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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Two shining examples of goaltenders we can admire

Quinnipiac's Eric Hatzell proved hard work pays off.
Hi gang,

Now that the curtain has come down on college hockey's Frozen Four - congrats to Colin Stevens and his Union College Dutchmen for their first NCAA crown! - I've got some time to catch up on my blog. Though the following column was actually written last spring for the May, 2013 issue of the New England Hockey Journal, I think the lessons it addresses are timeless. Hope you agree. As always, let me know what you think ...

Two shining examples of goaltenders we can admire

When the ridiculously long "regular" youth hockey season finally comes to a close, I always find a few leftover topics that I meant to address but never got to, for one reason or another. Here are two that tie together nicely.

First, I wanted to follow up on the remarkably selfish and immature exit of the high school goalie in Farmington, Minnesota. Remember this clown? He's the guy who literally threw away a game on Senior Night as his way to exact revenge on his coaching staff, because he wasn't getting enough playing time (The Goalie Guru, March 2013). I can't even bring myself to mention the kid's name, because I don't want him to have any more publicity.

What I will do, however, is celebrate the actions of another high school senior, Matthew Nemia.

According to Mike Geragosian, owner of All-American Goaltending and the goalie coach for Boston University, young Mr. Nemia was a senior at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts this past season. Though only 5-foot-5, with a slight learning disability (speech), Nemia started the season on fire, with two shutouts in his first two games, including the Raiders 1-0 win over rival Needham, Wellesley's first win against the Rockets in a decade.

But then Nemia "got a little off his miracle game," said Geragosian, and the starting job went to a sophomore (a situation identical to the senior in Farmington, MN). The difference is that Nemia was a model teammate, despite losing his starting spot.

"Interesting how similar situations can be handled very differently," said Frank Nemia, Matt's father, after reading about the Farmington fiasco. "Matt has been nothing less than supportive to the sophomore. He was a true leader and senior as he continued to drive underclassmen to practices and encourage his teammates. He is a solid goalie who is quick, agile, and a smart hockey player and student. Despite his challenges, he developed into a solid student academically who was accepted to all of his colleges, including Roger Williams University, University of Scranton, Loyola Maryland, and Fairfield."

On Senior Night, Nemia's commitment to the team was rewarded, and he got the nod against a strong Framingham club. Nemia held the Flyers scoreless through two periods before eventually dropping a 3-0 decision. But he was able to leave the game, and his high school career, with his head held high.

"There was no doubt that Matt felt similar frustrations with his coaches and the situation, but handled it with class and maturity," said Frank Nemia. "This was a life lesson for Matt. It is where kids and the fun of sports create challenges that they just did not count on. As Matthew ends his high school career, one thing was certain – he grew up through this experience.

"Matt learned you cannot control all the events of your life but can control how you respond to them. He realized the importance of character and dealing with the challenges of life."

We, as hockey coaches, like to talk about the important lessons that this game teaches, lessons that go beyond the ice and the locker room. But those lessons can fall on deaf ears if parents don't reinforce them. As a hockey coach who has seen his fair share of parental interference, and as a father, I have to salute not only Matthew Nemia, but his parents as well, for never losing sight of the big picture. Matt Nemia dealt with a difficult situation with class and maturity. Our sport needs more like him.

Speaking of maturity, and people making a difference, I wanted to give a shout-out to Quinnipiac University goaltender Eric Hartzell. The Minnesota native had a monster senior year for the Bobcats, being named a Hobey Baker finalist while leading Quinnipiac to the Frozen Four and the NCAA championship game.

"Obviously I'm thrilled with the year he's had, helping us win games," said Bobcat coach Rand Pecknold. "But it's been a pleasure on my end to watch him mature as a person, from where he was as a freshman. That's one of the nice things about having a kid for four years.

"Eric Hartzell is the perfect example of what's great about college hockey," said Pecknold. "Because at 21 years old, which is when you have to leave major junior, he was not ready to play pro hockey. At 23 years old now, he's ready to play pro hockey. He just needed a little more time to mature."

I've seen Hartzell's maturation firsthand. At Stop It Goaltending, we worked with him early in his collegiate career. While his talent was undeniable, his work ethic was inconsistent at best. He was a raw gem who needed refinement, but wasn't always inclined to put in the requisite effort. Clearly, he's turned it around at Quinnipiac.

"He's been just an incredible, solid block back there for us to build off of," said Bobcat captain Zach Currie. "We have a lot of skill out in front of him, but his commitment to his game and his practice habits and his focus is next to none. He's obsessed with the little things, and building on getting better each and every day."

Two years ago, I don't know anyone who would have said that Hartzell's practice habits were exceptional. One of the most important lessons that Hartzell has learned is this: The benefits of hard work far outweigh any of the blood, sweat and tears that must be sacrificed in order to improve your game.

"The boys all get along so well together. When we go from play time to work time, it's the same thing. We're all striving for the same goal, so it's fun to be on a team like this," said Hartzell just before the NCAA playoffs. "We know what we have to do every night to be successful. And I think that's why we are so successful. Every guy shows up to the rink and practices every day. They know their roles, and every guy does his job really, really well. And our identity is just an an extremely hard-working team, from start to finish."

Notice that last part, about hard work? There is simply no substitute for it. Regardless of your God-given talents, whatever they may be, you will never, never reap the full benefit of them unless you're willing to put in the work.

