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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Being a back-up isn't the end of the world

Tyler Stilling's superb prep school career didn't translate to
college, but that didn't stop him from being a great teammate.
Hi gang,

If there was ever the perfect example of the importance of having a quality back-up, Super Bowl 52 was it.

Yes, I was rooting for my hometown New England Patriots, but there's no denying that the Philadelphia Eagles and their MVP quarterback, Nick Foles (yes, a back -up to Carson Wentz) were deserving champions.

All too often we get hung up on a team's stars, forgetting that it's still a "team" game. There's only one QB, just like there's only one goaltender, that plays at any given time. But everyone on the team plays a critical role. My friend Tyler Stillings is proof. Let me know what you think ...


Being a back-up isn't the end of the world

I come today to praise that time-honored and often under-appreciated teammate – the back-up goaltender.

Talk about a thankless job. The back-up goalie's chief responsibility, during games, is opening and closing the bench door. Or being chief cheerleader while teammates are gasping for air. You've got to be ready to play, at your best, even though you rarely know if you're actually getting into the game.

In practice, the back-up is typically the pin cushion, the target who absorbs all the extra shots after the starter calls off the dogs. Yet no one embodies the bedrock truths of this remarkable game – hard work, teamwork, perseverance, humility, and sacrifice – more than the back-up goalie.

Almost nobody sets out to be the second-string goalie. I say "almost," because I've met players who are more than content to be on the team, without worrying about the requisite pressures of being a starter. This column isn't about them.

Instead, I'm writing to those kids who have every intention of grabbing the crease, but fall short due to any number of circumstances. They're an inch too small, a second too slow, a year too young. No matter what the reason – whether timing or talent – these goalies don't become starters. But they're members of the team nonetheless.

I recently read an article in a national hockey magazine about "non-stars." The author contended that every player – even the kids on the end of the bench – has an important role in a team's success. And parents need to appreciate that their son and/or daughter, no matter whether they're a stud or fourth-line winger, is "an integral part of the hockey team," he wrote.

The irony is that the article's author owns a development program that's Exhibit No. 1 in a youth hockey culture that deifies these pre-teen "stars." The program's ads – in print and on television – are specifically designed to feed the parental mindset that, if you want your kids to be great, they need the extra edge that the program offers.

Of course, the author isn't alone. Plenty of camps and skills programs do this, as do "select" teams. I see it over and over and over again. God forbid your child isn't on a particular program's "Tier I" team; you'll quickly discover what it's like to be a second-class skater despite paying a first-class fee. But that's another column. The point is that all these organization fuel "the dream." I get it. It's a business.

(To be fair, the author does mention several great attributes of those "non-stars," such as being vocal and supportive on the bench and in the locker room, being a leader regardless of playing time, being the first on the ice and the last off during practices, and always putting the team goals before individual accolades. I'm on board with all of those.)

For goaltenders, there's definitely merit to playing. All things being equal, game experience is the single biggest delineation between "good" and "great" players. The prevailing wisdom is, find the highest level of play that guarantees your child plenty of game time. Which leads to this crazy contest of musical chairs, with goalies constantly changing teams and programs to find the "right fit."

Now, I'm Old School. I'm OK with the high school model where you earn your starting spot. That means, unless you're a freshman with all-world talent (in reality, not just your parents' minds), you pay your dues. All things being equal, I'm giving the starting nod to the upperclassmen. They've been in the trenches for two-plus years. They deserve that shot.

A few years back, I had a very promising young goalie try out for his school team as a freshman. Ahead of him were two solid netminders, a junior and a senior, who were virtually interchangeable in the coach's mind. On any given day, any of the goalies could have been the best at practice. But the freshman never got a start, and he chafed at that snub. I counseled patience, pointing out that he was steadily improving, and the coaches could see that. His time would come.

But after his first year, this goalie realized he'd still be sharing the job with the junior, who would now be a senior. So he bolted for a prep school, and got the playing time he craved. I hope it works out. It's a solid school, in a decent league with good academics.

Still, part of me worries this young man may one day regret not playing with his childhood buddies. And he better hope he's always "the man." Prep schools recruit, and the coaching staff won't think twice about bringing in a younger, better goaltender.

Conversely, I really hope coaches make the effort to let their second- and third-string goalies know how valuable they are. That's important for several reasons. One, the coaching staff is just an injury away from having to rely on that back-up goalie (a big reason why I'm a proponent of finding game time for all goalies, any time you can).

Two, coaches can't forget that their raison d'ĂȘtre (literally "reason for being") is not simply winning games, but developing young men and women. That brings me to Tyler Stillings. For the past five years, I've had the pleasure of working with Tyler, who played at the Brooks School in Massachusetts before moving on to Assumption College. But Tyler's career with the Greyhounds didn't go as planned. Injuries and poor play limited his game time.

During our Stop It summer camps, Tyler was one of my favorites. He was never the most talented player on the ice, but he worked his tail off. He could get frustrated, and sometimes "over thought" the position. But Tyler played with heart, and almost always a smile. It was impossible not to root for him.

After his senior year, when he again rode the pine, Tyler wrote about his experiences. He acknowledged that he lived and breathed hockey as a teenager, but eventually learned, like 98 percent of youth players, there was more to life than the game. At Assumption, he became an orientation leader, an alumni ambassador and a tutor in the academic support center.

"Hockey will always be a large part of who I am," wrote Tyler. "But it is just that: part of a complicated human being. At the end of this weird journey, Tyler Stillings the college hockey player may be considered a failure. But Tyler Stillings the person certainly won't be. I’m excited to see where he goes next."

I quickly reached out to Tyler, and told him that he wasn't even remotely close to being a failure in my eyes. He responded with a laugh, saying "underachieved is probably more mature diction."

Wrong again. Tyler Stillings was and is a hockey player. Period. He was a great teammate, who led by word and deed. Being a hockey player is not a separate entity. It is part of who Tyler is. That made him a success by any measure. Even as a back-up goalie.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Bringing the goalie coach on board for team practices

Goalies need a coach who understands the position,
and how the position fits into the team concepts.
Hi gang,

My annual mid-season campaign to encourage hockey teams -- at every level -- to incorporate a goalie coach into their team practices. This is such an important part of overall team success, yet is ignored time and time again. The hesitancy to have a goalie coach work with the head coach and staff absolute mystifies me. Winning programs do this, which is one of the reasons they're winning programs.

