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.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Taking time off won't stunt your child's growth

Mother Nature never intended for kids to play hockey
year round. That's why ice melts in the summer.
Hi gang,

So, it's already late June, and my summer camps schedule starts in earnest next week. It's remarkable to see how big the business of goalie coaching has gotten in the past 10 years. Summer, oddly enough, is my busiest time of the year when it comes to coaching, and my writing often takes a back seat.

So it's with a certain sense of irony that I venture into today's topic. The coach in me knows that the off-season is a great time to take your game to the next level (or for your child to do the same). But it's called the "off-season" for a reason. Don't forget to give yourself, or your child, a break. Here are some thoughts on the topic. Let me know what you think.

##

Taking time off won't stunt your child's growth

March and April signal the end of another ridiculously long youth hockey season. And, unfortunately, the beginning of the next. Starting with Labor Day, the season usually runs for more than seven months. Why? Because youth hockey is driven by people who own the rinks, the leagues, and the teams. They want those sheets filled. Let's not sugarcoat this – today's youth hockey landscape, in large part, isn't designed to transform little Johnny into an NHLer or Division I player, or little Jennifer into an Olympian. It's designed to make big bucks for grown-ups.

Now, before I go any further, I need to distinguish between "for-profit" select and/or club programs, and the traditional "non-profit" town programs. On the whole, I'm far more concerned with the select or club teams. They charge more, promise more, and sometimes deliver more. But even non-profit local "town" programs are forced to play this game, because for-profit leagues and rink owners dictate the schedule.

That's why, when the season ends, tryouts start almost immediately. Select or club teams want to get you, and your child, back on the hook. The tryouts themselves can be a shameless money grab, with dozens of kids trying out for a handful of spots, at $20 or more per session. Then there are spring and summer leagues, with requisite practice sessions. All of which cost money. As too many professional athletes say these days, "It's a business." We need rinks, which means rink owners need to make money. I get it. The problem, though, is that this "business" traffics in young boys and girls, and the dreams of parents.

Admittedly, some "select" programs do a better job developing players. But I've seen a seismic shift in select hockey that's akin to an arms race. Youth programs are actively recruiting kids as young as 10. Once one program starts advertising championships or high-profile "alumni," they all do. Then the goal becomes "winning," and "marketing." Somewhere along the line, the ideals of "childhood" and "age-appropriate development" get trampled.

It's time to stop this madness. Or at least scale it back to a "reasonable" level. Playing hockey year-round, whether you're a goaltender or a positional player, isn't automatically going to make you an all-star (especially if you don't have the natural physical gifts). It won't even automatically make you the best player you can be. We've been sold a bill of goods that most experts acknowledge is misguided.

I guarantee you this much – Year-round hockey isn't necessary. Your child won't be banished to some hockey hinterland if he doesn't play all summer. Do you think Bobby Orr played year-round? Gordie Howe? Patrick Roy? Orr, in his recent autobiography, practically begs parents to come to their senses and bring some sanity back to the youth game. Mark Dennehy, the coach of the Merrimack College Warriors, has told me repeatedly that the number of D-I prospects on any "select" team can be counted on one hand. With fingers left over.

Worse, it's far more likely that these programs, while churning out little automatons who "look" good, fail to cultivate any true love for the game. The kids can skate, shoot, and stop the puck, but are they having fun? I honestly fear that that soul of the game is being compromised by this Faustian pact that parents agree to, which essentially states that if they pay top dollar for "top-level" programs, they ensure their offspring a spot on at least a college or major junior roster. Yet anyone who is familiar with the German legend of Faust knows how badly that arrangement ends, with Lucifer hauling the old man off to Hades.

The youth hockey corollary is a child who says, "the heck with it," and simply walks away from the game. No one wins in that scenario.

Here's what I suggest to parents. First, lighten up. A once-a-week program (maybe twice) in the off-season, supplemented by one or two full-week camps, is plenty to keep your child's skills sharp. I'm a big proponent of instructional programs, whether clinics or camps, provided they're done in moderation. I've heard stories of parents lugging their kids from one goalie camp to another over the course of the summer. That's just nuts.