Hartzell is a great model. A few summers ago, he showed up out of shape, and didn't last a week. Admittedly, I was among several coaches who wondered if he had the intestinal fortitude to make the commitment to be a great player.

Well, he did, and he is. So I need to tip my hat to Eric Hartzell. Ultimately, each goalie must decide for himself (or herself) whether to buckle down, and take advantage of whatever physical gifts he has and the coaching he gets. Hartzell did just that. And he, and his team, won because of it.

Next month, my suggestions for the best off-ice sports to help you get in shape for the start of next season.

FINIS

Friday, March 28, 2014

Camps help solve the auto-body shop approach to coaching

Stop It's Steve Silverthorn with a young netminder.
Hi gang,

There's nothing like watching college playoff hockey to reinforce not only how important the position of goaltender is to a championship team (check out UMass Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck posting back-to-back shutouts to capture the Hockey East tournament), but also the importance of good goalie coaching and training.

One of my ongoing crusades is to educate "regular" coaches on the importance of "goalie-friendly" drills. This doesn't mean "easy" drills ... it means drills designed to help your goaltender improve, while avoiding developing bad habits. Despite how obvious that sounds, it's quite remarkable how often coaches can't "see" the downsides to endless shooting drills. But that crusade is a work in progress. In the meantime, the best option I can suggest to make sure your young netminders develop good habits and proper techniques is to have them attend a good goalie camp. Here are some thoughts on the topic, which originally ran in the New England Hockey Journal:

Goalie camps can help solve the auto-body shop approach to coaching

One of the great frustrations that hockey coaches have is when their goalies make the same mistake, time and time again. I appreciate that. In fact, I often tell my students, "You just got beat to the same spot three straight times. You've got to try to figure it out."

The difference is that I have higher expectations of adult coaches than I do of a 12-year-old goalie. Yet it's often the coaches who can't "figure it out." They keep running practices the same way, day after day after day, and somehow expect the goalie to miraculously make the necessary changes to avoid old mistakes, or break bad habits. Here's one of my favorite examples.

In practice, Coach Stan wants continuous action. He yells "Play it, play it," every time the goalie has a chance to cover the puck. The kid is actually being told to bat the puck away, instead of getting the whistle. So in a game, that's what he does, because that's what he's always been told to do, despite the fact that Coach Stan is screaming from the bench, "We need a whistle! Cover the puck!"

What Coach Stan doesn't realize is that covering rebounds, and getting a whistle, is a learned skill. It doesn't just "happen." Most kids will instinctively poke a puck away, instead of covering it up. And when you poke the puck away, it's live. And that means you're not getting the whistle you desperately need.

Here's another. Coach Stan is muttering about how his goalies aren't following shots, and are losing sight of the rebounds. But in practice, Coach Stan has 15 kids lined up, firing pucks at his goalies in rapid-fire succession. So his young goalies don't dare follow each shot, because they know another shot is coming from the next kid (who, in all likelihood, isn't even looking to see if the goalie is ready or not).

Now, does Coach Stan make that connection, and change his practices to reflect "real game" scenarios? Rarely, from what I've seen over the years. Instead, they think the goalies need some sort of special tutoring, and that's when they hire us, the professionals.

I call this the "auto body shop" school of goalie coaching. When you get into a fender-bender, that's the place you look to, right? You bring your prized set of wheels down to the auto body shop, leave it for a few days, and they deliver it back to you, good as new. Essentially, far too many coaches do the same thing with their goalies.

Let's take the analogy a step further. If you're constantly visiting the auto body shop because you're constantly getting into accidents, then you might need to change your driving habits. It's one thing to have your vehicle fixed, it's another to make sure it stays fixed. But young goalies often fall back into bad habits in regular practices because the drills aren't designed for them. The problem is that their coaches don't reinforce any of the lessons taught in private clinics (the auto body shop), because they have no idea what's being taught.

What's the solution? Start by taking ownership. The goalie is part of your team, and you owe in to the goalies, and the team as a whole, to familiarize yourself with the position. The best place to do that is taking in a goalie camp, and the best time to do that is the off-season. Grab an extra jacket, a spot in the stands, and bring a notebook. Consider it a free education.

Look for camps that have a long track record, a solid reputation (ask around), and a dedicated curriculum that starts on a solid foundation. Skating is absolutely essential, and better camps incorporate skating and proper technique during warm-ups. Follow closely, and realize just how different goalie-specific skating technique is compared to positional players, and how different the skating drills are.

Next, keep a close eye on the shooting drills. Try to avoid the "big picture," since most goalie camps will look like a six-ring circus when you first walk in, with two dozen or more goalies and multiple stations running simultaneously. For the uninitiated, it can look like mayhem. It's not. Or at least it's "controlled" mayhem. So rather than trying to understand the entire scene, focus on each individual station.

Notice how each station has a specific purpose. Good camps break down the position, and the game, in order to build the goalie. You should see separate drills that concentrate on different technical aspects, such as steering (with the stick blade, not the paddle), smothers (or body saves), glove and blocker, stickhandling (a vastly under-rated skill), crease movement and angle play, behind-the-net play, rebounds, desperation saves, and even "battle" stations where we can judge how competitive each youngster is.

Watch how good camps make the goaltenders follow every rebound. Every. Single. Time. OK, not every time (there are drills where we introduce multiple pucks, but for a specific reason). But almost always. This has to become almost instinctual. I often find myself yelling "Follow it!" or "Cover it!", explaining to my goalies afterward that that voice eventually has to come from between their own ears.

