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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Back to the basics

Goalies, on your mark, get set ...
Hi gang,

The importance of skating to the position of goaltending was drilled into my head a long, long time ago. Hall of Fame netminder Jacques Plante, in his famous instructional manual, "Goaltending," repeated the time-honored adage that "goalies have to be the best skaters on the ice." And I took particular pride, in high school, in making sure I didn't finish in last place during sprints and suicide drills.

Times have changed in the four decades since I laced up my skates for the Manchester Central Little Green. The skating techniques that goalies need to master today are much, much different than the ones I first learned, and even from those of positional players. Yes, there are still C-cuts, shuffles and T-glides (or drop steps), but there's much more to how a goaltending moves around the crease now.

Yet the emphasis on being a great skater, and becoming proficient in goalie-specific techniques, is more important than ever. Here's a column on the topic, based on my experiences last summer with Stop It Goaltending's summer camps at Merrimack College. Let me know what you think ...


Back to the basics

Each summer during goalie camp season, I work several sessions that focus strictly on skating and stickhandling. It would be a gross understate

ment to say that these sessions are typically met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from the campers. After all, they're goaltenders. And goaltenders live for stopping pucks. As our neighbors in Quebec might say, that's a goaltender's "raison d'etre," or reason for being. Making saves is fun. Skating and stickhandling? That's work.

However, it's important work. As a 50-something goalie coach, who has now seen generations of goaltenders come and go, I know just how foundational good skating is. The single most important aspect of good goaltending is getting to the right pace at the right time, in the right position. Do that, and you'll be successful most of the time. But to do that, you've got to be able to skate.

Still, try telling that to a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds. I've gotten pretty good with my snake-oil sales pitch, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like a snake-oil sales pitch. I believe in what I'm selling; I just don't believe that my audience is all that receptive.

Here's a great example. Last month, I had a group of 12-year-old netminders for a 6 p.m. skate session, and a half a sheet to work with. These 10 boys had already been on the ice for two hours earlier in the day, and had done some off-ice training as well. So when I got them, their energy level was still pretty good, but their collective attention span left something to be desired.

Knowing that, I prepared my usual spiel about how even the best goaltenders work on their skating constantly. As in, all the time. I also try to remind my campers that the ability to handle the puck, and pass, is another crucial tool in the goaltending toolbox that far too many netminders, male and female, don't work on enough. And when coaches have two goaltenders who can stop the puck, they'll often go with the one with a more complete toolbox. Blah blah blah. This was going to be a hard sell, and I knew it.

Fortunately for me, I got a last-second assist. There's nothing better having a couple of National Hockey League netminders on hand to drive home the point. On the other half of the ice was Cory Schneider and Scott Darling, pro goaltenders with the New Jersey Devils and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively. Darling can even call himself a Stanley Cup champion these days, after he provided some quality performances this spring while backing up starter Corey Crawford. Darling was so effective, in fact, that the Blackhawks signed him to a new two-year deal.

So, in short, both Schneider and Darling have that "street cred" that an old coach like myself can only hope for. Since the two got on the ice a few minutes before my group, all I had to do was get my kids to watch them. Schneider and Darling set up a "four-puck drill," with the pucks forming a small square. The idea is to skate from puck to puck, first in a clockwise direction, and then in reverse. It's a simple drill, at first, but gets more complicated as you add more and more elements.

The pair started with drop steps (or T-pushes), and then began to add shuffles, butterfly slides, butterfly pushes, recoveries, and "momentum continuation" maneuvers (recovering to the next puck without stopping, using the back leg). Then they started adding pivots around each puck (clockwise and counterclockwise), and then literally moving pucks to pucks, working their stickhandling. Each movement was crisp and precise, with a corresponding head snap to find the next puck, while maintaining a quiet upper body. Each movement was also accompanied by the clean, distinct sound of their skate edges carving the ice. Ice shavings flew with each stop.

In 10 short minutes of flawless effort, both Schneider and Darling had worked up a good sweat, and came by the bench for a drink. While my young campers looked on, wide-eyed, I asked Darling how often he did skating exercises. "Every time I'm on the ice," he replied. "No shortcuts."

That's all he had to say. My campers were on the ice in a heartbeat, and we had a great workout. We skated almost non-stop for 40 minutes, concentrating strictly on the basics. The same thing happened the next day, and the day after, for the entire week. Each session, these kids worked their tails off, without a single inspirational speech from me.