A once-a-week clinic, or occasional camp, can be tailored to a specific need, such as skating, stickhandling, or defensive play. For goaltenders, weekly clinics will maintain their current ability level. A concentrated camp, on the other hand, can correct bad habits that crept into their game over the course of a long season. The repetition of a good week-long camp provides the building blocks that goalies need to improve their game, without going overboard.

Second, encourage your kids to play other sports. Ball and stick sports like basketball, baseball/softball, tennis, soccer, lacrosse, or football. Lifetime sports like hiking, cycling (road and mountain bike), swimming, trail running, or rock climbing. Have them play tag, or hide and seek. Get them outside, and let them have fun. No systems, no drills, no structure. As long as they're active, it's all good.

The best all-around player on my daughter's high school team "dabbles" in hockey in the off-season. She might attend a summer camp, or skate the occasional weekend game in the fall, provided it doesn't conflict with her soccer schedule. But when hockey season starts in November, she is "all in." I firmly believe this impressive young woman played so well because she was hungry for hockey once the season rolled around.

That's what you want; Hungry players, who love hitting the ice. It's the rare player who can maintain that passion throughout the year. Forcing them, under the guise of constant improvement, often has just the opposite result.

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Guru Mailbag

The Letter: Hi. My daughter Ashley is just 15 and a high school freshman. She has been playing hockey for five years. She mostly plays defense, but this year her high school team needed her to play forward. She is a strong skater. She will be teaching with Laura Stamm at our local rink this summer. However, she is strongly considering learning how to play goalie. She plays goalie in field hockey and has been exceptional. I think she has the "goalie mindset." If she is to play goalie next season, she'll need to start training now and over the summer. Can you give us some suggestions for off-season training and summer goalie camp ideas? Thanks.

My Reply: Great questions. First, I think it's great that Ashley is working with Laura Stamm. That will remind her of the importance of skating. Goalie-specific skating, on the other hand, is a very different animal. It is the foundation of everything we do, because getting to the right place at the right time is the key to making saves. But while the skating is different, it's not rocket science, either. If you're an athlete, which Ashley appears to be, the conversion isn't that difficult. What it takes is fairly intense repetition. With new goalies, I recommend a 4- or 5-day summer camp, one that offers at least two hours of on-ice instruction per day. My daughter's high school team had two beginner goalies this season, and I convinced their parents to send both to a local camp in August. The improvement was really impressive, and rewarding. A good goalie camp provides not only repetition, but proper repetition (assuming quality instruction). Also, look for camps that have paid college shooters, not volunteers. Better shooters make better drills, and better goalies. Last, talk to the camp owner, or the director. If you have any questions, ask. Don't assume. This conversation will, at the very least, give you a sense for what the owner's priorities are. If he spends too much time talking about himself, and not about your child and what he or she can expect to learn, that's a red flag. Camps, like hockey programs, should be about development, both in terms of skill, and love of the game. Best, -Brion

FINIS


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Few understand the exquisite agony of a goalie gaffe

Boston University goaltender Matt O'Connor.
Hi gang,

Every goaltender gives up bad goals. Unfortunately, they come with the territory. But how we deal with those bad goals often defines who we are, what kind of character we have, and what kind of goaltender we'll ultimately be.

Boston University's Matt O'Connor (no relation) gave up a terrible goal (a full video can be seen here) at the worst possible time -- The NCAA title game, with his team nursing a one-goal lead. Absolutely brutal. How he moves forward from this will speak volumes about this young man. This piece was originally published for Sports Illustrated's Edge platform (seen here). Let me know what you think ...

##

Few understand the exquisite agony of a goalie gaffe

There are bad dreams. Then there are nightmares. Hockey goaltenders know both. But it's the nightmares that can not only cost them a game, or a championship, but also derail a career.

"(Montreal Canadien Hall of Famer) Jacques Plante said it best," said Dr. Saul Miller, author of "Hockey Tough" and "Performing Under Pressure." "He said, 'Can you imagine a job where every time you make a mistake, a red light goes on and 15,000 people stand up and cheer?' That's pressure."