Let me know what you think ...


Bringing the goalie coach on board for team practices

So, coaches, we're now a full month (or more) into the season. How's your goaltending situation holding up? I hope it's faring better than I have.

This has been a particularly challenging season so far for me, as I recover from November surgery to fix a pair of herniated discs and arthritis-induced nerve damage (my rough-and-tumble lifestyle, and 45 years of playing goal, finally caught up to me). I haven't been on the ice since early August. Frankly, it's driving me nuts.

But the forced time off allowed me to reassess the position, and the role of the goalie coach. I've watched numerous games, from the World Cup of Hockey to the NHL to college tilts to U-19 fall girls hockey. This past weekend, my daughter's high school squad launched its season with a tournament at a local prep school. Brynne's team had mixed results, winning once and losing twice. They gave up 15 goals in those three games, which is not a recipe for success.

My chief frustration, following the tournament, was that I couldn't get on the ice to work with the team's young goaltender (she's a sophomore, having picked up the position just two years ago). More importantly, I knew I couldn't work with the team. Because not all 15 goals were on the goalie.

Sitting in the stands reinforced my firm belief that a goalie coach needs to be an integral part of a team's coaching staff. I saw numerous mistakes, made by the goalie, made by the defense, and made by the forwards (like changing lines during an opponent's odd-man rush). Last year, as a volunteer coach, I could plan with the staff to incorporate certain drills to help improve defensive zone play in general, and more specifically make sure the goalie and positional players were working together.

But since I'm officially "on the shelf," I can't even make suggestions. That's just reality of a coach who isn't on the ice. And I don't mean to suggest I have all the answers. I don't. What I mean is that there's one less voice – and the goalie's perspective – being taken into account.

I'm one of those goalie coaches who doesn't mind pulling back the curtain on that man in the corner. Goalie coaching can be very, very intricate, depending on the level your team is playing at, but it's not quantum physics. Seriously. The basics are, well, pretty basic. Anytime a goalie "expert" tries to convince you that it's rocket science, you should see a giant red flag.

This is one of my annual appeals to coaches. Please, please don't treat goalie coaches like some weird appendage to your staff. Don't separate them; bring them on board. Don't treat goalie coaches like the doctor you send your starting netminder to in order to repair a high ankle sprain or knee injury. Because, let's be honest, you don't care if you ever actually see that doctor. You just want the doctor to fix your goalie, and get him (or her) back between the pipes as soon as safely possible.

But the really, really good doctors are involved. Over the past two months, I emailed my surgeon – Dr. Russell Brummett of Concord Orthopaedics in New Hampshire – regular updates about my progress. Being a writer, I provided more detail than he probably cared for. But he always replied, always offering words of encouragement. Once, when five days went by without any exchange, he reached out to me. Just to check in. How cool is that?

Not all surgeons are like Dr. Brummett, unfortunately. Many (probably most) simply move on to the next patient. Don't get me wrong. They want to know whether the surgery was a success. They'll dutifully follow up – at one month, three months, one year – to make sure things are A-OK. Basically, they're happy if you're happy.

The better analogy, to my way of thinking, is a good family counselor. A good counselor is far more vested in your development, and the family's development, day in and day out, individually and as a group. A good counselor keeps close tabs on your progress and, perhaps more importantly, the times you slip up. A good counselor understands the value of communication. A good counselor is a confidante a well as a coach, someone who understands that integrating a group of people into a single entity can be a complex and wonderful thing. Much like a hockey team.

Most of my colleagues at Stop It Goaltending work with college, high school, and junior programs. One of the recurring themes that crops up is the inability of those coaches without goaltending experience to understand the many facets of the position, and the number of things that can lead to a scoring opportunity. A common question is, "How did that goal go it?" Sometimes the answer is simple. Sometimes it's purely on the goalie. They're human. They make errors.

But oftentimes the breakdowns that lead to a quality scoring chance happen two, three, or more moves beforehand. A bad line change, a bad read, a bad gap, a missed assignment. As goalies, we've spent years watching the game come to us. In other words, we see things. When we see a mistake, we like to have it addressed. It's often more than "just stopping the puck." That integrated approach makes for better team defense.

Here's another reason for having a goalie coach on board that's worth repeating. Better goalie drills make for better shooters. Every summer, the college and junior shooters who work our Stop It camps always remark how learning more about goaltending makes them better scorers. There's another win/win.

So my plea is that coaches, and programs, do more to bring goalie coaches into the fold, sharing ice and ideas. Yes, I understand that often comes with an added expense (more than individual sessions at a mini-ice). Talk to your boosters. Talk to your athletic director, and your parents. Would you rather have fancy new warm-up suits, or an airtight defense? Having a goalie coach on staff won't do much for the former, but can get you much closer to the latter.

Just remember: Defense wins championships.


Postscript: Here's a special shout out to Minnesota's Tony Bruns, a senior and four-year starter at Morris/Benson High. Bruns tallied 98 saves in a 12-0 loss to Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato two tdays after Thanksgiving. That's 110 shots altogether! The 98 saves set a state and national record (breaking Michigan's Jamey Ramsey's national mark from 1987 by 14 saves).

Of course, that wasn’t enough for some "media" clowns who don't understand hockey, or goaltending. One bonehead panelist on ESPN's "Around the Horn" actually disparaged Bruns's effort, saying it amounted to "only" a .890 save percentage. What this goofball didn't mention is that all those shots came in a 51-minute game (17-minute periods). That's more than two shots per minute, not to mention all the work that goes into preparing for each shot. It was, to be kind, a shooting gallery.

Dalen Jones, a former youth hockey goaltender, was one of the official scorekeepers counting shots. "The guy played out of his mind," Jones told Minnesota's StarTribune. "It was ridiculous. I was getting sore just watching him."

Me too. Bruns ought to be proud of his accomplishment, no matter the final score.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Yoga – A goaltender's secret weapon, at any age

Former Bruins star Tim Thomas revived his career with yoga.
Hi gang,

When I was young, I was lucky enough to have a fair amount of natural flexibility. But I still worked at it. I remember doing stretches in the living room of my house in college, and my roommates marveling how I could wrap my hands under the bottom of my feet, and touch my nose to my knees.