By the end of the week, these youngsters were better goaltenders, in part because they bought into the value of hard work, and mastering the basics. All because they saw how important those basics are to goaltenders playing at the very top of the game.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Too much of a good thing is potentially bad for goalies

Goaltenders could learn a great deal from the Chinese philosophy
of yin and yang, where contrary or opposite forces are actually
complementary and interconnected in the natural world.
Hi gang,

Back after a brief sabbatical. Boy, there's nothing quite like serious hip surgery to help an old goalie regain his perspective. So I thought "perspective" would be a good topic to tackle this month.

Far too often, goalies (and young athletes in a variety of different sports) concentrate far too much on their chosen craft. There's a fine line between commitment (a good thing), and going overboard (a bad thing). And if you can't identify and respect where that line is, you risk losing perspective. Here's a column I did on the topic for the New England Hockey Journal. Let me know what you think.

All the best,


Too much of a good thing is potentially bad for goalies

"Get the balance right … "
-Depeche Mode

Almost every summer, I do a column or two on taking advantage of the off-season to work on improving your technique and keeping fit. Or improving your fitness. Because, as the old adage asserts, championships are won in the off-season.

One highly regarded goalie coach I work with delineates his roles between the off-season, when he calls himself a "development coach," and in-season, when he's a "performance coach." Translation? During the season, it's all about results. Just win, baby. The off-season is when he works on the big picture, the goalie's overall game. That's why summer camps are important. You can really push yourself, find out what works, and find out what doesn't, because you have time to assess the results without worrying about whether those results are affecting your team.

In-season is not the time to overhaul your game, or even experiment with new equipment (unless your old stuff is getting you hurt). You can tweak things, like your technique and your fitness level. It's always a good idea to be continuously mindful of what's working and what's not. Self-assessment is a trademark of all good goaltenders.

The same goes for hard work. Most goalies I know – especially the ones with a true competitive streak – will double down on their workouts if they feel their game is slipping. But there are limits.

Sometimes, we lose sight of a very simple, and very profound rule of athletics. You need time off. Your mind, and your body, need a break. The reality is that exhaustion, both mental and physical, can lead to poor performance. In other words, it's perfectly OK to chill from time to time. And that's something that parents, coaches, and even instructors like myself need to keep in mind.

"There's a growing enthusiasm, and a huge market, for training, teaching and supporting young athletes," said Dr. Adam Naylor, director of Telos Sport Psychology Coaching. "Elite sports performance and medicine services are available to all with a credit card, and if a family desires, a passionate and competent coach and advisor can be hired. This may not be a good thing.

"Forget the popular – yet very real – concern that pushing a young athlete toward athletic excellence can lead to burnout, dropout, and even mistreatment or abuse," he said. "Surprisingly, research has shown that encouraging youth to achieve athletic excellence can also lead to young athletes not fulfilling their athletic potential."

According to Naylor, we've become enamored with the works of researchers and authors like Anders Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell (author of "Outliers") that indicate it takes 10 years and/or 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a certain activity, whether its computer programming, being a musician, or mastering a particular sport. Likewise, research by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania has studied the value of "grit" in the classroom, and that has been applied to the playing field (or the ice, in the case of hockey).

Grit, according to Duckworth, is the "tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals," while self-control is "the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions." Both, it's safe to say, are considered attributes for a position as demanding as goaltending.

However, both concepts – repetition and grit – can be taken to extremes.

"In both cases, the message is loud and clear: train relentlessly and regularly and greatness is within grasp," said Naylor. "Unfortunately, this is an example of society and sports being deaf to nuance.

"Failure to understand Ericsson's entire conception of deliberate practice can make much athletic striving time ill-spent," he said. "Even if one is fortunate enough to have found excellent coaches and a sufficient number of competitive opportunities, striving toward excellence requires regular rest."

There's the rub. Athletes who push themselves to the breaking point, no matter how well-intentioned that effort is, risk breaking down. This past season, I was working with a freshman goaltender who was a coach's dream. The youngster was an absolute sponge when we talked about the technical aspects of the position, and he worked his tail off when we applied those lessons on the ice.