We want out goalies to train their bodies to follow their eyes, and their eyes need to be primarily focused on the puck before, during, and after the shot. One puck, as former UNH star and NHL goalie coach Cap Raeder likes to say. Stop It Goaltending's Brian Daccord calls this "visual attachment," and it's critical.

Next, good camps have good shooters. Truth is, the better the shooters, the better the camp. I don't mean guys who can snipe top-shelf all day. I'm talking about shooters, regardless of age, who don't have their own agenda, who can follow directions, and who can put the puck where the coaches want it in order to maximize instruction.

Especially with younger campers, we want our goalies to know where the puck is coming, so they can execute the proper save technique, and develop the requisite muscle memory to perform the same save in a "reaction" mode. With older goalies, I'll incorporate what I call the "70 percent rule," where shooters are only required to hit a predetermined spot 70 percent of of the time. That keeps goalies on their toes, and prevents them from playing "to the drill."

These drills will actually help the shooters as well, since they reinforce a level of discipline into their game (something most coaches are looking for in their players) while they learn the shots that goalies have the most trouble with (which is why the player who masters the backhand is so dangerous).

Finally, make sure the kids, and the coaches, are having a good time. Better camps are able to find that all-important balance between hard work and having fun. The two concepts aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, if a coach can keep the mood light, while asking the goalies to give everything they have, you have the best of both worlds.

That's just what you want in your regular practices. Drills that benefit every player, including the goaltenders, which will benefit the team as a whole. So take in a goalie camp, take good notes, learn a little more about the position, and incorporate those drills into your team's practices next fall. It's a true win/win scenario.

FINIS

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Goalies, parents, coaches and the concept of "team"

A loser's salute.
Hi gang,

Well, I managed to let the month of February slip by without a single post. My bad. That's what happens when both cars need major repairs, and a faulty pressure release valve on the hot-water heater floods the basement. Fun, fun, fun. But, since there's no crying in hockey (or home and car ownership, for that matter), it's time to move on.

The story featured in this column is now a year old, but I just had a parent remind me that he watches the accompanying video often, if only to remind himself to maintain perspective when it comes to youth and high school hockey, and his own two children (both goaltenders). This particular column, which originally ran in the New England Hockey Journal, also gave me a chance to call on several outstanding goalie coaches, including Brian Daccord, Joe Bertagna, and Darren Hersh, to get their thoughts on what I felt was an act of supreme selfishness. Let me know what you think.


Goalies, parents, coaches and the concept of "team"

So what are we to make of Austin Krause?

Don't know the name? Good for you. I'm hesitant to even dignify Krause's name with any additional mention, but it's next to impossible to tell this story without identifying the culprit. Just Google "Austin Krause," along with "goalie" and Farmington," and you'll find tales of how young Mr. Krause, a senior at Farmington High School in Minnesota, managed to disgrace himself while becoming something of an Internet sensation.

Here's the short version of Krause's tale. A disgruntled senior who started nine of Farmington's 23 games, Krause was upset about being demoted to backup to – gasp! – a sophomore. A Tweet from Austin obviously proves he knows better than his coaches: "They played this sophomore goalie for the starter, he was terrible, I would try and talk to the coaches about this and tell them I want playing time but they never really listen to me or gave me a chance to show them that I'm a better goalie."

Krause's numbers were decent (492 minutes, 5-4-1, 2.80 GAA, .877 save percentage), but they weren't as good as the sophomore starting ahead of him (548 minutes, 2.42 GAA, .901 save percentage). But instead of working his tail off, and proving he deserved to start, Krause apparently sat and stewed, and carefully plotted revenge.

On Senior Night, with the sophomore goalie out with an injury, Krause got the start against Chaska High. With three minutes left, and Farmington nursing a 2-1 lead, Krause calmly fielded a dump in, intentionally swept the puck into his own net, removed his blocker and flashed his middle finger toward his coaching staff, then ostensibly saluted his own team, and skated off the ice (with the help of friends, who obviously were waiting to open the door). Chaska, went on to win the game, 3-2.

Crazy, right? Not surprisingly, Krause was called into the principal's office and handed a 10-day suspension. Me? I would have forced him to come to school wearing a Chaska sweater and dunce cap, but that would probably violate the poor kid's civil liberties. And if the school system paid for even a dime of the kid's equipment, I'd withhold his diploma until every cent was repaid.

Even more shocking is the number of people who have come to Krause's defense, seeing something oddly noble in his actions. Take Fox 9 producer Doug Erlien, who wrote: "For those of us who had a problem with their high school coach at some point, what Krause did took courage. In no way am I trying to make him a hero here, but Krause took the 'stand in line and be a good soldier,' turned it around and shoved it right back in the face of the entire hockey world, including his team. Good team guy? Not a chance, but a part of me on the inside is standing and applauding and saying ‘'good for you kid, good for you.'"

It gets better. Erlien replied to comments that it was likely, in this day and age, that a prospective employers might search Krause's name, see the story, and immediately round-file his application. "If I were starting a company I'd want more guys like Krause working for me and I'd hire him in a minute. We need more passionate people who aren't afraid to put themselves out there and stand up for what they believe in popular or not."

Good luck with that, Doug. I can just see the first time Krause disagrees with his boss, loses his cool (because, of course, he's always right), and then makes a public display to embarrass not only himself and his company, but all of his company's clients. Yeah, just the guy I'd want on my staff.