As I got older, and work and parenthood squeezed my day, I was less vigilant about my stretching routine. In my 40s and 50s, my once pliable body became stiff as a proverbial board. The solution? Yoga.

Here's my chat with my yoga muse, Kim Johnson. Let me know hat you think ...


Yoga – A goaltender's secret weapon

Goalies are a defensive bunch. It seems whenever the "powers that be" decide that the game needs more scoring, everyone looks at the size of the goalies, and the size of their equipment. It's far less often that you hear folks talking about how today's goaltenders are better athletes, better coached, employing better techniques.

But what those same people often don't realize is that the techniques we teach these days, while incredibly effective, can wreak havoc on a goalie's body. It's no surprise that we're seeing more lower body injuries, especially the hips. Those in the goalie business have even designed specific exercise programs, which we employ at Stop It Goaltending, to help counter-balance those forces.

And yet, one of the best methods of avoiding butterfly-induced injuries is actually ancient, and much, much older than the game itself. Namely, yoga.

Just this past summer, I sat in as New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider was telling a group of young netminders about a time when he saw elder statesman and fellow Boston College alum Scott Clemmensen on the floor, going through an elaborate stretching routine – including yoga poses – before practice.

"Clemmer, what are you doing?" Schneider recalled asking his teammate. "And he says, 'Don't laugh. It won't be long before you're doing this too.'

"Sure enough, he was right," said the Marblehead, Mass., native with a big smile. "Now that I'm over 30, I'm doing the same stretches. Every day."

Kim Johnson of the Athlete's Yoga in Woburn, Mass., has been working with hockey goalies for more than a decade. They include pros like Schneider, Scott Darling, Mike Condon, Joe Cannata, Clay Witt, as well as a raft of young men and women still in school, from 12 to 22. Goaltending, she says, is "a unique position with unique needs that calls for unique training."

"Today's goalie has to train harder due to stiffer competition, higher standards, college scholarships, etcetera," said Johnson. "In order to gain a competitive advantage, athletes are seeking non-traditional methods of training. These unconventional methods can help avoid boredom, overuse, even fatigue, and yet maintain strength and endurance."

Contrary to the generally accepted notion that goalies are as rubbery as Gumby, Johnson said "surprisingly, many goalies lack 'natural' flexibility, making them more susceptible to injury." That's where yoga can make a difference.

"Flexibility in general helps prevent injury, and unfortunately flexibility is often minimized in relation to the overall strength and conditioning pie," she said. "Coaches often leave it up to the athlete to stretch on their own."

Because of that, a sensible stretching routine is often ignored altogether, or done incorrectly. Neither are good ideas.

"Most stretches are done improperly, or not held long enough," said Johnson. "And they don't breath into the stretch. Also, most athletes do the same stretches over and over again, and the body begins to adapt, and those stretches are no longer effective."

Because correct form is so important in yoga, Johnson recommends that goaltenders of all ages start their regimen under the watchful eye of a trained professional.

"A home practice is great, but proper guidance for the beginner is best," she said. "A qualified yoga instructor can customize a program to meet your specific needs as a goalie.

"Learning the breathing techniques, basic foundations, modifications and alignment are essential to a safe and effective practice," said Johnson. "In addition, so many issues (become apparent) on the mat that don't appear in the gym or in the net. A good instructor will ask questions, pay attention, and notice issues before they lead to injury."

A professional yoga instructor will also keep you on point, making sure you stay with the program.

 "Consistency is the key with a yoga practice, as the benefits are cumulative," said Johnson. "The yoga approach to conditioning is slow and steady in order to build strength and flexibility from the inside out.

"With a consistent practice, the actual resting length of the muscles improves," she said. "Elongated muscles are healthy muscles. Relaxed muscles heal faster. Healing and recovery take place through the breathwork, which relaxes the central nervous system. This is what makes yoga unique. It's a systematic approach that addresses the 'whole' body."

However, yoga is not a "one size fits all" discipline. Johnson stresses that goaltenders of different ages need to take different approaches.

With middle and high school goalies, Johnson said she keeps things simple, focusing on breathwork, simple stretches, body and spatial awareness, coordination, strengthening, core development, managing stress, and basic functional movements.

At the college and pro level, she concentrates of injury prevention, opening the hips and groin as well as developing strength in those areas, functional movement and functional strength, range of motion, balance, core strength, recovery and healing, fluidity of movement, balance, mental toughness, focus, breathing techniques, meditation, visualization, and stress management. Whew!

"Goalies peak later, but that's when the body shows signs of wear and tear," said Johnson. "Yoga keeps the body young and moving with ease and efficiency. A customized yoga program can improve their flexibility and complement their existing strength and conditioning program. Because we focus on flexibility and strength, the goalie gets a well-rounded, comprehensive training program."

Even beer-leaguers can benefit.

"Flexibility and balance wane as we age. Flexibility keeps the joints and muscles healthy, enhancing range of motion," said Johnson. "Balance means enhanced coordination and control over how the body moves. This translates to better form and technique. Skating alone requires proper technique, attention to detail, balance, rhythm and coordination, all of which correlate with yoga."

Regardless of your age, the reality is that goaltending is tough on the body. With sports specification becoming all the rage, there's precious little off-season, and that constant pounding can take a toll.

"Overuse is a big issue due to playing the same sport all year," said Johnson. "Hip issues in young goalies is epidemic. My concern is the future of their bodies. Most goalies careers will end after high school, yet they need their bodies to be healthy for life in order to lead an active lifestyle.

"I emphasize core and gluteal activation, so there is ease of movement, less exertion, less stress on the joints," she said. "Use those big, meaty muscles to keep the hips and groins safe. The core is continually engaged while you practice yoga, so in essence you train the core to fire in games, practices or any workout. It becomes habitual."

Johnson also accentuates the mental aspect of yoga, which incorporates meditation with movement.

"Just as you would train the body, meditation trains the mind," she said. "Every practice ends in Savasana, where you are still, eyes closed, resting on your mat. This is where the magic happens, giving the mind and body a chance to process and generalize what it just learned.