Boston University junior netminder Matt O'Connor knows. Coming into the Frozen Four, the undrafted Ontario native had a banner season, backstopping the Terriers to the biggest turnaround in college hockey. NHL scouts took notice after O'Connor and BU captured Beanpot and Hockey East championships on the Boston Bruins home ice, the TD Garden. The third championship game, however, would not be the charm.

After recovering from a puck-handling miscue in the national semifinal against North Dakota, which BU won 5-3, O'Connor and his Terrier mates were battling the Providence Friars for the NCAA title. With less than nine minutes left, and BU nursing a 3-2 lead, Friar defenseman Tom Parisi lofted a harmless dump-in toward the Terrier net. It was such a routine play that Parisi turned for a line change the moment the puck left his stick.

O'Connor caught Parisi's pop fly, but in a split second of indecisiveness, he hesitated as his defensemen circled back. The puck slipped from his glove, and fell between his legs. O'Connor dropped to his knees, inadvertently knocking the puck into his goal. As two BU teammates clutched their helmets in disbelief, O'Connor looked agonizingly into his empty mitt. It was a soul-crushing gaffe.

Moments later, Friar Brandon Tanev ripped the game-winner over O'Connor's left shoulder, giving Providence a 4-3 victory and their first men's hockey national championship. But even in celebration, Friar goaltender John Gillies, the Frozen Four MVP despite giving up a shaky early goal of his own, empathized with his counterpart.

"As a goalie, you feel for a bounce like that," said Gillies, who signed with the Calgary Flames this week. "You've been there, so you know the bottomless feeling that it presents."

The key phrase is, "as a goalie." The position carries unique pressures that few positional players can fully appreciate unless they've spent time between the pipes. But all goalies, from 6-year-olds to the NHL (especially those now playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs), are all too familiar with the weight or expectations. St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen felt the heat after he gave up two embarrassingly soft goals against the Minnesota Wild in Game 6 of the opening round, costing his team the game and the series.

"If a forward isn't forechecking aggressively, and the other team has an easy breakout, who notices it?" said Miller. "If the D-man's gap is too big and the opponent gets some momentum and generates a chance, some people might see that. But if the goalie makes a mistake, the whole world sees it. It's very consequential."

Bad goals magnify that burden. Worse, goalies can't actively atone for a mistake. If an infielder boots a grounder in baseball, he can make amends next time he bats. But a goaltender must wait for the game to come to him.

"The difference between good goalies and really good goalies is having patience," said Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending, a former goalie coach for the Bruins. "That's mental toughness."

So how does a goalie recover? In the moment, Miller suggests taking a deep breath and reiterating key concepts, like staying square to the shooter. In the big picture, however, it's essential that goalies cultivate a positive mindset.

"Everybody gets scored upon," said Miller. "Maybe not quite as dramatically, or in the theater that this was, but everyone gets scored on. So you have to learn, as a goalie, how to let it go and get back to the present. The mantra is, 'Next shot. See it, and stop it.' That's all the goalie should be thinking."

Dr. Dan Schaefer, author of "Click! The Competitive Edge for Sports, Entertainment, and Business," said the subconscious mind plays a vital role in a goalie's ability to "bounce back" from a bad goal. Negative thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

"What's the internal conversation?" said Schaefer. "Most self-talk is negative, and it's contaminating."

Schaeffer employs hypnosis to help clients uncover hidden mental riddles, solve them, and take ownership.

"How do you control your mind game?" he said. "How do you talk to yourself going into the game? How do you identify and eliminate distractions?"

Both Schaefer and Miller draw on examples from the animal kingdom to help goalies quickly regain focus. Schaeffer prefers the rhinoceros. "A rhino is the only animal that never backs up," he said. "He just keeps moving forward."

Miller likes big cats. When a lion fails to catch an antelope, it doesn't wallow in self-pity.

"There's no negative judgment," he said. "It's always about getting after the next one. So it's a training thing. It's teaching people a process."