There is something very, very rotten at the core of this story. And it starts and ends with Krause. He's a senior in high school, which means he's either 17 or 18. My girls, both teenagers, have known the difference between right and wrong since they were five, so I'm not going to let an 18-year-old off the hook. On the other hand, he's probably been coddled and told how great he is for a long, long time, and that definitely creates a sense of entitlement. I don't pretend to know all the particulars of Krause's home life, but the fact that his father has been banned from youth hockey games for a year speaks volumes.

"I know a coach who likes to say, 'Kids usually don't grow up to be like the neighbor's parents,'" said Joe Bertagna, former Boston Bruins and USA Olympic goaltending coach who runs Bertagna Goaltending. "What this kid did is wrong in so many ways, and I have to believe he has parents at home who have made him feel like a victim all year."

Exactly, said Brian Robinson, a managing director with Stop It Goaltending. "The kid started nine games out of 23 total, and he says the coach never gave him his chance? I can't stand what is happening to this new era of children who are so babied and pampered and given every single thing they want without ever being told no or being properly disciplined when they are in the wrong. I bet this kids parents gave him a pat on the back when he got out of that rink."

We, as goalie coaches, see this type of parental interference all the time. Sometimes they're right. Coaches do mess up, or play favorites. But how you deal with that hardship defines who you are.

"I think we can all agree we understand the kid's frustration as most of us have been involved in a similar situation in one form or another," said Sean Moloney, author of "Modern Goaltending, Modern Game." "His (desire) in this situation is clear, and understandable. This leaves us with the action. Which no matter how many ways I look at it is deplorable, petty, childish, selfish, and unforgivable."

In reality, some kids are never taught to deal with competition. "One of our issues is that kids play their birth year," said Brian Daccord, owner of Stop It Goaltending and a former Bruins goalie coach. "The whole team moves up each year. Therefore they do not have to compete for their spot like they did when levels consisted of two birth years. They get to high school they go from one birth year to four, with no experience or appreciation for competing to make a team. The old system was the way to go."

At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, it is a problem that's becoming all-too pervasive. "The pure selfishness in youth team sports today should not surprise us when we see this event take place," said Darren Hersh of The Goalie Academy. "I hear parents of players telling kids not to pass to teammates, but to keep the puck and to do it themselves. I've seen goalie partners cheer when their goalie teammate gets scored on."

"The selfishness that it takes, which is also encouraged and fueled by parents, seems to be at an all time high," said Hersh. "Not saying that deep down we all have felt jealousy, anger, and envy for our goalie competitors from time to time, but I've seen these emotions perfectly controlled and never revealed. To express those emotions by putting the puck in your own team's net only to make your own extremely selfish feelings known to the entire hockey world is beyond reprehensible.

"What is really disheartening, as a coach of youth hockey, is that the very important lessons that team sports like hockey can teach kids are the very lessons and values that a select group of parents do not know, understand, live, nor teach. Coaches today have to teach these values to both the kids AND to the parents, which is an exhausting undertaking to say the least."

Perhaps the greatest irony is that Krause wore No. 1. It's abundantly clear that Krause only care about one person, himself. His actions proved he was less than a back-up – he's a quitter.

FINIS

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Getting the balance right for young goaltenders

Not exactly the kind of balance I had in mind, but
pretty impressive nonetheless.
Hi gang,

Hope this finds you all enjoying a successful season. The midway point of the season is always a good time for me to reflect about why I coach. This season, that idea really hit home, since I just got back on the ice this month after hip revision surgery last September.

It was a long and sobering four-month recovery period, and I found myself counting my blessings that I still have the opportunity, and the privilege, to coach. Which brought me to this column, which I originally wrote for the New England Hockey Journal. It really gets to the heart of coaching, at least how I like to practice it. Let me know what you think ...

Getting the balance right for young goaltenders

Sometimes writers choose their column topics, and sometimes the topic chooses the writer. Maybe it's an editor who "suggests" a particular theme (to which the best responses are typically, "That's a great idea," or "I quit"). Other times, it's simply circumstance. This is one of those times.

In the past week, I had two young goalies who were reduced to tears during clinics, not because they got hurt, but because they were embarrassed, overwhelmed, or simply distraught. I'm not sure which, because I never found out what was upsetting them. As most parents can attest, when a child decides to clam up, it's all but impossible to break down that wall. Plus, I had to think of the other kids in those sessions, and it wouldn't be fair to them to allow one child to distract me from the task at hand.

However, both boys reminded me of another situation, last spring, when I watched a young goaltender sobbing uncontrollably after his Pee-Wee team was eliminated from a post-season tournament. Then, this week, I got an email from a concerned mom with a son who was struggling with the emotional demands of the position. She talked about how her son "loves playing goal, but when it comes to being scored on, his emotions take the best of him and he has (and does) cry in the net."

"(Johnny) likes to be a leader and is very confident in himself and outgoing, but he does have quite the temper at times and gets down on himself pretty bad when he lets a puck come through and is scored on," wrote the mom.

Her son, it should be noted, is a Squirt, which means he is only 9 or 10 years old. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? Normally, I'd simply tell his mom to remind her son that it's just a game, and not to take it too seriously. But then I thought of my own teary-eyed students (ages 7 and 9, respectively), and the inconsolable Pee-Wee goalie (who was 13). All were feeling a very real stress that they weren't able to deal with. Those events, combined, convinced me that I needed to give the subject more thought, and write about it.