Then, one day, Andy (not his real name) was really dragging. He had no "pop" to his movements, and was continually dropping too quickly, instead of waiting on the shot. Once he dropped, he stayed down. So I asked him what was going on.

"I'm exhausted, coach," he said. "I did a leg workout after practice yesterday, and the day before. Today, I've got nothing."

"Well, d'uh," I replied. "You can't just keep running yourself into the ground, Andy. You've got to make sure you give yourself a chance to recover."

My response was almost a knee-jerk reaction, and had more to do with my prior life as an amateur mountain bike racer than my current role as a goalie coach. In my 30s, urged on by a few cycling pals, I started competing in mountain bike races. I wasn't ever very good, but I still wanted to get better. So I started training like a maniac, burying myself in these brutal training sessions day after day. Not exactly a scientific regimen.

Instead, I subscribed to the "No pain, no gain" theory so prevalent in the 1990s. If a one-hour training session was good, a 90-minute session was better. And, come the weekend, at the starting line, I had … nothing. Just like my freshman goaltender, I was toast. It didn't mean I couldn't race, but it was a slog.

So I started doing my homework, including long talks with my racing friends who had far more experience. The first thing they taught me was the "recovery ride." On Mondays and Tuesdays, especially post-race weekend, the gang would go out and soft pedal, spinning an easy gear just to encourage blood flow. We maintain a "conversational" pace, and never pushed our heart rates.

By mid-week, my legs had that "snap" that cyclist's love. I could push hard on Wednesday and Thursday, and then taper briefly on Friday. Then, come Saturday and Sunday, I had the lungs and legs to compete. Not that I was any threat to the top racers in the pack, but I could bring my best. Even better, I was having fun. Which is exactly what Naylor believes is a critical byproduct of rest.

"Physical and mental breaks during practice sessions, throughout seasons, and over the course of the year are necessary for an athlete to rebuild and return to play stronger and stronger," said Naylor.

"Hours of practice and participation in hyper-focused sports environments can saddle athletes with unnecessary expectations, where mistakes on the playing field are failures and stumbles feel like letting coaches and families down," said Naylor. "At the end of the day, sports is 'play.' When adults enthusiastically provide these opportunities but remove 'play' from the equation, something is amiss."

I couldn’t agree more.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bullying has no place on the ice, or in the locker room

Whether between boys or girls, bullying is wrong. Period.
Hey gang,

Heavy topic today. Bully is a very important topic for me, because it's the antithesis of what team sports should be about. Team sports are meant to build character, not tear it down. They should be an example that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, not a vehicle that allows some players to gain some misguided "advantage" over their teammates.

After my sophomore year in high school, my family moved, from New Jersey to New Hampshire. It was there, during my first season with the Central High hockey team, that I saw bullying in all its ugliness. The seniors wanted to "initiate" me. I wasn't going to let that happen, and I got into a few locker-room brawls because I wouldn't back down. To make things worse (for me), I wouldn't let the seniors initiate the freshmen either, because I wouldn't stand by idly while these 15- and 16-year-olds were bullied. That's not what my parents, and former coaches, taught me.

Of course, my actions had repercussions, and that season was pretty miserable, from a team standpoint (though I did make some great friends who weren't among the seniors). However, three decades later, one of those freshman reached out to me, via Facebook, and told me that he never forgot how I stood up for him. Whatever modest success I had as an athlete, none of it compared to getting that note.

The column below prompted a small firestorm among some readers of the New England Hockey Journal, because they recognized the players and schools involved (although I refrained from using the real names of any player or any school). Those people missed the point. This column is about the deleterious effects of bullying, and why it should never be accepted, at any level. Let me know what you think ...And thanks for reading!


Bullying has no place on the ice, or locker room

After a half century in the game of hockey, I thought I'd see it all (shades of Barry Melrose, who made the same comment after BU's Matt O'Connor handed Providence the tying goal in the 2015 NCAA final). Wrong.

Until now, I had never, ever, seen a mid-game fight between two high school goalies. Girls. On the same team. On the ice. During the break between periods, as the coach was giving instructions. In a lighthearted spring pick-up league. Crazy.

It was so surreal, that other parents and I thought the two girls were just goofing around. My daughter, who was on the same team as the combatants and on the bench right in front of the goalies, thought the same thing. When she realized that it was a genuine brawl, she stepped on the ice to separate the two, but she wasn't as quick as the coach.