Following the game, O'Connor faced the music. The 23-year-old sat in his stall, answering question after question about a mistake he couldn't explain. That post-game performance, say sports psychologists, was an important first step.

"There’s nothing like public humiliation to test your mental fortitude and humbleness," said Dr. Adam Naylor, director of Telos Sport Psychology Coaching. "If you're not willing to be embarrassed, it's tough to play freely at the highest levels.

"The first step in such emotional setbacks is to allow yourself to grieve a bit," said Naylor. "Grieving when something meaningful is lost is a critical piece of being able to step forward.

"When it's time to compete, the great ones look ahead rather than look back," he said. "The past has been mourned and put into perspective. Now it's time to play and write the next chapter."

Perspective also allows goaltenders to remember all the important saves they've made. BU's Hobey Baker winner Jack Eichel confirmed that his teammates understood O'Connor's performance was a major factor in the Terriers reaching the Frozen Four.

"The one thing about goaltending is that you always have to prove yourself," said Daccord. "It never ends. Whether you give up a bad goal, or win a Stanley Cup, you have to prove yourself. "

Matt O'Connor will undoubtedly welcome that opportunity.

FINIS

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Coaches can never forget they're teachers first

Clear communication is a key to good coaching.
Hi gang,

Happy Tax Day! Nothing like the thought of Uncle Sam reaching deep into my wallet to motivate me to find a healthy distraction. So, instead, I thought I'd concentrate on something I can feel good about, which often brings me back to hockey.

For the most part, hockey has always been a great outlet for me, whether I'm playing, coaching, or simply watching. It's a sport that I can literally immerse myself in, which allows me an escape from life's little day-to-day headaches. For me, the best part of a team sport is sharing experiences, that interaction with the other players. And that's all about communication. On the coaching side, it means teaching. Which brings me to this month's topic. Let me know what you think ...

##

Coaches can never forget they're teachers, first and foremost

Mom always used to say, "There's a right way and a wrong way to do things." Pretty simple advice, which is often the best advice. There's definitely a right way, and a wrong way, to coach young hockey players, and especially goalies. For the most part, it boils down to communication.

With the explosion of youth hockey, there are more and more teams, and subsequently the need for more and more coaches. Many are qualified. Many aren't. To some degree, it's a numbers game. But I've seen a raft of former players filling these spots, with mixed results. Just because you could play, doesn't automatically mean you can coach.

The best case I can recall comes from the National Basketball League, with Larry Bird. Even though Bird was successful, it was painfully obvious that he didn't always have the patience necessary to deal with players who didn't grasp the game as quickly as he did. The same disconnect frustrated Wayne Gretzky during his tenure in Phoenix.

Obviously, it's one thing to be able to do something, and another thing altogether to be able to convey how to do that particular something to someone else. The key is being able to communicate. Sadly, though, communication has become something of a lost art. I've seen it repeatedly, observing countless youth hockey and high school games. Coaches, arms crossed, exhorting their players without actually taking the time (and effort) to teach them. It makes me wonder why they're coaching.

Remember why you took the job (realizing, for most of us, it's not a "job" as much as a calling). Was it all about wins and losses, or was it about helping kids improve? That's what you need to focus on. If you do that, the wins and losses will take care of themselves. But player development has to be your No. 1 priority.

Think about this scenario. I've watched a coach leave the rink following a loss without saying a word to a team of 13- and 14-year-olds. This is not coaching. It's pouting. What does this "teach" your players? Instead, you run the risk of a bunch of boys or girls looking around at each other and thinking, "Well, I guess coach doesn't care." Now, I understand, and even appreciate, that the coach might be upset, but the coach also has to remember who the adult is in this equation.

Likewise, screaming at your players from the bench to "work harder" has a limited application. Even if you're right, there's usually more at issue than just effort. Often at the Squirt, Pee Wee and Bantam levels, the players need instruction. You need to be able to explain, in the moment, what happened, what a player did wrong, and what that player should have done instead. You need to teach. And you need to do it right then and there, when the play is still fresh in the player's mind. In many ways, it's the coach who has to "work harder."