"This calming effect translates to the net so that nothing rattles you. Better poise, control and composure," said Johnson. "Feedback from our goalies indicates that they use the breathing techniques before and during games to calm nerves. I like to teach them 'One breath at a time, one puck at a time.'"


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trying new things, from techniques to technology

Apple iPads are an excellent teaching tool for goalies.
Hi gang,

Where in the world did the last four months go? My apologies for not paying proper attention to The Goalie Guru, and keeping my blog up to date. But rather than a long-winded explanation of why I've been off the grid, how about if I just post a recent column?

Let me know what you think!


Trying new things, from techniques to technology

For the most part, I think of myself as a hands-on, Old School kind of coach. Much of that comes from my own experience, growing up wanting to be a goaltender, but having very little coaching available. I was self-taught, reading and rereading books by Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and New York Ranger coach Emile "The Cat" Francis (a former goaltender himself).

Frankly, I couldn't get enough of those "how to" books. Plante's "On Goaltending," released way back in 1972, even featured a "Question & Answer" chapter with Chicago Blackhawk star Tony Esposito on the newfangled "butterfly" technique (years before Patrick Roy became a household name). This revealed Plante's willingness to think outside the box, and consider styles that were radically different from his own. (Plante was a more traditional "stand-up" goaltender who relied on his flawless angle play, keen anticipation, and well-honed athleticism.)

As a Plante disciple, I adopted his acceptance of different styles, and different approaches, to playing the position. I'm willing to bet that just about every goalie I've worked with, at almost every age, has heard me say: "There are dozens of ways to stop the puck. You've got to find what's right for you."

Another favorite is this: "I'm not asking you to use this technique all the time. I'm just asking you to try it, and see if it's something that works for you."

This is the major reason I'm suspicious of any goalie-coaching program that touts only one way to play. Goalies come in all shapes and sizes, with various skill sets, with all sorts of different strengths and weaknesses. The key is maximizing those strengths, while minimizing thosee weaknesses. And that means finding out what works for each individual.

Take New Jersey Devils all-star netminder Cory Schneider. The Boston College product is one of the best goalies in the NHL. One of Schneider's greatest strengths is his cerebral approach to his position. If you look closely, there are several subtle elements to his game that bear this out.

For example, the "generally accepted" method of playing wide-angle shots (really wide, as in almost down by the goal line) has evolved over the years. Standing upright along the post with the leg pads stacked like pillars gave way to the "load," or "vertical horizontal" (VH for short), where the pad against the post is vertical, but the knee is bent and the inside pad is along the ice, or horizontal. The idea is that the goalie still gets a good seal, but can push off the upright, post-side edge in the puck comes into the slot.

Then a few creative goalies, particularly the Swedes and the Finns, started revolutionizing edge work and began using the post as a platform to push off of, and found they could quicker while on their knees. That led to the development of the "lean," or "reverse VH," to seal the post against wide-angle threats. In many (but not all) coaching circles, it's become go-to move in those situations.

Enter Schneider. The Marblehead, MA, native has adapted his game to his own strengths. As a result, he employs the Reverse VH to the blocker (or stick) side post, but relies on the more traditional VH on the glove side post. It is, he told me, simply what he's more comfortable with. And no one can argue with Schneider's success.

It's also hard to argue with Schneider's reasoning. Being comfortable usually leads to being more efficient, and more effective. But Schneider never would have found that comfort level if he wasn't willing to try new techniques. That's the lesson.

Of course, that also applies to coaching. I haven't always accepted new technology with open arms. Since my own "style" developed through the typical "trial and error" methods, I just prefer working with goalies one-on-one, explaining or demonstrating techniques and then letting my goalies try them out for themselves.

That works most of the time. But not always. Some goalies don't realize they're executing a certain technique – such as keeping their stick blade on the ice, or keeping their gloves in proper position – incorrectly.

This really hit home recently, when I read Lisa Lane Brown's blog post, "The 6 Ugly Mistakes Coaches Make That De-Motivates Their Athletes And How To Avoid Them." Lane Brown, the founder of "Courage to Win" and an expert on developing mental toughness, examined several "mistakes," including being too nice to your athletes, being too negative, and failing to believe in them. But the one that jumped out at me was "trying to 'help' athletes by correcting them." Here's what she wrote:

What do most coaches do when they see an athlete make a mistake? Right! They try to "help" the athlete perform better, usually by correcting them. The problem with this approach is that it rarely works. 

It's true that about 5 to 10 percent of athletes (usually the best ones) will take a verbal correction and implement it immediately. The rest will nod, smile, say "Okay, Coach" and then pretty much go back to exactly what they were doing. Infuriating. This doesn't work for two reasons.

First, you are sending them the message, "You're not doing it right. And if you want the answer on how to do it right, listen to me." This violates the athlete's basic code, which is: "I want to figure it out on my own by FEELING the move."

The second reason this doesn't work is that your athlete actually does not REALLY understand your correction. Let's say you're trying to get a hockey player to skate with his knees more bent, because he'll get more power and speed that way.

"Tom, bend your knees!" you might say.

Perfect suggestion. Only, here's the problem. In Tom's brain, his knees ALREADY ARE bent. In his mind, he's skating perfectly (or he wouldn't be skating that way in the first place. No athlete makes an error on purpose).

See, Tom's BODY doesn't know what it feels like to skate with his knees super-bent.

But he THINKS he does.

Am I saying you can never correct your athletes? Not at all. I'm saying that the vast majority of VERBAL corrections won't work, and there is a better way.

 For goalie coaches, that "better way" is often video. That meant I needed to get over my technophobia, and get more comfortable with an iPad, my iPhone, or other video devices.

At Stop It Goaltending, we use iPads equipped with a simple and cheap ($4.99) app called "Bust A Move," which provides a delayed video and allows us to show our goalies exactly what they're doing right, and what they're doing wrong.

The impact has been tremendous. Some kids (and adults) are simply visual learners. They may not "hear" instructions, but when the "see" themselves, things click. As the old saying goes, sometimes "a picture is worth a 1,000 words."

