezing the fun out of the game. That's what constant critiques, no matter how well intentioned, can do.

So, instead, I enrolled her in a couple of light-hearted sessions of the Northeast Women's Hockey League. NEWHL, run by long-time goalie coach and girls' hockey advocate Bob Rotondo, is almost like organized pick-up hockey. NEWHL has teams and coaches and refs, but no real pressure to win each Sunday. That gives girls the freedom to experiment, to dare, to try new things without the corresponding peril of failure. All I asked of Brynne was to try hard each time she was on the ice. In return, I promised not to pick apart her game.

As a result, Brynne's game flourished. Though she plays defense, and not goal, Brynne's newfound confidence was evident. She was more comfortable handling the puck, made fewer turnovers, made more precise passes, had better gap control. This past season was by far her best, as she played with a new level of poise and self-assurance. It was a wonderful thing to watch.

Which brings us back around to goaltending. Confidence can be a fragile thing. You need to nurture it, constantly. That comes more easily to some than others. But confidence is almost always rooted in two things – hard work, and a joy for the game. Focus on those during practice, and during summer camp, and confidence will become a hallmark of not only your game, but also your character.

It will show in your body language. And your team will be the beneficiary.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Improvement closely tied to trust and communication

Coaching goaltenders requires a sublime mix of
empathy, encouragement, and tough love.
Hi gang,

With high school playoffs in full gear, I thought it was a good time to revisit this column I wrote last year for the New England Hockey Journal.

Somewhat coincidentally, I coached the young goalie mentiond in the opening scene this past summer, and learned that she was leaving her public school program and an abusive coach for a spot on a private school roster. Things must have changed sometime between summer and the beginning of the past season, because she was back at her public school by November. I'm guessing she realized she wasn't going to see as much playing time, knowing the other private-school goalie (who is very good).

I'm also guessing she wasn't thrilled about the decision, given the type of coach she was returning to. But playing time is playing time. It's just a shame that some kids have to make uncomfortable choices like this.

Let me know what you think. Thanks!


Improvement closely tied to trust and communication

The story was enough to make my goalie coaching head spin. Another parent and I were sitting at our daughters' hockey game. He was telling me how he had stopped by another high school girls' game earlier that night, out of curiosity. The game was a match between a traditional Massachusetts private powerhouse and a public school that was trying to break into the state's upper echelons. It quickly proved to be a mismatch.

The game didn't start well for the public school, and the red-faced coach started screaming at his goaltender. Screaming, across the ice, loud enough for the entire audience to hear. Things like "Wake up! Get your head in the game!" A grown man, screaming at a 16-year-old girl. Brilliant.

Predictably, the public school lost, 6-1. More than that, the public school coach had embarrassed himself, not only in front of his team but also in front of all the parents in the stands. If you're among the minority that thinks this type of "tough love" approach is good, I'm telling you, plain and simply, you're wrong. Listening to this story, I didn't know whether to be angry, or disappointed. Probably both.

There's no "love" involved in this approach. It's harassment. And it's humiliating. The coach lost his cool, which I'm sure contributed to his team losing the game. More than that, he called out a teenage goalie, in a very public way, which almost ensures a level of distrust that will last well beyond that one game.

Before we go any further, I must stress that I'm not advocating pampering any player, especially goalies. Ask any of the goaltenders I work with, and every single one will tell you that I don't cut them any slack. None. Excuses are for losers. The goalie has one job, and that's to stop the puck. It's an incredibly difficult job, admittedly, but no one is holding a gun to the goalie's head. Stopping the puck is the job that goalies sign up for, and excuses prevent improvement.

Trust, on the other hand, is essential, and that starts with good communication.

Nowhere is that more important than the pressure-packed postseason. In the playoffs, coaches need to build their goalies, up, not tear them down. In goaltending, more than any other position, confidence is king. Without it, a goalie is going to struggle. That's why coaches – not goalie coaches, but head coaches – absolutely need to develop a relationship with their netminders.

My good friend and employer, Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending, addressed this dynamic in a recent post of his Monday Morning Goalie Coach blog.

"I recently read an article online about marriage, and something really struck me," said Daccord. "Marriages that last are not because the couple agrees on issues, but they have the ability to communicate about the issues. Naturally, I had to immediately apply this to goaltending and the relationship between the head coach and the goalie."

Daccord has witnessed a consistent disconnect between coaches and the team's goaltenders at every level of the game, from Mites to the National Hockey League. It's a baffling situation.