In the same vein, telling the goalie to "stop the puck" is meaningless. I mean, d'uh! Every goalie I've ever worked with, over nearly two decades of coaching, knows that's the job. Stop the puck. But as young goalies develop, they're going to make mistakes, and it's the coaches job to catalog those mistakes and help them correct them.

This is the teaching component. Firing a ton of pucks at your goalies isn't going to improve their technique. In fact, it's likely to increase the number of flaws in their game. If you don't have a goaltending background, learn the basics, and be able to demonstrate. There are a number of first-rate instructional books on the market (the more current, the better) that will provide this working knowledge.

If you juggle the line-up, or replace the starting goalie, explain to your players about why you made that decision. Don't make them guess. Whether your team is playing at the squirt level, high school, or above, players deserve to know. Asking a child to interpret why they were demoted is just unfair. That's when a lot of wayward notions can come into play, things like, "The coach doesn't like me," or "The coach is playing favorites." That's not cultivating team chemistry.

Finally, some coaches implement a "No parents" rule, meaning any communication has to come from the kids. I understand why, especially in this day and age of helicopter parents. But I don't agree. First, the coach/player dynamic is completely skewed against the child. Second, coaches ought to be able to discuss the rationale behind their decisions with another adult.

Coaches who are unwilling to talk to a parent are shirking their duty. Period. Whether a paid position or volunteer, coaching is a privilege, and carries certain responsibilities. And if your players are high school age or younger, you need to engage the parents.

How do you make your players better? You need to teach.

# # #

MAIL BAG

One of the best parts of my work, as a coach and columnist, is being able to help out parents, coaches, and their goalies. Here's a recent letter that depicts a classic dilemma for many goalie parents.

The letter: My 11-year-old son is a strong AAA goalie on a mediocre team. He averages approximately 20-25 shots a game, and over 30 shots when he plays against the two top teams. He is currently a difference maker in his games but they tend to lose more than win and can’t really compete with top teams in the area. Lately he has been receiving a lot of serious interest from these top teams who think he could be the missing piece to their already power house organizations. These teams are claiming he will develop into a better goaltender through practice, training and competing against the other top-level teams. However, these teams don't allow many shots in a game as they are so structured defensively. My question is, should I leave him where he is or take him to one of these top teams? Where will he develop the most?

My reply: This is a great question. Your son is lucky that you're advocating on his behalf. The answer, though, is complicated. Many teams just want a better goalie because they want to win, and aren't genuinely concerned about goalie "development." I'm not saying that's the case here, but you want to be aware of the possibility. Getting more shots in a game is a good thing, provided your son isn't getting discouraged. Here are a few things to consider:

1) What is the quality of practice/coaching he's getting now? Will it improve with another team? It's been my experience that select teams don't automatically mean better coaching, though many select teams will bring in goalie coaches, which is a plus.

2) What is the quality of shots he's seeing now? Will he see better shots with a select team? Better shots, not necessarily more, make a better goalie.

3) A better team will arguably provide better shots in practice. And practice is really where ALL players, including the goalies, improve.

Bottom line, it's not just the number of shots in a game. It's the quality of shots in games and practices, and the quality of coaching. I'd take all of those into account before making your decision. Good luck!

FINIS


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Toughen up!

Trash talk, anyone? Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin,
right, has a pregame chat with Lightning goalie Sean
Burke a few years back at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Hi gang,

Apologies for the delay in getting a new post up. Shoveling eight feet of snow will definitely throw a wrench into the weekly schedule. The following is one of my more "controversial" columns, because it really ticked off a colleague. And I guess that's the point of the column.

It wasn't my intention to upset or needle anyone. Honest. Instead, the idea of the column was to explain how, after a lifetime of playing between the pipes, I've learned to ignore trash talk. Usually, anyway. We all have bad days when the wrong comment sets us off. But, for the most part, I let trash talk slide off me like I was Teflon. Because, in hockey, trash talk is part of the game. At almost every level. If you let it get the better of you, your oponents get an advantage. And I wasn't going to give them that satisfaction.