And the technology has proved that even this old dog can learn new tricks.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The many characteristics needed to be a great goalie

There aren't many goaltenders who embody the attributes
required to play the position better than Jonathan Quick.
Hi gang,

A while back, my editor threw me a curve when he asked me to write a column on "the basic qualities that make a good goaltender." My response? "You're kidding, right?" I mean, books have been written on that topic. Trying to do it justice in under 1,200 words seemed crazy.

But the more I thought about it, the more I warmed up to the idea. It was a challenge, and any goaltender worth his or her salt loves a challenge. Below is what I came up with. Let me know what you think.


The many characteristics needed to be a great goalie

So, you want to be a goaltender? It's an age-old question, one that has challenged youngsters and their parents alike. Why would anyone volunteer to play a position generally considered one of the toughest in sports, a position where you can only lose games, not win them? That's a lot to digest for a young child – boy or girl – just starting out.

I've addressed many aspects of the question over the years with my Goalie Guru column, but when asked to take a look at the "big picture," I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed. It's a daunting undertaking. There are so many factors to consider.

Suffice to say, kids who don't play the position don't understand how tough goaltending can be (much like coaches who never played in the nets). It requires an entirely different skill set, from goalie-specific skating to setting up on your angles. You've got to follow a rock-hard puck, measuring only one-by-three inches, and stop it from entering a four-by-six foot goal. And you've got to do it while trying to move around in bulky gear designed to protect you. That's a tall order for most youngsters.

Plus, you can't take a shift off. Regular players make mistakes all the time, but most of the time those gaffes don't result in goals. Kids rarely notice the errors of their linemates. But they do notice the goals, and if a goalie makes a mistake that leads directly to a goal, that goalie is going to hear about it.

Which is why goalies, even young ones, face tremendous pressure. Even on teams with enlightened coaches, who try to shield their netminders from unwarranted criticism, being the last line of defense is no picnic. If you never play the position, you never develop the appreciation of that particular brand of torture. We live and die a little bit with each save and each goal (that probably goes double for goalie parents).

So, why play goalie? It's a simple question, with a very complicated answer. If I had a dime for every time a parent asked me "How do I know my kid will stick with playing goal?" I'd be a very wealthy man. But there are things that can help parents make an educated guess.

Let's start with the individual child, and consider the emotional, mental, and physical attributes that will assist a nascent goaltender. There are a number of personality traits that are important, if not essential, to succeed between pipes. Different kids will possess these traits in varying degrees. The challenge for goaltenders and their parents and their coaches is to nurture each quality to its fullest.

That's easier said than done. Below are the qualities that I recommend focusing on. Admittedly, there's going to be some overlap. That, I think, speaks to the complexity of the position.


Courage. Despite the improvement in goaltending gear, getting hit with a puck can still hurt. A lot. Much like a positional player can't shy away from the corners, afraid that he might get pancaked by a defenseman or forechecker, a goalie has to accept that he (or she) will occasionally get a stinger. Knowing that, and still bearing down on each shot without flinching, while remaining cool and calm, takes guts.

Toughness. The ability to handle pressure is paramount. You're going to get knocked down. Few goalies go through life without giving up bad goals. And these days, when goalies are becoming so dominant, and goals are even harder to come by, the pressure to be perfect has never been greater. Dealing with that requires intestinal fortitude.

Confidence. Some kids are naturally confident. Others gain a measure through hard work, repetition, and experiencing the success that often results. Confidence isn't arrogance. It's a belief that, no matter shots may have gotten behind you, the next one won't. And it's not enough for a goalie to be sure about his or her own abilities. They have to exude confidence. A team needs to believe in its goaltender. If it doesn't, it's starting the game behind the 8-ball, and will almost certainly play tentatively.

Responsible. The notion of "taking ownership" is vital for goaltenders. As great as he was, Patrick Roy had an annoying habit of showing up his defense when he felt a goal wasn't his "fault." I've got news for St. Patrick – they were all his fault. Because he only had one job, and that was to keep the puck out of the net. Goalies need to accept this reality. If they do, their teammates will play harder in front of them. I guarantee it.

Passion. A goalie has to "want it" to be great. He or she has to care. Passion is what drives a young goaltender to work hard every time he or she is on the ice. Passion means taking care of your gear, getting to the rink early, helping your teammates. Simply, it means doing whatever it takes to win.

A sense of humor. This is one of the most underrated traits for a goaltender. At the end of the day, hockey, for the vast majority of players, is still a game. It's not a job. You have to be able to enjoy it. It's been my experience that the more fun kids have, the less likely they'll burn out. This is really about perspective.


Analytical. For all his physical gifts, Marty Brodeur had an almost uncanny ability to read a hockey game. I believe that was a pivotal part of his greatness. Good goalies are usually students of the game. During actual games, a sharp goalie will pick up on tendencies of the opposing team and other details – is the attacking player a right shot or left? – that help with positioning and instructions for the defense. The flip side is to not "overthink" things. "Read and react" is the goalie's mantra.

Focus. Many goals can be attributed to a momentary loss of concentration (for a particularly glaring example, Google Philadelphia Flyer Steve Mason and the words "bad goal" from this spring's Stanley Cup series against Washington). Goalies must learn to be "on point" the entire time they are on the ice.

Determination. I've seen far too many goaltenders with the requisite physical tools to succeed fall short because they simply didn't have the resolve to put in the grueling hours to maximize those gifts. Many of them could talk the talk, but they wouldn't walk the walk. That's a shame. Great goalies know that practice is where the difference is made.

Competitiveness. This is the "fighting spirit" that often separates average goalies from good goalies, and good goalies from great goalies. You often have to fight for position, or fight to find the puck. You can't shy away from contact, or other challenges that your opponents present. You have to embrace it.

Resiliency. Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending likes to say: "The first rule of goaltending is that you're going to give up goals." He's right. The key is how you respond to those goals. There are good goals and bad goals. But they all count the same, and the key is to not let one bad goal lead to another.

Patience. Another underrated trait. Whether it's flopping to quickly, or being too aggressive, impatience is not the goalie's friend. By the very nature of the position, you have to let the play come to you. That requires discipline, but patience will serve you well.


Size. There's an old basketball adage that "you can't coach height." More and more these days, good size is considered a "must" among hockey goalies. It's not, of course, but it sure helps. If everything else is equal, a bigger goaltender simply takes up more space.