If you spend enough time in a rink, it's easy to forget how young and impressionable these little netminders really are. It happens to me, and I work every week with "kids" from 6 to 56. We all have to be mindful – vigilant, actually – about the emotional well-being of the children we coach.

Of course, that doesn't mean pampering them, and therein lies the quandary for many coaches. We need to find the right balance, even if that balance point is something of a moving target. Every child, and every team, is different. Just like there's no "one size fits all" way to play goal, there's certainly no universal approach to coaching youngsters. They all bring their own set of characteristics, at different ages, and sometimes that includes some emotional baggage. We often don't know much about their home life, or their school day, or even their after-school activities with friends.

Therefore, it behooves us to be flexible, and keep an open mind when any of the kids appear to be off their game. So, here are a few thoughts to remember, primarily for coaches, but for parents as well.

In my goalie clinics, I always remind my shooters to keep their shots "age appropriate." The same goes for coaching. The younger the goaltender, the more important it is to keep the mood light. Again, hockey is a game, and we can't lose sight of that. Coaches can have expectations, but one of those is to make the game enjoyable.

During my first year coaching a local Squirt team, my assistant coach asked: "So, what are your expectations for the season?" My reply – "I want to make sure every child has so much fun that they want to play next year." – was clearly a bit too abstract. He wanted to work on our forecheck and transition game, which was fine. I let him handle the X's and O's of our practice and game planning. Meanwhile, I was the mood czar, pushing kids when I thought they could handle it, and backing off when they needed a softer touch.

Coaches, engage your parents. Parents, engage the coaches. It's critical to have everyone on the same page. That's doesn't mean you'll always agree. I recently had a post-clinic chat with a parent who didn't like my approach. He wanted more repetition, less instruction. I calmly explained my rationale, and why it was crucial for me to set the agenda, not his son. I also reminded him that repetition without proper technique often leads to bad habits.

The distinction, of course, was this was a private lesson, and the father could opt not to have his son participate. A team setting is a bit trickier. Still, the more coaches and parents know about each other's expectations, the better prepared they are to handle the bumps in the road that inevitably crop up.

Be firm, but be fair. It's perfectly acceptable to set goals, and have structure. Structure breeds efficiency. But don't be a slave to it. When you're on the ice, it's OK to say "Let's get to work." I've always told my players that winning makes the game a lot more fun, and hard work greatly improves your chances of winning.

That said, it's just as important to maintain perspective. Be aware. If a child is upset, it's your responsibility (as a coach) to at least try to figure out why. If you can't, give the child a break from the action to settle down, and follow up afterward with the parents. There may be external issues that you don't know about, or have no control over, but will help you gain a better understanding of the situation.

Don't single out the goaltender. Ever. Even if your young netminder is solely responsible for a bad outing (an extremely rare occurrence, by the way), there is little benefit from publicly chastising the kid. Don't let parents, or the other kids, do it either. There are usually hundreds of "mistakes" made during the game that either go unnoticed, or don't lead directly to goals. The difference for goaltenders is that their mishaps often wind up on the scoreboard. That's a tremendous amount of pressure, especially for a youngster who hasn't developed the requisite emotional maturity.

During a game, there's never a good time for the goalie to lose his or her cool. We have an adage in coaching circles: "You never want one bad goal to lead to another bad goal." As a coach, encourage your goaltender to focus on the next shot. Once a goal is behind him, he has to let it go. There's nothing he can do about it. If the child loses his temper, he's far more likely to let in another bad goal. Goalies, even young goalies, need to learn early that an even temperament is best. A temper tantrum works against him, and against his team. That lesson has to be a mantra, repeated over and over again. Be consistent.

Finally, be positive. We're in the growth business. We want our kids to improve. Routinely, one of my favorite moments during a goalie clinic is when I tell a child, "I don't care how many goals you give up here. I don't choose your team, or who the starting goalie is. I just want to see you get better." The relief that typically follows is often cathartic, and it's not surprising to see the same youngster play much better once he (or she) relaxes. It's the ultimate win-win. A happy, relaxed goalie, playing well. What could be better?

FINIS

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Overcoming fear is a big part of a goaltender's job

The L.A. Kings Rogie Vachon, putting on a brave face.
Hi gang,

Happy 2014! For me, the New Year was always a good time to re-evaluate my game, to figure out what was working, and more importantly, what needed work. A big part of that review was an honest assessment of whether I was being brave enough. Courage comes more easily to some than others. And it comes in many shapes and sizes. The same can be said for "fear." There is the fear of getting hurt, the fear of playing poorly, the fear of embarrassment. All are very real emotions, and a goalie needs to deal with each one of them. Coming to grips with your fears, and overcoming them, is an essential part of goaltending. It takes work, and good equipment. Here are a few thoughts on the topic, originally written for my column with the New England Hockey Journal.

Overcoming fear is a big part of a goaltender's job

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." -Mark Twain

Of course, the temptation was to begin this column with FDR's famous inauguration quote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Hockey goaltenders know better. Not only do we have to worry about getting hit with a vulcanized piece of rubber that is only slightly softer than a rock, but we need to deal with all the emotional baggage that comes with being "the last line of defense."