##

Toughen up – Goalies need to develop a thick skin

During the holiday break, I found myself in the midst of a fun little Facebook exchange that somehow went off the rails. Well, I thought it was fun. Apparently, the sometimes colleague I was bantering with – I'll call him Barney, to protect the guilty and innocent alike – didn't take kindly to my comments.

So I'll let you decide (not that there's any "right" or "wrong"). A second colleague posted a terrific photo of himself and Barney enjoying an outdoor game at Boston's Fenway Park. Here are the pertinent comments, edited only for brevity:

Me: "That's great, guys! I'll be there next time. And tell Barney to get a bigger jersey! Ha ha!"

Barney: "Brion, I asked for a bigger one, but since your ego wasn't going to be attending, they didn't order any XXLs."

Me: "Ho ho, Barney ... I believe they had goalie jerseys. Those should have done the job (maybe)!"

Barney: "They didn't. But hey, this has been a delightful reminder of why we're not actually friends on here anymore. Always glad to get a refresher."

Me: "Barney, how did you ever survive in a hockey locker room? It's all in good fun, my friend. Really ... try not to let your own ego get in the way. You'll laugh more!"

Barney: "Don't you have a cloying column to write about how kids should be nice to each other and respect the game? Been a while since I 'read' one of those."

Me: "Nice try, Barney. Really, you need to lighten up. Good-natured ribbing is a great hockey tradition ... Anyone who actually played the game knows that."

And that was pretty much it; nothing worthy of Don Rickles (or, for younger readers, Bill Burr or Kevin Hart). I hardly gave it a second thought.

The exchange ended with my sometimes colleague sending me a private message, saying I was the exit point of the gastrointestinal tract. I laughed. I've been called worse by better. Plus, I just didn't see the big deal (which, I suppose, was his point). Barney's major complaint was that Facebook was a "public" venue, and that his family and friends could see my posts. Um, OK. My personal approach to Facebook is to avoid taking anything on it too personally, and I didn't find anything remotely hurtful in my comments (or Barney's), and still can't. Sophomoric? Probably. But mean-spirited? Not at all. Maybe that's just me.

But the exchange got me thinking about why I could shrug off Barney's comments, while others might take similar comments personally. That brought me back to his comment, "Don't you have a cloying column to write about how kids should be nice to each other and respect the game?" So that's what I'm doing, since there's a lesson here.

I do advocate respect. Like hard work and accountability, respect is one of the game's founding principles. So is having fun. There's a certain amount of good-natured teasing and trash talk that makes the game so entertaining. Why do we love "Slapshot," hockey's seminal movie? Because playwright Nancy Dowd absolutely nailed the sarcastic and often edgy wordplay between teammates, and opponents.

Now, in some circles, this might be called bullying. I get it. I'm a parent, and my daughter played co-ed hockey through 8th grade. Believe me, she's heard some pretty nasty stuff. Last year, when one young man called my daughter something particularly egregious during a goal-mouth scrum, she yelled: "Go ahead, tell the ref what you called me." It was brilliant. The ref inquired, the kid confessed, and sat for a 5-minute unsportsmanlike penalty. Then he had to explain it to his coach.

For the most part, though, wisecracking repartee is gamesmanship. As long as that banter stays within socially acceptable bounds, I'm perfectly fine with it. There's a big difference between bullying and agitating.

What's more, goalies have to deal with it. Opponents will try to get under your skin any way they can, and that part of the game isn't going away. They might bump you, snow you, or say nasty things about you. This happens to every player, and it happens in almost every sporting competition (including such "gentlemanly" pursuits as golf and tennis).

Take NFL cornerbacks, those tough-but-undersized defenders with oversized egos compressed into smaller frames. Trash talk is their stock in trade. It might unnerve rookies or untested players, but the response I really enjoy seeing is when a veteran receiver simply smiles at them.

That's a goalie's best option, too. Laugh it off. It's not always easy, and I'm not suggesting it comes naturally. You might have to work at developing that bulletproof veneer. But it's your best defense. When an opponent gets in your grill, and starts woofing, just smile, and remind him (or her) that you're not going anywhere. You can't go crying to your teammates, your coaches, or your parents. You need to be tough. Mentally tough.