"You would think that a coach who's good fortune rides on his goaltending staff would make it a point to communicate with them and make sure they have a clear head," wrote Daccord. "Far too many goalies are left hanging and spending way too much mental energy trying to figure out where they stand. There are even still coaches that do not notify their starting goalie a day in advance of a start.

"Goalies don't need coaches to blow smoke, but they do need to know where they stand and what role they have on a team," he said. "It is on the coach to do his part by communicating with his goalies and therefore earning their respect and trust. If a coach is straight up with a goalie, there is a greater probability that he will be able to perform at a higher level, in which case everyone wins."

Daccord ran this blog post with a photograph of John Tortorella. The implication was clear. Like another former Ranger coach, "Iron Mike" Keenan, Tortorella (now with the Columbus Blue Jackets) is well known for not only having a hair trigger when pulling his goaltender, but also has a history of throwing his goalies under the bus when things aren't going well. The most famous example of this ploy, of course, is the Canadien coach Mario Tremblay embarrassing future Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, who then forced a trade to Colorado, where he won two more Stanley Cups. Montreal? The Canadiens haven't been back to the finals since saying "au revoir" to Roy.

Now, to some extent, I understand a coach's frustration. The less you know about a position, the less likely you're going to make educated decisions about which goalie to play, and how to approach the goalies before and during the game. But the onus is on the head coach to get up to speed on the nuances of the position. The goaltenders are not only part of their team, but also a vital part of the team's success. That doesn't mean coddling the goalies. It means understanding the position.

I've never babied my goaltenders. Honest assessment is an essential part of the position. But productive communication between the coaching staff and their goaltenders can make an enormous difference in not only the success of the goalies, but the team in general.

Here's an example. For two seasons, I worked with a high school team as a part-time goalie coach. I'd stop by once, maybe twice a week. The coaching staff treated me like some kind of witch doctor, specializing in the dark arts of goaltending. "Take the goalies, we'll work with the rest of the team," was the typical instruction.

The coaches were almost dismissive, to be honest. "Fix our goalies" appeared to be their mantra, without any understanding in their own role in breaking their netminders in the first place (and if you watched a "normal" practice, there was little doubt that their shooting drills weren't helping to develop the goalies).

Now, compare that to my experience this year, where one of the teams I'm helping has two freshmen netminders. Both girls are only 15, with precious little experience. One was a backup last year, as an 8th grader, and never saw any game time. The second is an absolute beginner trying to make the switch from lacrosse goaltending. Needless to say, it's a precarious situation.

But, to their credit, the team's coaches have actively solicited advice. I've heard comments like "We want to make sure we're not contradicting what you're telling them," or "We want an idea of the skating and shooting drills they should be doing when you're not here."

The difference between the two approaches is startling. The latter is far more enlightened, and ensures that the goalies are getting a consistent message. The coaches and I discuss our goalie situation often. We're not always on the same page. They want both girls to get better quicker. I counsel patience. Young goalies will make mistakes. So do the other young players on the team, all of whom have been playing hockey much longer.

That's why keeping those lines of communication open between coaches and goaltenders are so important. For every team. I wish more coaches would understand just how crucial it is to encourage, and not simply critique.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Nurturing mental toughness

Viking kicker Blair Walsh, after his missed kick last year.
Hi gang,

Forgive me as I and the rest of New England continue to recuperate from our Super Bowl celebrations. Whether you're a Patriots fan or not (and no, Mark Wahlberg, you're not), you've got to admit that was one hell of a comeback.

The numbers alone say it was the greatest comeback ever in Super Bowl history. Regardless of the numbers, the game revealed this team's intestinal fortitude. Courage. Toughness. It reminded me of the following column, which I wrote about a year ago.

Minnesota Viking Blair Walsh had a similar opportunity to win a playoff game for his squad. But he missed a 27-yard field goal attempt, and the Seattle Seahawks won the game. The column was inspired not by the missed kicked, but by how Walsh rebounded, and how we can all learned to be mentally tougher. (As a nice side note, Walsh was just signed by, of all teams, the Seahawks). I hope Matty Ryan and the Falcons can bounce back as well.

Let me know what you think. Thanks!


Nurturing mental toughness

Mental toughness is something we all like to think we have. But the reality is we often don't know if we've got "it" or not until we're put on the spot, when the outcome of a game falls squarely on our shoulders. Ask Minnesota Viking place kicker Blair Walsh about pressure.

It was Walsh who missed a 27-yard chip-shot field goal attempt that would have knocked the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks out of this year's NFL playoffs. It didn't matter that Walsh is a very good kicker, hitting 87 percent of his field goal attempts in 2015, including six of eight from beyond 50 yards (for his career, he is 121 of 142, or slightly more than 85 percent). When the big pressure moment came, Walsh's kick went horribly awry, spinning wide left.