Sure, hockey is "just a game," but try telling that to a kid who pours his (or her) heart and soul into the position, and lives and dies a little bit with every goal that gets scored. You don't have to take my word for it; just ask my colleague, April "The Hockey Mom" Bowling. She has a son, Sam, who has been bitten by the goaltending bug, and the poor guy clearly sacrifices an ounce of flesh every time his team loses.

That's been the burden of goaltenders for as long as hockey players have been able to convince someone to stand between the pipes. It's an exquisite torture, though, and most of us who don the tools of ignorance gladly accept the responsibility. So, putting aside the psychological pitfalls that goaltending presents (that's a topic for another column), lets focus a bit on the potential physical trauma. Pain is a pretty good precursor to fear, and once you've been hit in a delicate or unprotected area with a puck, the memory of that sharp, biting sting is going to stick in your memory banks, no matter how mentally tough you are.

Still, better goaltenders excel because they, as Mark Twain said, can master their fears. Playing goal at a high level takes guts – there's just no way around it. You've got to be willing to put yourself in harm's way because, oftentimes, that's the difference between allowing a goal and making a save. Better goalies have always preferred the temporary pain of a bruise to the lingering disappointment of surrendering a goal.

All that said, I need to acknowledge the gear evolution, which has helped provide young netminders an extra measure of confidence, and even courage. Goaltending has changed a great deal since I strapped on the leather and felt pads in high school in the mid-1970s (no laughing, please). The position has always required hard work if you want to be a really good goaltender, and that fact is as true today as it was back in "my day." There's simply no substitute for busting your tail, on and off the ice.

But the reality is that the training is better, the coaching is better, the technique is better, and the gear is better. And the latter is probably most important of all. While the fancy leg pads and gloves and masks get the most credit, I'll wager that the gear that has made the biggest difference on how the position is played today is the body armor. Specifically, I'm talking primarily about the chest and arm protector, the pants, and to a lesser degree thigh guards and a neck danglers.

These essential, yet vastly under-rated pieces of gear allow goalies to play "big," or "wide," by keeping their arms to the side and soaking up shots like Muhammad Ali used to do with his famous rope-a-dope defense. We even teach goalies "smother" saves as part of our basic goalie curriculum. By rolling their shoulders forward, which pushes the chest protector away from the body, goalies can create an air pocket not unlike the air-bag in your car. When a shot hits this air pocket, it decelerates almost immediately, and the puck often drops into the goalie's lap. To the untrained eye, it looks like the puck simply sticks to the goalie, as if he was a giant sponge. But it takes practice, some courage, and a really good chest and arm protector and a solid pair of goalie pants to relax enough to "give" with the shot.

Again, looking back at my formative years, my chest and arm protectors were actually two pieces, made of quilted cotton, felt, and a few thin squares of foam padding. The pants weren't any different than the ones worn by the rest of the players (which, of course, meant there wasn't much to them). In reality, these pieces provided little more than token protection. I remember coming home at night, after practice, with my arms and torso covered with welts. The next morning, I took care to hide the blue and purple bruises from my mom, afraid she might forbid me from playing.

And that's how I played the game – in constant fear. I used my glove and blocker to protect my body, instead of keeping them at my side. I would move away from high shots, trying to snare them in my trapper or deflect them off my blocker, because that was the safest option. I stayed on my feet as long as possible because dropping too soon left me more susceptible to getting hit in places that weren't adequately covered. My style, really, was based not only on stopping the puck, but also preservation.

Now, we teach goalies to drive into the shot, or to absorb the shot. We want them playing big, which effectively shrinks the net behind them, leaving the shooters fewer options. The body armor allows them to do that. But, that said, it's just as critical that this gear is adequate, and fits properly. This, unfortunately, is where parents can sometimes cut corners.

I understand that not all parents are going to gleefully open the checkbook the first time that little Johnny or Jenny says they want to play goal. But I also see too many parents who "suit up" their goaltending hopefuls with inadequate and/or ill-fitting protective gear, and that's a bad recipe for the youngster.

Here's the quandary that prospective goalie parents face – if you don't invest in good gear, and make sure it fits correctly, the odds of your child getting injured increase exponentially. That has a Domino Effect – if Johnny has a normal pain threshold (without any underlying masochistic tendencies), and he takes a shot to an unprotected area, his enthusiasm for the position is going to disappear fairly quickly. Worse, from a team perspective, a fearful goalie is rarely a capable or reliable goalie. Fear paralyzes. Tight, tense muscles are slow muscles, and slow goalies spend a lot of time pulling pucks out of the net.

The good news is that the converse is also true. When young goalies feel safe, they can concentrate on stopping the puck, instead of worrying about getting hurt. They're more relaxed, and loose muscles a quick muscles. Quick goaltenders tend to be more successful, and that breeds confidence.

That's why I also mentioned thigh guards and neck danglers. These pieces (the thigh guard covers the area just above the knee that is often exposed when a goaltender drops into the butterfly), combined with a good chest and arm protector and goalie pants, plus a good helmet/mask, ensure that your child will be protected. Young goalies still need to ratchet up their courage, and learn to trust the gear. I've never told a goaltender that he (or she) won't get hurt. But by and large, the risk of getting seriously injured have been reduced dramatically. And that's a good thing.