That coach, to her credit, was on the girls in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, the mother of one of the goalies started screaming from the stands, and running toward the rink door.

"I've had enough of this," she hollered menacingly, pointing an accusatory finger directly at the girl who was tussling with her daughter.

It was a scene right out of some Fellini movie, unnerving and uncomfortable. Unless you knew the back-story. I did know part of that back-story, and quickly put the pieces together.

Just by chance, I had an opportunity to talk with the same mother before the game. It wasn't planned (at least not on my part). We had seen each other for the better part of the past two years, but never really had any serious conversation. But this afternoon, we found ourselves sitting together on a lobby bench, and we got to gabbing.

Her daughter, Abigail, was a high school freshman at Holy Name Prep (I'm refraining from using real names – people or schools – since I didn't have a chance to fully investigated the story). I say "was," because she transferred out of Holy Name in February, to another private school. The reasons, according to her mom, that precipitated that move were pretty disturbing.

Again, according to her mom, Abigail came to Holy Name the year before as an 8th grader, and was one of four goaltenders on the team. That's a dicey situation right off the bat. Most girls' high school teams are desperate for one goalie. Two is a luxury. Four is a problem, for obvious reasons. There's only one net, and one goalie plays. That meant Holy Name had three goalies in a back-up role.

During Abigail's 8th grade year, Holy Name had a senior goaltender who was the clear-cut starter. A natural order was established.

But, apparently, Abigail's stable mates – two freshman last year – were looking to the future, a future without the senior goaltender. So, according to Abigail's mother, the two targeted her daughter. The hazing started early, and soon became relentless. It ranged from annoying (a missing glove or other piece of equipment) to tampering (removing the edge from her skates) to physical abuse. Beatings. The mom said she regrets not taking pictures of the bruises that dotted her daughter's back and rib cage.

She said she went to school administrators, who told her she needed to talk to the coach (a male). She said she talked to the coach, but he said she needed to talk to school administrators. Talk about going in circles. Mom confided that it was clear that no one wanted to take responsibility. That's a damn same.

There's usually (but not always) two sides to every story. That's Journalism 101. But I've also learned that sometimes the story is simply the story. When a school, and a coach, stonewalls a parent, it typically raises suspicion. But rather than fight a deck that she felt was stacked against her daughter, the mom decided to enroll Abigail at another school. I told her that I hoped things would work out for her daughter, and went into the rink to watch some hockey.

That's when things went completely sideways. Abigail played the first half, and nothing seemed out of place. But, during the intermission between halves (again, this was springtime practice hockey), Abigail and the other goalie on her team started flailing away at each other.

A third goalie whom I happen to know, and who was skating as a forward in the same game, got off the ice at the same time as the goalies, and followed Abigail into the locker room to console her. When that girl came by the stands, I called her over, and asked if the second girl also went to Holy Name. "Yes," she said. "How did you know?"

Of course, I didn't, at least not until an hour before the game. But once I saw the girls taking swings, it made perfect sense. "Just a hunch," I said.

"Yeah, they've got history," said the girl.

And that was it. The first girl walked straight out of the rink, likely for the last time. Abigail and her parents spoke briefly to the rink manager, before also calling it a day. The game went on, and the little pas de deux between netminders was quickly forgotten. But I walked out of the rink that day with two long-time lessons being reinforced.

The first, of course, is you rarely know the entire story. If I hadn't had that chance conversation with Abigail's mother before the game, I would have cast the entire incident in an entirely different light. Even my daughter, who doesn't know either girl and was still puzzled by the whole incident afterward, said she was taken aback when the other goalie leveled Abigail.

All that said, I'm not buying the story Abigail's mom shared completely, not without getting both sides. But I've been around the game long enough to now that when a parent feels that strongly, there's usually some basis to her concerns.

The second, and equally important, is that bullying can never, ever be tolerated. Ever. I don't buy the "boys will be boys" or "girls will be girls" argument. Not anymore. I've seen this up close, and any coach that dismisses parental concerns out of hand probably ought to be dismissed.

Coaching a high school team goes far beyond X's and O's. Coaches need to accept and embrace the responsibility of how each player on their team behaves. The locker room is the coach's locker room. If they fail to police it adequately, they not only fail the boys and/or girls in that locker room, but also the parents who entrust their children to that particular program. That's especially true for men who coach girls' programs, because they don't have the same locker room access. It's imperative that they create a culture where bullying is not tolerated. At all.