To his credit, Walsh didn't hide, and didn't make any excuses (some analysts thought Walsh was done in because the holder left the football's laces facing Walsh's boot). "I'm the one who didn't do my job," he told the collective media.

Of course, Walsh was excoriated on the Internet by cowards with keyboards. That's life in pro sports these days. As Ryan Hiles, a columnist for the Louisville Cardinal (the independent weekly student newspaper of the University of Louisville) wrote, "There's no denying that Internet shaming is now a part of sports."

"It's worth noting when we as a society become comfortable with a certain level of emotional sadism mixed into our daily lives," wrote Hiles. "Sadly enough, we can all be deemed guilty of this sadism to a certain extent. It's become almost a sport of its own to revel in the pain of someone far off with whom we share no relationship or connection."

That's unfortunate, but not surprising, given the general decline is basic human decency over the past two decades (just take a glimpse at any political debate for a refresher course). While maybe not ubiquitous, this rush to judge certainly seems more prevalent.

There is hope, however. A group of Minnesota first-graders, recognizing how devastating Walsh's missed field goal attempt must have been, wrote consoling notes to the place kicker, who returned the favor by visiting their classroom. Hiles, the college columnist, got it too.

"This isn't a plea to stop hurting the feelings of millionaires," he wrote. "They're grown-ups, and they can handle their own. They don't need the kind of crusader-like defense that some sports often inspire. Perhaps it's still worth it to think about how eager we are to exploit human misery for a laugh. More importantly, to those of you that take the time out of your day to take to social media and add to the madness, chew on this: what's the point?"

Which brings me to hockey, at almost every level. Like Hiles pointed out, millionaires chasing pucks at the NHL level don't need our pity (though it wouldn't hurt to keep in mind that, yes, they do have feelings). I'm more interested in the kids playing at the youth, middle school, high school, and even college levels. This ridiculous need to point fingers and assign blame has filtered down to the sport's youngest participants, and it's helping to squeeze the life, and the fun, out of our game.

My coaching colleagues and I see this all the time. Given the fact that we work with goaltenders, the most pressure-packed position in sports, that's almost expected. You have to be tough-skinned to play goal. The worst is the email sent from a parent, saying a son or daughter has left the sport because it's no longer fun. How crazy is that?

Yet I'm as guilty as the next "hockey dad." I constantly have to remind myself that my 16-year-old plays the game because she loves it, not because she thinks she's the next Angela Ruggiero. While I try to justify my critiques with the rationalization that "the better you are, the more you'll enjoy the game," even I have trouble believing that logic sometimes. The look in my daughter's eyes says it all. I need to learn when to back off.

Similarly, Dr. Robyn Odegaard, founder of the Stop the Drama campaign (, wants to make sure that coaches and parents (and players) aren't confusing maniacal training with mental toughness.

"I've been very disappointing in what I've seen athletes and even coaches talking about when they talk about mental toughness, things like being forced to run until they throw up," said Odegaard. "Anything that you do physically, whether it's working out to exhaustion in the gym, or anything else, isn't going to increase your mental toughness. It may let you know if you have mental toughness or not, or it may break you if you don't have mental toughness, but it won't change your mental toughness.

"In order to actually increase your mental toughness, you need to understand what you're doing to decrease it," she said. "One of the skills I teach is how to tell the difference between evaluation and performance, and make sure you're doing them one at a time."

Evaluation, said Odegaard, is looking back on a play, and determining whether you did it correctly and what you can change to improve. Performance, meanwhile, is the act of actually doing something.

"Your brain can actually only do one at a time, not both," said Odegaard. "But how often, during a competition, have you thought, 'That was dumb. I wonder what coach is going to think? Will he pull me out of the game?'

"That means you're evaluating. You're looking backwards," she said. "Performance means, 'What do I have to do in the next 10 seconds to be successful?' Being able to take control of your thought process increases mental toughness, not running until you make yourself sick."

To take control of their "thought process," young players need to be given the freedom to make mistakes without feeling like the results of the game is their sole responsibility. I tell my daughter, and the freshmen goalies on her squad, "You win as a team, and you lose as a team." That's not coach-speak; it's the truth. There are plays throughout the game that determine the final score. And even if they do lose, it's not the end of the world.

In other words, ease up. It is just a game. If a group of first-graders in Minnesota, and a college columnist from Louisville, Kentucky, can understand that, so can we.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.