The Goalie Guru blog, and all its linked materials, is offered as a one-stop resource to assist ice hockey goaltenders, their coaches and parents (realizing that the latter two are often one and the same) in gaining a better understanding of this truly unique position. Comments, questions, and suggestions welcomed! Reach me at 978-609-7224, or

Tuesday, 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.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When a goalie's body language speaks loud and clear

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

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

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

Let me know what you think. Thanks.


Body language that speaks loud and clear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Improvement closely tied to trust and communication

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

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

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

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

Let me know what you think. Thanks!


Improvement closely tied to trust and communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, February 10, 2017

Nurturing mental toughness

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

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

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

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

Let me know what you think. Thanks!


Nurturing mental toughness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, January 13, 2017

Welcome to the real world

Hilary Knight, a member of the USA women’s hockey team,
deflects the puck toward goalie Molly Schaus during a practice 
Hi gang,

Time to revisit one of my favorite topics -- realistic practices for goalies (and, by extension, the rest of the players). I find that I come back to this topic often, only because I continue to see, year after year, coaches running practices that are nowhere close to reality.

Now, I understand that sometimes coaches will be looking to hone specific skills, and that will require taking some "license" with a drill to address that specific need. But those coaches also need to take care not to accidentally encourage bad goaltending habits (such as telling the goalie to keep the puck moving, instead of tying up the rebound).

Here's my New England Hockey Journal column on the topic. Let me know what you think.


Practice plans, and the concept of living in the real world

Now that the high school season is well under way (I know, I know, most kids have been playing since Labor Day, but that's another column), it's time to revisit practice habits. Bad practice habits. Or, at the very least, unrealistic practice habits.

What this really comes down to, from a goalie's perspective, is shooting drills that don't mirror reality. Long-time readers of this column know how I feel about the typical youth hockey, club hockey, and high school hockey practice, the ones that have the goaltender bombarded by an avalanche of shots. These drills may be great for promoting survival skills, but they won't produce better goaltenders. In fact, I've long believed goaltenders improve in spite of these shooting drills, not because of them.

You can see this at the highest levels of the game. Mike Valley, goalie coach for the Dallas Stars, recently gave a talk – "Practice Shots vs. Game Shots" – during a goaltending symposium in Wisconsin. He wasn't necessarily concerned about the volume of shots, but the drills that create a certain "type" of shot. Namely, drills that funnel players into the slot, on their forehand, with no defensive pressure, allowing them to rip shots at will.

"I would challenge any coach," said Valley. "They say, 'Goaltending equipment has become too big.' They say there's not enough goal scoring.

"But look at how [goalie coaches] study the game, and how we're training. Look at how much that has changed," he said. "Now compare that to how much practices have changed in the last 30 years. We look at how goaltending styles have changed, how everything has evolved. But practices look the same as they did 20 years ago."

The problem with most practices is twofold. We're creating lazy shooters, and terrified goalies. Valley referred to an April, 2015 article by correspondent Kevin Woodley, who quoted long-time NHL back-up Jason LaBarbera on the challenges that typical practices present. LaBarbera noted that, in a game, players don't have the same time to make a move, which allows him to play deeper.

"In practice, guys have all day, and you start to get tired as practice goes on," said LaBarbera. "And I found I started to be a little more of a skater, take another step out, just to give myself a better chance to make myself feel a bit better."

"It's hard, because you don't want to get away from who you are and how you want to play in a game. But if you play deep in practice, you are [vulnerable] to a point, especially because coaches are looking at you. You want to make sure you are making saves, and looking like you're playing well."

LaBarbera is absolutely correct. He's not emphasizing "depth" as much as he's talking about stopping pucks, looking good while doing it, and cultivating a self-assured "persona." Bad shooting drills are the antithesis of all three.

This isn't just an NHL problem. It happens at every level. As I write this, I'm sitting in a rink, waiting for my daughter's high school game, watching a youth hockey practice. The "warm up" consisted of players coming right down the center of the ice, sometimes two at a time (each with a puck), winding up and firing away. It's nuts.

"What happens in practice, you're standing there, and you're like, 'OK, I know my game plan, I know how I want to play things, I know the depth,'" said Valley. "Then all of a sudden the guys start coming down the middle and they're just zinging it, bar in. And they have time to skate in, nobody's touching them, and it's just shot after shot after shot. You're managing confidence."

Valley's point is clear. If you want to build your goalie's confidence, you have to create more realistic drills to mirror what they can expect to see in a game. To verify his suspicions, Valley commissioned a quick study that revealed, over 1,150 NHL games, only 4.5 percent of the shots came from the mid- to high-slot area, unimpeded. That's right – only 3,063 of 68,174 total shots came from this prime scoring area.

"So I brought this up to my NHL guys," Valley said. "I said 'Are you going to base your confidence level on something that happens only 4.5 percent of the time? That's 1.5 shots per game. You're much better off focusing on being a smart goalie, how you're going to play when the puck's coming down the wing, or they're throwing pucks in from a bad angle, and trying to jam for rebounds. Don't base your confidence off something that's only going to happen only 1.5 times a game.'

"For me, it was a pretty powerful message. Those numbers are pretty revealing," he said. "And if there's anything we can do as [goalie] coaches, it's maybe to try to get the [head] coach to understand that, if we want to increase goal-scoring in the league, why are we practicing something 98 percent of the time that only happens 4.5 percent of the time (in a game). It's just a different way of looking at things."

Woodley, who is also a correspondent for InGoal magazine, had a similar take.

"A good chunk of practice can be counterproductive to good goaltending, leaving the goalie facing situations that can create bad habits," wrote Woodley. "It is the separate sessions with the goalie coach, before and after practice, that are important. If that sounds like a stretch, consider the fact that a large portion of NHL practice time is spent on line rushes which are only occasionally defended, often in the loosest sense of that term. The result is wave after wave of players skating in with passing options and plenty of time to dish or hold and shoot from close range."

Yeah, that happens all the time in a real game, right? The onus, however, is on the coaches during these youth, club, high school or college levels to understand this distinction, and implement drills that are more realistic. I've seen this with my daughter's team. When we have shooting drills coming out of the corners, along the top of the face-off circles, I tell the girls to shoot while "shielding the puck." In other words, if they come around on their backhands, they need to shoot on their backhand.

More often than not, they look at me like I've got three heads.

"But I can't shoot a backhand," is the typical response.

"Exactly," I'll say. "And you'll never learn if you don't practice."

Backhand shots also happen to be one of the toughest shots for a goalie to read. So, while it may not be the sexiest shot going, learning how to take it, and how to save it, is a real win/win.

The same holds for a variety of shots, from a variety of angles, with defensive pressure forcing quick releases. That's what happens in a game. That's what you ought to be trying to create in your practices. It will benefit your goalies, and your team.


Postscript: I also want to take a second to give a shout-out to the courageous girls who step up to play goalie for their public high school teams. This is a common predicament for girls' teams in the Northeast. Goalies are a hot commodity, and if you have any talent, there's a good chance that you'll be recruited to play prep school or club hockey. Which means the hometown public school team is typically scrambling to find someone brave enough to take up the crease. I see this happening repeatedly.

Given that situation, I have another appeal to the coaches. If you have a beginner goalie, be patient. The position is unlike any other on the ice. It takes time for goaltenders to develop. It won't happen overnight. The position brings enough pressure even for a veteran netminder. If you're lucky enough to have a player willing to take up the challenge for the good of the team, make sure your support her.