I don't know everything that happened at Holy Name Prep, and what exactly led to Abigail feeling like she had no choice but to transfer to a different school. But I've seen far too many coaches fail in their responsibility to make sure that every child knows the locker room is a safe haven. There is no place for hazing, or bullying. None.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Dear Santa – A holiday wish list for goalies young and old

Mom, can I finally upgrade my gear? Please?!
Hi gang

No time for a long-winded intro (for a change!). Just wanted to wish everyone "Happy Holidays!," and hope you and yours enjoy a healthy and prosperous New Year!

All the best,


Dear Santa – A holiday wish list for goalies young and old

In the youth hockey, spring is the "silly season," which starts the second the final whistle blows on the preceding season. That's when select or "elite" programs shift into overdrive, hosting "tryouts" and putting the full-court press on parents to sign up before those poor folks have even had a chance to thaw their rink-induced frozen bones.

But the original "silly season" is the insane shopping spree that begins the moment the Thanksgiving leftovers are packed up (and, in some ultra-greedy retail circles, even before Turkey Day dinner is served). Given the amount of gear that goalies require, and the exorbitant cost of that equipment (can someone explain to me why a single goalie glove costs three times as much as a pair of equivalent player gloves?), Christmas is a great time for parents to address a few Wish List items while simultaneously outfitting their young netminder.

That's a sound financial plan. But, buyer beware. There are definitely items you should NEVER buy for your goaltender without an ironclad promise that you can return them (assuming you want to have the gifts under the tree, as a surprise). Goaltenders – even young ones – are notoriously fussy about their gear. So you take a risk if you get them something that doesn't quite feel right.

For example, don’t buy new goalie skates without your child trying them on, unless you know the store will exchange them or accept returns. Whatever you do, don't have the shop sharpen those skates (most stores offer a free sharpening with purchase) before you gift-wrapped them. That way, you can still return/exchange them afterward for a different make or model.

The same goes for goalie pads, gloves, helmets, chest and arm protectors, and even pants. Different manufacturers use different design patterns, and what might be a great fit for one goaltender might feel all wrong for another. Again, it's best to have your child actually try them on for size and comfort.

So, with that said, here is The Goalie Guru's 2015 Wish List for Santa:


As a guy with more than his share of jerseys (you can ask my wife), I can vouch for hockey sweaters as a great holiday gift. Just make sure you get a "goalie cut" model. "Regular" jerseys don't account for bulky chest and arm protectors, and the sleeves will typically be cut too narrow. Fortunately, most jersey manufacturers today offer "goalie cut" jerseys in a number of sizes, so your Squirt netminder isn't playing in a jersey that looks like a tent. NHL team jerseys in goalie-cut, much like gloves, are ridiculously expensive. But you can find reasonably priced practice or uncrested jerseys.


There are a number of super goalie accessories, both practical and performance-oriented. Start with a neck "dangler" (a clear or tinted Lexan shield that "dangles" from a goalie mask for added throat protection). There's also the Shock Doctor Shockskin goalie shirt with extra padding in those gaps in a goalie's body armor (like the collarbone, sternum, kidney, and rib area). XH Series Achilles cut-resistant underwear guard against razor-sharp skates (these tights can be used by any player). Kevlar-reinforced socks work as well. A great "gag" gift that will be secretly appreciated, especially for a young man playing with a regular cup, is a sturdy, well-padded goalie cup (Reebok, Bauer, and Vaughn all make nice models).

Another very cool accessory that should be in every goalie's basement (or garage) is a quality drying rack. Wet equipment stinks, literally, and figuratively. Models by Winwell and Wet Gear feature powder-coated metal racks, which ought to last a few seasons. Rocket Sports takes the idea to another level, adding circulated warm air to eliminate dampness. Great concept.

Finally, consider getting your netminder a lateral slide board. These help with traditional skating stride, but can also be used to work on shuffles, drop steps, butterfly slides and butterfly pushes. My one piece of advice is to spend a little extra, because cheap models – usually advertised as aerobic trainers – won't stand up to the abuse of a hockey player. Reebok makes a terrific heavy-duty model.