FINIS

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Finding out if your youngster has what it takes …

The Bruins' Tuukka Rask, doing what he does best.
Hi gang,

Apologies for being out of the loop these past few months, as I've been busy recuperating from getting a brand new titanium right hip (rehab is going well, and I hope to be back on the ice in early 2014!). In the meantime, with high school, college, and professional hockey seasons in full swing, I wanted to chat about a topic that's near and dear to my goaltending heart. Goalies require a certain mindset that, while it can be cultivated, is often innate. You simply have to hate – Hate! – giving up goals. Here's my column on the tenacity that goalies, by the very nature of their position, have to have to be successful. It originally ran in the New England Hockey Journal.

Finding out if your youngster has what it takes …

One of my favorite coaching sessions over the course of the season is Desperation Day. This is the day when we show our goalies how to make those impossible saves, the ones that top pros make with alarming regularity. Yes, there's a method to the apparent madness of a desperation save (more on that later), but in reality what the session ultimately reveals is whether or not the youngster has the heart and courage to be a top-flight netminder.

Just for fun, I typically start the session by asking my pupils if they know who Winston Churchill is. This little Q&A invariably winds up sounding like an installment of "Kids Say the Darnedest Things" ("He's a goalie, right?" is by far the most popular answer). But it was Churchill, the legendary prime minister of Great Britain, who rallied a nation against the threat of Nazi Germany on June 4, 1940, with his famous "We shall fight on the beaches" speech before the House of Commons. The line that has always stayed with me, the one I want my goaltenders to remember, is this: "We shall never surrender."

Now, I don't mean to make light of war, or place too much importance on sports. There are already too many pro athletes and high-profile sportscasters doing that these days. What I'm talking about is character, and the willingness to battle, to dig deep in order to expend every ounce of energy needed to do your job. In this case, that's keeping the puck out of the net, using any means necessary.

Here's the "team" lesson I want my young goaltenders to take home from Desperation Day: There is nothing desperate about effort. If you quit on a play – even an impossible play – that can deflate your teammates. Goalies, by the nature of the position, have to be leaders. If you don't give a full effort, then your teammates suddenly have an excuse to go less than 100 percent as well.

Simultaneously, giving up gives your opponents an extra boost, thinking you've thrown in the towel. Make no mistake about this – Quitting on a play is like tossing fresh chum into a pool of starving sharks. The feeding frenzy can be frightening.

Fortunately, the opposite is true. A lot of coaches and athletes talk about "giving 100 percent" (or more), but in reality that's quite rare. However, those who do have the ability to fire up their team. Imagine two scenarios. In the first, you dive across the crease and deflect a sure-fire goal over the net. You don't think that's going to get your teammates jacked up?

Or maybe the opponent misses the net altogether. Ask players, and those who answer honestly will tell you they'd rather see a nice, wide-open net to bury the shot. The last thing they want to see is a flash of goalie equipment, whether a stick, glove, blocker – anything! – flying into their field of vision. They might rush, or grip their sticks a little too tight, and send their shots wide or over the net. That doesn't even count as a save in the scorebook, although it sure does in my book. And it gets even better.

In a desperation-save situation, the shooter is expected to score. And most of the time, they probably will. But that's when something almost magical can happen. In this second scenario, if a goalie makes every effort to make the save, tossing aside personal pride and safety to fling across the open net, it almost doesn't matter if the opponent pots the puck. The goalie's team will still rally behind that effort. It's almost as if they say, "Heck, if our goalie is going to bring it, we better bring it too."

And, even as the opponents celebrate, the heroic goalie – the one who refuses to quit, ever – has planted a seed of doubt. He (or she) has served notice that nothing will come easy. And, believe me, the other team will see that. I've seen it again and again over the past 35 years. These types of goalies are winners, and they can will their teams to win.

So, is there a method? The short answer is, yes. Visual attachment is critical. If the goalie loses sight of the puck, the task becomes infinitely more difficult. A goalie caught out of position doesn't have the luxury of tracking the puck and "deciding" to make a move. In the time it takes to make that decision, the puck will be in the back of the net. Instead, the goalie must simply react. If he (or she) gets to the rebound, only to find there's no imminent danger, all he's expended is a small slice of energy. It's like the winter hiker's credo regarding gear: "Better to have it and not need it, instead of needing it and not having it." You have to go to the puck, with all the energy you can muster.

The key is getting your body to move with your eyes. Set that back edge by driving your knee to your chest, and push. Hard! When you go, built the wall from the ice up. A ridiculous number of goals are scored along the ice, so that's where you want your stick. Paddle down, creating a wall, not a ramp. Aim your goal stick toward the opposite post, so you have that added support if the puck happens to hit the paddle. Engage your core muscles, and bring your catching glove above the stick, just in case the puck gets lifted.

And, perhaps most importantly, remember that even if you make that highlight-reel save, your job still isn't done. You've got to track the rebound, and be ready for the next shot. That is, after all, our job description.

Last, bring it all the time. Effort comes from habit. If you quit in practice, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to pull off the effort required for a miraculous save in a game. It has to be part of your mindset, and that's honed in practice.

As an added bonus, I'll share this universal truth – Coaches love these kids. Even if they're not the most technically gifted, they'll get their share of playing time, because coaches know that they'll compete from whistle to whistle, and that they'll inspire their teammates. That is a special gift. It's not the sole domain of goaltenders, since every player can help raise the bar. But other players can quit on a play, and they still have the goaltender behind them. Goalies don't have that safety net. That's why, in my mind, the position is imbued with certain leadership qualities. And when you go all out, all the time, refusing to surrender, you've proven yourself to be a worthy team leader.