Sports psychologist Saul Miller also talks about being emotionally tough. With a position as demanding as goaltending, "you either love the challenge, or fear the challenge," says Miller. Opponents will prey on those fears, using trash talk to drive an emotional wedge between you and the task at hand. Ignore them, so you can focus on stopping the puck.

Of course, you can always chirp back, but you better be ready to back it up. I personally believe it's in a goalie's best interests to keep trash talk to a minimum, since our job is tough enough. The last thing a goalie needs to do is start yapping at other players, especially in a game. It's the quickest way I know of to get a puck fired at your melon.

I recall an opposing goalie in high school, from a top-ranked team, making disparaging remarks about my gear during warm-ups (there was nothing wrong with my pads, but they admittedly weren't the latest and greatest). I told him to come talk to me afterward. But my teammates heard him, and got fired up. Our squad – which wasn't very good that year – battled to a 2-2 tie, knocking Mr. Wise Guy and his team out of first place. I'll never forget it, because the guy didn’t have anything to say after the game. Not … one … word.

Neither did I, as much as I wanted to, other than "nice game" in the handshake line. That's the respect part of the game. We stole a point, and I was happy with that. But my teammates were happy to taunt me afterward, reminding me of the two shots that hit the posts, and another bound for an open net that my defense blocked.

I laughed along with them. They were right. It was a game we had no right being in, but we had Lady Luck on our side. I told my teammates it was karma, and the hockey gods were scolding a derisive opponent. They told me I was full of it, and they were right. That year, like I said, was a long one, with few highlights. But it made me tough, and taught me to laugh at myself. That's served me well, not only as a hockey player but also in life, as a coach, a journalist, and even as a parent.

Hope that doesn't sound too cloying.

FINIS

Thursday, January 22, 2015

You team jersey, and what it really represents


Whether you win a title or not, always
take pride in the jersey you wear.
Hi gang,

This month's column was inspired by an incident with my younger daughter,and it features an interesting back story. Brynne plays for a co-operative hockey team hosted by a neighboring school district. What makes that arrangement particularly compelling is that the host school -- Masconomet -- is the archrival of our district in most sports. "Beat Masco" is a common battle cry in the halls of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.

But in girls hockey, girls from Masconomet, Hamilton-Wenham, Newburyport, Georgetown, Amesbury and Triton all join hands to form a single team under the red & white colors of the Chieftains. And the jersey these girls wear represent this impressive collection of individuals. As a result, that jersey is a vitally important symbol, a symbol that unifies six school districts and 13 communities. Pretty impressive, and something I hope the girls always keep in mind every time they hit the ice.

##

You team jersey, and what it really represents

Sometimes I really feel sorry for my hockey-playing daughter, Brynne, because she has to deal with me. I'm the poster child (grown-up?) for Old School, and that goes for every aspect of the game. I believe in sportsmanship – "Yes, act like you've been there before." – and respecting the game, your opponents, your teammates, and your uniform. Just the other day, I got upset because my daughter left her game jerseys on the basement floor. That's a big no-no in my book.

At the risk of getting all crusty on my daughter (I promise, there were no tall tales of "hiking 10 miles to and from school, uphill both ways"), I told her that a game jersey is something you take care of, because it's more than just a jersey. It's a symbol. It represents the ideal that you've "earned" your place on a team, instead of just a uniform that you got because your mom and I shelled out the coin to get you placed on a team.

This means a great deal to me. In New Jersey in the late 1960 and early 1970s, there weren't enough rinks to accommodate the demand. That meant most league teams had tryouts. And kids got cut. Period. There were no apologies, no lengthy explanations. It was pure hockey Darwinism. You went to the try out, played, and then waited for the teams to get posted. If you didn’t make it, tough. Try harder next time. But if you did make a team, that jersey represented the effort, and the accomplishment.