Granted, these aren't the sexiest choices, but they make for great stocking stuffers. A basic skate stone or a more sophisticated tool, such as Sweet Stick, Re-Edger or SkateMate, help keep skates edges sharp. Every goalie should have a helmet/mask repair kit to replace missing screws and clips in their bag. This can be a critical safety issue (I've personally seen far too many youngsters sporting masks with missing screws, which is an accident waiting to happen). Bauer offers The Goalie Hardware Box as the ultimate goalie repair kit, which includes replacement leg straps, buckles, washers, screws and snaps for use on leg pads and helmets, all packed in a handy carrying case.


This sounds self-serving, since I work (part-time) as a goalie coach. That's not my intent. In my travels from rink to rink, I'm still surprised that so many parents aren't aware of goalie-specific training outside their child's hockey program, whether at the youth, middle school, or high school level. Many programs will even help with the cost of private instruction. That helps take the edge off the financial hit. But a 10-pack of lessons (to use a round number) with a reputable goalie coach will pay huge dividends in your child's development.

In the same vein, check out Maria Mountain's site. Mountain, a personal trainer based in London, Ontario, is one of the best in the business for off-ice training. Mountain provides plenty of free advice on her web site, on everything from strength training and flexibility to nutrition, but she also offers full training programs at very reasonable prices.


For the studious netminder, there are several first-rate instructional books and videos available. These allow netminders to work on their game even when they're enjoying some down time. Here are some favorites:

"Hockey Goaltending," edited by Brian Daccord. Make sure you get the second edition of Daccord's book, which includes an excellent DVD covering the basics of the position. In this edition, Daccord, the owner of Stop It Goaltending, brings together a number of top goaltending coaches to discuss awareness, technique, and physical conditioning.

"The Hockey Goalie's Complete Guide: An Indispensable Development Plan," by Francoise Allaire. Known as the godfather of the butterfly style, Allaire lays out a four-year development plan that includes advice on basic save techniques, skating techniques, on-ice and off-ice training methods, and how to evaluate goalkeepers.

"Modern Goaltending, Modern Game," by Sean Moloney. An instructor at World Pro Goaltending, Moloney covers the technical aspects of the position as well as on- and off-ice drills, the mental aspect of the position, advice for coaches on handling goaltenders, and advice for parents.

"The Power Within: Discovering the Path to Elite Goaltending," by Mike Valley and Justin Goldman. Valley, a Dallas Stars goalie coach, and Goldman, a USA Hockey scout, employ their Three Pillars of Elite Goaltending to elevate your mental game, supported by insights from NHL goaltenders and goalie coaches on a multitude of performance-related topics.

"Goaltending Today: Traditional Values Through New Techniques," by Joe Bertagna. This DVD by the former Bruins and Olympic goaltending coach, along with former NHLer Mike Morrison, provides the latest trends for today's goaltending, highlighting the toughest shots and how to defend them, and advice on knowing when to make blocking saves versus reaction saves.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The mindset of a champion

Union College goaltender Colin Stevens, NCAA champion.
Hi folks,

Sorry for being out of the loop for the past few months. I thought life would get simpler with a daughter heading off to college. But with Maddi playing volleyball up the road at the University of New England, things have only gotten more hectic, with my wife and I traveling to games. Which is all good. Nothing better than watching your child play a sport she loves.

So, in keeping with the collegiate theme, here is a column I wrote after the Union Dutchmen won the school's first NCAA championship, coming out on top at he 2014 Frozen Four. Junior goalie Colin Stevens was instrumental in that championship run, and his back story was just as interesting. I thought it was important to share it. Let me know what you think ...


The mindset of a champion

While the Stanley Cup is the be all and end all for many hockey players and most fans, I still think of April as championship season. I suppose that reveals my fondness for the college game, and the NCAA's Frozen Four.

This past April, the Dutchmen of Union College provided a breath of fresh air for college hockey enthusiasts, emerging from a Frozen Four featuring traditional powers Boston College, Minnesota and North Dakota to win the school's first NCAA championship. If you couldn't find something to enjoy in the three games of the Frozen Four, you've got to ask yourself if you're a real hockey fan. But it wasn't all attractive hockey, which might have been the best part of all.

The Dutchmen's defense was far from airtight. They gave up four goals to Boston College in the semifinal, but won 5-4 when Union junior goaltender Colin Stevens blocked Johnny Gaudreau's last-second bid. Two nights later, Stevens gave up another 4-pack in the title game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. But the Dutchmen tallied seven, and won 7-4.