FINIS

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sometimes, the pads never quite fit

OK, so where exactly do I begin with this stance?!!
One of the greatest challenges of writing a blog, or a regular column, is keeping your voice fresh. It is, after all, your voice (or mine, in this instance), and slowly, over time, a dreaded predictability can creep into the writing. It's something that writers have to be constantly vigilant about, because, let's face, it, we love to hear ourselves talk. The past summer, I had a topic that I felt went far beyond the normal parameters of my monthly The Goalie Guru column for the New England Hockey Journal. So I asked my colleague and good friend, April "The Hockey Mom" Bowling, if we could switch columns for an issue.

It turned out to be something of a mixed blessing. My regular readers got a new voice - April is a superb columnist with a fresh perspective. I, on the other hand, found out that one of my favorite pupil's April's son Sam was giving up the position. Not the sport, just goaltending. It was a bittersweet pill to swallow, because Sam was one of those rare youngsters who just seemed to thrive in the nets. He would keep smiling no matter how hard he worked, and he was a sponge, soaking up everything nugget of goaltending knowledge I could offer. He simply loved learning about the position, and the game. So it's with somewhat unresolved emotions that I present April's column. I wish her and her son nothing but success. But I'll miss him ...

Sometimes, the pads never quite fit 

This is probably the one and only time you'll ever catch my writing in Brion O'Connor's goaltending column. Why? Because I'm writing about the end of my son's goalie career. And he's only eight. After this, I can't imagine I'll have much to write about between the pipes.

For those of you who've read my Hockey Mom column in the past, you might already know the history. For everyone else, my then seven-year-old son, Sam, shocked us at the beginning of last season when he declared that he wanted to play in goal for his third season as a Mite.  

I guess it wasn't a huge shock. Sam had rotated through goal the previous year and seemed to like it, but no more than he did every other position on the ice. In fact, I was suspicious that it had more to do with wanting to avoid skating than it did with a true desire to tend the net. He’d been disappointed not to make the Mite 1 team and felt his skating skills were to blame. So being my son – instead of committing to work harder and get better his first instinct was to hide from his weaknesses.

The apple, as they say, does not fall far from the tree. So in this case, it wound up between the pipes. We insisted that he continued to skate out, but he spent the majority of the first half of the season as goalie. He won. He lost. He made big saves. He let in some easy goals. He began going to Brion's goalie workouts, and he L-O-V-E-D every second of it.  

And I H-A-T-E-D it.

I hated watching him out there as the final backstop. When the team wins, there is at least one goal scorer to share the goalie's credit. When the team loses, it's hard for the goalie not to feel the greatest burden since every other player on the roster equally shares the failure to score enough goals to win. Can you tell I'm not a team-sports-kind-of-athlete?

But actually, I think this quote attributed to former NHL goalie, Arturs Irbe, sums up what I felt every time Sam went out there (even if he didn't feel it).

“The goalie is like the guy on the minefield. He discovers the mines and destroys them. If you make a mistake, somebody gets blown up.”

No pressure there! As an aside, after revealing this attitude, I'm thinking after he reads this column Brion would never LET me have his column space again even if I was still the mom of a goalie …
Despite the pressure – or maybe because of it I started to take a curious pride in Sam's resiliency. I might be distraught over a loss, but he seemed to rebound pretty quickly. I might be overjoyed at a win, but he just shrugged it off. There is something so admirable to me about that kind of mental toughness that I began to be OK with the thought that maybe, just maybe, I was going to have to live with many more years of Sam behind the mask.

And then just as quickly he decided being in net wasn't his thing. And it was right after we bought goalie pads to boot.  

Another boy had been splitting time with Sam in goal and while he was skating out, Sam began scoring. A lot. Then he got moved from wing to center, which initially he hated for the defensive responsibility, but then began to relish for the opportunity to drive plays. He’s always loved to defend the puck and pass at the right moment … now his skating abilities had caught up with the plays he was devising in his head. Or at least close enough.

Sam also noticed something else. The boy he was splitting time with in net was a better goalie than he was and their team was winning more. "Maybe I'll just play back-up goalie," he said. And then, just like that, he never played goalie again.

I will concede the point that he is only eight, and still has another year of Mites. So maybe hell go back to goal at some point. But I have a mother's hunch that it won't happen. He was hiding in goal, as odd as that seems to those of us who would avoid that spotlight like the plague. But Sam would rather bear the brunt of isolation than become what he perceived to be a liability to his team. As soon as he was able to practice enough to do what he really wanted to and be good at it, he skated right out of the net.

Of course, part of me is oddly disappointed. And so is Sam, if only because he won't get to hang out with his beloved Coach O'Connor as much anymore.

But just like Sam going in goal wasn't my choice to make, Sam leaving it isn't my choice either. In fact, I haven't even weighed in on either decision. (OK … maybe I did ask him if he was REALLY sure before I bought those pads. Ahem.)

I see my place as a Hockey Mom as supporting Sam's choices. Sometimes that's just a quiet drive after a tough loss. Sometimes it's seeking out the right coach or camp. Sometimes it's offering advice when it's asked for, or maybe even when it isn’t. But Sam's decisions in hockey, just like they someday will be in life, are his alone to make. Ultimately, his mom is just along for the ride.

So while we may meet again, for now I'll say goodbye to my favorite Goalie. OK, Brion, now you can have your column back.

FINIS