Athleticism. Size, of course, isn't everything. You have to be able to move, and move quickly. Some goalies take more quickly to goalie-specific techniques, but everyone can improve to the point of behind a serviceable backstop with the requisite effort. Still, each of us has a certain level of natural athleticism, and the great netminders are usually granted an extra measure.

Fitness. I'm old enough to remember the days when the big, slow kid got stuck in the net. Perhaps the biggest misconception these days is that you can still get away with that approach. If you're a big goalie, but not fit, you'll be quickly exposed as you travel up the hockey ladder. Goalies who drop too soon, and have difficulty recovering, are like beached whales. And no matter how big, a beached whale isn't going to be a great goalie. That's even more evident at the end of a 60-minute game.

Good eyesight. Top-flight goalies these days are so good that most pundits agree, "If they can see the shot, they can stop it." That's why you'll see so many forwards crowding the slot. I once coached a squirt team that had a goalie who would surrender some comically soft goals. He was a little puck shy by nature (never a good thing), but he was flat out missing on easy shots. Then I saw him walking into the rink on day with glasses. "Danny, what can you see without your glasses," I asked him. "Not much, coach," was his reply. And his folks knew it. I was dumbfounded. Once "Danny" got himself some sport glasses, he started to have more success. To this day, I still can't figure out what his parents were thinking.

Hand-eye coordination. Having 20/20 eyesight is a good start, but you've got to be able to react to what you see. Hand-eye coordination is the ability to translate what you see into action, and get your body (or another piece of equipment) behind the puck.

Reflexes. This is closely related to hand-eye coordination. Hockey is a game of speed. There's no two ways around it. With that advent of composite sticks, even at the intermediate and junior levels, kids and beer leaguers are shooting the puck harder and faster all the time. Being naturally quick is an enormous advantage.

OK, so you think you might have the emotional, mental, and physical make-up to be a goalie? Great. You're halfway there. Yes, there's a lot more to consider. I'll try to keep this brief.

Parental support

Hockey is an expensive, time-consuming sport. People often say that raising hockey players is a "family commitment," and I'm inclined to agree. Being an ice hockey goalie takes that "expense" part of the equation and takes it to another level.

First is the gear. Even at the youngest levels, goalies deserve adequate protection. That usually means goalie-specific equipment. And the gear, as any goalie parent knows, ain't cheap. But it is important. Good gear will help a good goalie play better.

However, even the best equipment isn't going to transform a dumpy, unmotivated kid into the next Henrik Lundqvist. What youngsters usually don't understand, initially, is that it's not enough to toss on all this cool gear and jump in between the pipes. That equipment, designed to protect them, takes some getting used to, and considerable effort to master. That challenge gets even more difficult if the gear is outdated, incomplete, or ill-fitting.

Be sure to invest in properly sized equipment. Don't buy gear that's too big (no matter how much you think your kid will grow), or too small (no matter how good the deal is). Gloves, pads, chest protectors, and pants are all made in junior, intermediate, and adult sizes. A few items (like pants) can be bought oversized. But most gear that's too large will only inhibit your youngster's ability to move properly.

Goalie skates make a huge difference in a young netminder's ability to execute goalie-specific movements. Regular skates, with their thinner blades and a more rounded radius, are far more unstable. Goalie skates are a much better investment than a goalie helmet at the mite and squirt levels (though a neck dangler is recommended). However, if you do buy a goalie mask, make sure it fits correctly. A loose mask that moves is dangerous.

Finally, parents need to make the extra effort to get their child to the rink on time for the practice as well as the games, because it takes longer for a goalie to suit up. Parents should also to learn how the gear goes on (this is not the coach's job). Help them when they're young, but also encourage them to learn how do it on their own (that's part of the "responsibility" trait mentioned above).

Team support

We touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating: The relationship between coaches and goaltenders is critical, especially early in the goalie's development. Look for a program or a team where the coaching staff has at least some understanding of the unique demands that a goaltender faces, and is determined to help cultivate a positive environment were young goalies can flourish.

This has been one of my "hot topics" over the years. Far too many programs and teams still don't understand how easy it is to literally ruin a young goalie with too many shooting drills, and not enough support or encouragement. I've never been a proponent of "babying" goaltenders. But you can't run them into the ground, either. Remember my "20:1 Rule." If you've got 20 players in a shooting drill and a single goaltender, that poor kid in the crease is seeing 20 shots for every one that each player takes. That's crazy.


Then, finally, there are goalie-specific lessons. I know this will sound self-serving, since I make part of my livelihood as a goalie coach. But the reality is that most team coaches, even at select programs, don't have much background in coaching goalies. Fortunately, many youth and select teams do offer some additional goalie coaching separate from routine practices (and, yes, this is where goalie coaches like myself often make our income "in season").

I understand that those "extra lessons" not only equate to extra coin (unless the cost is folded into the program fee, which I advocate), but also extra time (and additional driving, if the coaching outfit has its own facility). And again, parents typically bear that responsibility. But the truth of the matter is that a young goalie will advance more quickly if they get proper instruction early, instead of arriving with a number of bad habits already entrenched in their game.

Breaking bad habits is often more time-consuming, and more thorny, than creating good habits in the first place. That's why I advocate that programs send their coaches as well as their goalies to these private sessions, so they can better understand how to work out a goalie properly.

So, you still want to be a goalie? Great. Join the club. Just be ready to work. Hard.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why we play the game

Every kid should have heroes to look up to. One of
mine was Eddie Giacomin of the New York Rangers.
Hi gang,

This post comes at an interesting time, when I find myself at a crossroads of sorts in my coaching career. Last winter, I underwent back surgery for a condition called "spinal stenosis." It's basically arthritis of the spine, and my lower back was a mass of arthritic growth pressing on my spinal column and the nerves that branch off from it.

I tried to deal with my condition for several months via "non-invasive" measures, including chiropractic care and steroid injections. When it became abundantly clear that my back wasn't going to heal itself, I had the surgeons open me up. The laminectomy of my L3-L4, L4-L5, and L5-S1 joints is designed to take the pressure off the nerves, in the hopes that they can regain their normal function. My surgeon -- a great guy -- was honest and direct with me. He said he couldn't guarantee that I'd have any type of "miracle recovery." And whatever recovery I did have could take between six and 18 months.