I'm not sure that kids who are oblivious to the cost of the game – from the gear to the ice time – have a same appreciation for their jerseys. Now that I'm a parent, I feel the same as most parents. I want to provide for my kids. I want Brynne to have good equipment, not only to protect her, but also to help her get the most of whatever abilities she brings to the game. Good equipment does make a difference. While there's no substitute for god-given talent and a determined work ethic, the right gear helps. And most parents who love their kids, and love the game, are happy to spend the money needed to outfit our players adequately.

So this month, when we see lots of youngsters coming to the rink with the shiny new equipment that Santa brought, I'd like to ask parents a favor. Tell your kids to take care of their stuff. All of it. Require them to carry their own bag, and make them responsible for everything in that bag. This cultivates ownership, and ownership is a critical component of hockey. In hockey terms, "ownership" translates to accountability. That's one of the bedrock principles of the game. Don't make excuses, and don't point fingers. Be accountable.

Second is the literal definition of ownership. I had to buy my own gear. That was the deal I made with my mom (she paid for the leagues, not to mention playing taxi driver to all my practices and games). When you have a little sweat equity invested in your jersey and your equipment, you're more likely to care for them. Every player should take care of his or her own equipment. This is not mom and dad's responsibility. This is your responsibility. Air out your gloves and skates (removing the footbeds to prevent the rivets from rusting out). Hang up your game jerseys. Always.

The same goes for a goaltender's gear. Maybe even more so. For starters, goalies have more equipment. But it's also critical to remember that our ability to stop the puck relies on our gear working correctly. If a particular piece of equipment is faulty, because it's either worn out, doesn't fit correctly, or is put on the wrong way, it will affect your game. I love the old expression, "A good craftsmen never blames his tools." But a good craftsmen also knows the right tools make a difference. He knows how to use them, and makes sure his tools are in good working order.

Goalies, even young goalies, should inspect their gear on a regular basis. Make sure the snaps and buckles aren't broken (or missing), that all padding is in place, all the screws are snug, and the laces are in good shape (if they're frayed, replace them before they break). If you lose a screw on a toe bridge, the leg pad can pull away from the skate, and you can lose control of the pad. Same goes for a toe lace. With today's rotating leg pads, the toe lace (or strap) keeps the pad centered on a goalie's leg, which is critical for both safety and performance.

Here's another reason why goaltenders (young and old) need to be mindful of their gear – if the equipment doesn’t fit correctly because straps and laces aren't maintained properly, a goalie risks injury. The obvious example that jumps to mind is the knee cradle of the leg pads. These days, with the emphasis on the butterfly style, it's critical that the knee is secured in the pad's knee cradle. If the elastic is worn out, or the Velcro doesn't hold, the knee can slip out of the cradle and slam into the ice. Painful at best, a potential injury at worse.

This basic caveat also holds true for body armor like chest protectors, knee/thigh protectors, pants, masks and neck danglers. A loose or lost screw on a goalie mask can leave the cage dangling and your face unprotected (I've seen this happen firsthand). If a padding pocket is torn, Murphy's Law dictates that's exactly where the next shot will hit you. What's worse, it would be an injury that was entirely preventable if the goaltender just took a few extra minutes to properly inspect his or her gear, and got it repaired beforehand.

Granted, many veteran goalies are gear geeks, but that's a good thing. We're always looking to get an edge, and we know that equipment plays a part in that. It's not that we just like the new gear; we also enjoy taking care of it. It's part of our routine, and makes us feel vested in the position (part of that classic "us against the world" mindset).

Here are a few additional tips. Again, unless your child is very young, encourage them to take the time to learn how to put the gear on themselves, from skates to helmets. I understand this takes a little extra effort, but trust me, you'll be glad in the long run. And they can practice while watching whatever game happens to be on TV. What could be easier?

Buy your child a skate stone, and show them how to use it to remove burrs from their skate blades (a common problem for goalies, who often smack their skate blades against the posts). Nurture that sense of pride that a good craftsmen has in maintaining his tools. Make sure your young goaltender keeps a spare set of laces, and a replacement screw set, in a secure pocket of his or her goalie bag.

And don't ever – ever! – allow your child to leave his or her jersey on the basement floor.

FINIS

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