"All I can guarantee is that you won't get better without the surgery," he said.

Finally, at the seven-month mark in my recovery, I got the green light from my surgeon and physical therapist to skate again. It was a disaster. I felt like a first-time skater, absolutely terrified. It was clear that while I had recovered much of my strength, my balance was way off. So it's back to the drawing board, and back to physical therapy. Our summer camps will go on without me. But I'm fortunate to have a great wife, and a great physical therapist, who won't let me mope. Whatever recovery I make, it will be because they wouldn't let me quit.

All of which brings me to the following column, which now seems more poignant than ever. I plan to get back to coaching, but if it doesn't happen, stories like this remind me that I had a great run. Let me know what you think ...


Why we play the game

It's not easy growing old in the goalie coaching business. There's the subtle-but-insidious risk of getting labeled "Old School," or a curmudgeon in training. I've been in the game for a half century now, and I understand that different generations bring different challenges. Kids change.

Parenting styles have definitely changed as well. My coaching philosophy reflects my parenting philosophy, which I learned from my mom (who would have been a great coach, if she wasn't so busy raising six kids). It's not about being friends with my kids, or my players. It's about getting them to be accountable, to dig deep, and make the most of their God-given talents. That sometimes means employing some "tough love," and bringing the hammer. If you're afraid to bring the hammer, you're probably selling your kids short.

That said, I've loved the changes in the position (even if they accelerated the demise of my hips during my 40s and early 50s). Techniques, and equipment, have evolved tremendously. But the exceptional challenge, and thrill, of being the "last line of defense" never changes. That's what makes goaltending, to my mind, really special. And that's what makes goaltenders special.

My favorite students are those goalies who absolutely relish the challenge of stopping rubber. It's not about the cool equipment, or the accolades. It's about doing whatever necessary to keep the puck out of the net, to just give your team a chance to win. Which brings me to "Cary."

Every now and then, I get a note that completely stops me in my tracks. Dead stop. The email below is just such a note. I've changed the name of the author, because I'm using it without his permission. To be perfectly honest, I was afraid he might not want me to use it. But the emotions that "Cary" elicited with his note cut to the very core of why I love this game so much, so I felt compelled to share it.

So, without further ado, here is Cary's note:

Hey Coach,
Hope all is well. It's Cary. Just checking in to see how everything is. I've been going back and reading through your Goalie Guru blog again, and really enjoying it. I'm currently sitting in an office for an internship. I've been enjoying growing up, college, the freedom, the responsibility, the accountability.
But as I sit in this monotonous office working upwards of 10 hours every day, Monday through Friday, I've been trying to build a time machine in an attempt to go back in time and locate exactly where, when and why reality trumped imagination in my childhood/teen adolescence. (I'm) trying to figure out when I stopped believing in the crazy dream that someday I would suit up for the (Montreal) Habs, even if it was for one game. Why I hung up the skates just because I was better at lacrosse, and had a much better chance of playing it in college. Why I just walked away from the sport of hockey completely.
 A part of me is heartbroken over this. It's almost like I had to compromise my dreams so that they would become more realistic to me in my head. I miss getting in fights in middle school because I wore a Canadiens jersey three times a week. I miss standing in front of my house with a sign that said 'Free Shots' while using cardboard boxes as leg pads, a baseball glove, and a regular hockey glove as a blocker, guarding (my neighbor's) worn-down nets. I miss playing street hockey every day of every month with my best friends until we got yelled at by neighbors or we lost all our balls to the darkness. 
I also certainly enjoyed being given the opportunity to play at the high school level. I wish I just tried to keep going, as crazy and unrealistic as the whole dream seemed. I guess maybe reality caught up to me when I started thinking that I began playing the position and sport too late, and did not have enough time to develop or compete with others. Maybe I was right, maybe I'm wrong. The chase was what it was all about, though. I still glance at those Simmons pads from time to time with a multitude of emotions.
 However, I am not writing to you about me. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your writing. Reading through it has sparked a fire in me that I haven't felt in awhile. Thank you. Hope all is well.
 All the best,

That evening, an hour after Cary's email arrived, my wife found me sitting at my desk, streaks of tears lining my face. I'm sure Cary has no idea the kind of spark his email would contain, and the emotions that it brought to the fore for me. I could relate completely, because I was once a kid much like Cary.

Northern New Jersey in the 1960s and '70s wasn't the hockey hotbed it is today. But it didn't matter. My brothers and I were nuts about the game that our maternal grandfather had introduced us to. We would play any chance we had. Every … single … day. I'm sure my mom considered it "a phase," but it was much, much more than that. I simply couldn't get enough.

Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemure of the New York Rangers were my heroes, even though I was tall and lanky, built more like the Canadiens' Ken Dryden. I'd watch every game I could, often sneaking off to my neighbor's house, because they had that newfangled cable station broadcasting the Ranger home games (we would turn off the sound, and put on the radio, with Marv Albert making the calls). Giacomin was fiery, a guy who overcame long odds to make it to The Show. My kind of goaltender.

I may not have had the same natural talent, but I loved keeping the puck out of the net. That's what drove me as a young goaltender. Heck, it's what drove me as a beer-league goalie (where I was probably a little too fiery for my own good). And it's what continues to drive me as a goalie coach. I'm passionate about the game, and the position. That wonderful obsession hasn't waned, despite my advanced age, and despite a pair of new titanium hips.

I'm sure part of that passion is developed over time, fueled by some measure of success and encouragement. But I firmly believe that most of it is innate. It's who you are. You've either got it, or you don't. That's one of the reasons that self-actualization is critical. Kids who will do anything to stop shots are far less likely to blame teammates. They want the responsibility, and they're willing to accept the results.

Players who bring that passion to the ice are rare. Over the years, the game has kept me young. Today, it's kids like Cary who fill that role. I'm a very lucky man to be able to share their dream.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Elite" hockey teams are not always what they purport to be

Too many "elite" team directors are like carnival barkers,
trying to extract every penny they can from parents.
Hi gang,

Welcome to summer, hockey's "silly season." Actually, it's really an extension of the crazy season that started in March and April, when hockey programs typically hold tryouts for the following season. These spring tryouts and summer skills sessions are why some parents think that hockey is actually a year-round sport.

Now, I understand the need for non-profit youth hockey programs to hold early tryouts. They need to get a handle on the number of kids they'll have, and how many teams they'll be able to roster. These tryouts are usually pretty straightforward, and there's a place for everyone.

That's not the case with "elite" and "select" programs. These for-profit organizations can be cut-throat, often with little regard for the well-being of the players and their families. I've seen it firsthand. It isn't pretty. The following is a cautionary tale based on a parent's confidential experience. But "Alan" isn't alone, I assure you. Let me know what you think.


"Elite" hockey teams are not always what they purport to be

Youth sports have become a big-time business. That's not necessarily a good thing. Recently, Sports Illustrated ran a scathing article on youth baseball programs in general, and the company "Perfect Game" specifically. This Iowa-based behemoth is offering tournaments and showcases for baseball "phenoms" as young as 9.

Really, how crazy is that?

But before anyone in an "elite" or "select" hockey program casts aspersions about Perfect Game, they ought to take a good look in the mirror. Because, the fact is, hockey is rife with many of the same problems. Select programs start early, as young as 5 and 6. The goals have less to do with kids having a good time, and more with achievement (both on the individual and the program level). Getting ahead. That's what Perfect Game promises. That's what too many elite hockey programs purport.

Elite hockey programs employ some of the best snake-oil salesmen in all of youth sports, with their promises of top-notch coaching and additional games against better competition to give your child the necessary edge to succeed. And self-doubting parents fall for their sales pitch over and over again. I've seen it, repeatedly.

In the coaching biz, springtime guarantees two things – "elite" program coaches looking for goaltenders, and parents complaining about getting shafted by elite programs. The two go hand-in-hand like Alex Ovechkin and one-timers.

Now, before I go any further, I have to emphasize an important point: I'm not saying every coach in every elite program is a self-centered, self-aggrandizing megalomaniac. There are solid, trustworthy programs, and there are coaches truly invested in making sure that "fun" isn't squeezed out of the game. They may even be the majority.

The problem is that there are still too many bad apples that cast a long and less-than-flattering shadow over reputable coaches and reputable programs. I know for a fact that there are many elite coaches who share my concerns. Their responsibility is to call out bad programs. Mine is to make parents aware of them.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for parents who are dealing with the "elite hockey" landscape is to somehow separate the seedy programs from the reputable ones. With May being the season when programs start applying pressure to sign on the dotted line, what's a concerned parent to do?

First, don't be fooled by win/loss records, banners in the rink lobby, and fancy uniforms. Those are can be deceiving. Ask yourself what's more important to you and your child, to be part of a "winning" program, or a program that nourishes and helps your young netminder to grow. Again, those two concepts aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but my point is that the program's "emphasis" should be on development.

Take, for example, this tale that a reader recently shared with me. Again, I'm not interested in embarrassing any particular program, so I'm not identifying the parent or the program. Suffice to say, these comments are representative of many that I've heard over the years. The father, Alan, was writing to say that his son, Jeremy, a 2004 goaltender, had been recruited by an elite coach who happened to be scouting his youth hockey game (yes, they actually do scout youth hockey games).

"One of coaches asked us to come to a practice so the head coach could take a look at Jeremy," said Alan. "Practice went well. I was surprised at how high the level of play was above what we've been playing. That being said, he played well, had fun and looked to me like the best goalie on the ice.

"The coaches were very aggressive asking us to come to tryouts, even after I said I couldn't afford to play for them nor was I sure I could handle the extra travel and time required," he said. "The head coach talked me into coming to tryouts and told me my son needed to be playing elite hockey in Boston now. Otherwise it would be too late, and he would never have a chance of playing at a high level."

Alan knows now this is a major red flag. The coaches are masters at preying on parents' insecurities. Trust me, elite programs are not the guaranteed path to a D-I scholarship that they'd like you to believe they are.

 Furthermore, the coaches were asking Jeremy to play out of his age bracket. That's another red flag, from both a hockey playing and emotional development perspective. There's a lot pressure on goalies, even young ones. That pressure increase tenfold when you've got older kids disappointed in the play of a younger netminder.

"I had reservations, but then the coach made an offer that made the financing manageable for us," said Alan. "Thinking it was a year too early, but knowing my son wanted to give it a go and now the money could work, I signed on the dotted line fearing an offer like this might not be around next year.

"I fell in love with the fact I would no longer need to be coaching my son," he said. "He would have a new voice. I thought I was giving him the world with all the promised goalie coaching and in a big organization. The season started two months earlier than we were accustomed to, and quickly reality set in. There was no goalie coaching and drill after drill was line rush after line rush, bar down after bar down, all practice long.

"My son was a mess, standing straight up in the net. No one was saying anything to him. So much was so very wrong and he got no help. Once he got into some games his instincts took over, but you could see where bad habits were creeping into his game."

This happens more often than you'd suspect. Sometimes, elite programs will hire coaching outfits like the one I work for to help fine-tune their goalies' game. But in-program practices can still be a nightmare for goalies, who are often buried under an avalanche of shots. Furthermore, there's a lot more emphasis on winning with an elite program, and that pressure often falls on a goaltender who doesn't have the emotional maturity to deal with it.

"The season came to end for us when I found out how much my son hated playing for them, and how much he couldn't take the defense making in-game comments to him about goals going in," Alan said. "I had no idea all that was going on."

Again, this is a recurring theme. It's the major reason why, whenever a parent of a prospective "elite team" player asks me about their options, I tell them to do their homework. Call up the parents, both present and (perhaps even more importantly) past. Ask why they like the program, or why they left. Talk to the coaches (they are perhaps he biggest difference between a good and bad season).

If coaches are promising you the world, thank them, and then get it in writing. Seriously. Don't be afraid of risking your child's spot on the team. If the coaches question why, that's a concern. Just tell them you've been burned before. It's important, because with most elite programs, we're talking a fairly large investment. When Alan and his son returned to their youth hockey program, they left a chunk of change behind them.

In short, take control. This is your son or daughter. Coaches are looking out for their programs. You need to look out for your child. Be smart, and thorough. If anyone is rushing you to commit before you, or your child, is ready, walk away. It's not the end of the world.