My first thought was, "Well, I guess defense doesn't always win championships." And it was encouraging – and entertaining – to watch a couple of freewheeling games. But in reality, Stevens did put his stamp on the Dutchmen's championship season. He made key saves when he needed to, which any coach will tell you is essential to winning big games.

Stevens and the Dutchmen closed out the 2013-14 season on a 17-game unbeaten streak (16-0-1). After Union erased a two-goal deficit to tie Colgate, 4-4 on Feb. 15, they didn't surrendered more than two goals in a game leading up to the Frozen Four. When the red lights started flashing in Philadelphia, Stevens could have crumbled. He didn't. And that might well be because he'd been through worse.

"Colin has faced a lot of adversity through his three years, and I think through that adversity he's really learned from that," said Union coach Rick Bennett. "He's matured. He's gotten bigger, gotten stronger, throughout his time here. He came in very young, and it just takes time. I think the time he has spent on getting bigger and stronger, and he just had to go through a season of games.

"More importantly, Colin's been willing to work hard and get better," said Bennett. "The guys see the work he puts in, so when they're out there playing, they're playing so hard for him because they know how hard he works. And I think there's something to that."

There is unquestionably "something to that." I've had the good fortune to work with Stevens at Stop It Goaltending during our summer sessions, and I can vouch for the young man's work ethic. He's quiet, respectful, but has an intensity about him that drives that willingness to dig deep. That's what is needed to be a champion.

Which got me thinking about a fascinating article on the topic by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, entitled "The Mindset of a Champion."

"There are things that distinguish great athletes – champions – from others," said Dweck. "Most of the sports world thinks it's their talent, but I will argue that it's their mindset. This idea is brought to life by the story of Billy Beane, told so well by Michael Lewis in the book Moneyball. When Beane was in high school, he was in fact a huge talent – what they call a 'natural.' He was the star of the basketball team, the football team, and the baseball team – and he was all of these things without much effort. People thought he was the new Babe Ruth.

"However, as soon as anything went wrong, Beane lost it," she said. "He didn't know how to learn from his mistakes, nor did he know how to practice to improve. Why? Because naturals shouldn't make mistakes or need practice. When Beane moved up to baseball's major leagues, things got progressively worse. Every at-bat was a do-or-die situation and with every out he fell apart yet again. If you're a natural, you believe that you shouldn't have deficiencies, so you can't face them and coach or practice them away."

Dweck's research has identified two different types of "mindsets." Some athletes, she says, have a "fixed mindset," in which "they see abilities as fixed traits. In this view, talents are gifts – you either have them or you don't."

Others, according to Dweck, have a "growth mindset" regarding ability. "They believe that people can cultivate their abilities," she said. "In other words, they view talents as potentialities that can be developed through practice. It's not that people holding this mindset deny differences among people. They don't deny that some people may be better or faster than others at acquiring certain skills, but what they focus on is the idea that everyone can get better over time."

Dweck goes on to state that either mindset can achieve great things. But for my money, based on decades of coaching, I'll put my money on the "growth" mindset. Dweck appears to concur.

"We have found in our research that people's mindsets set up completely different motivations," said Dweck. "The fixed mindset, in which you have only a certain amount of a valued talent or ability, leads people to want to look good at all times. You need to prove that you are talented and not do anything to contradict that impression, so people in a fixed mindset try to highlight their proficiencies and hide their deficiencies. In fact, we have found that they will often reject valuable learning opportunities if these opportunities hold the risk of unmasking their shortcomings."

Of course, in reality, everyone has shortcomings. It reminds me of the old skiing adage, "If you're not falling, you're not trying." We learn by falling, and getting back up. Over and over again. The fixed mindset, however, doesn't allow people the leeway to expose themselves "and remedy their weaknesses, because any weakness can indicate a permanent lack of ability," said Dweck.

"In contrast, the growth mindset, in which you can develop your ability, leads people to want to do just that," she said. "It leads them to put a premium on learning."

I've seen this time and time again, even with high-level goalies. During the summer, the Stop It Goaltending staff spends considerable time with outstanding goalie coaches from around the world. Our colleagues from Sweden, and Magnus Olsson of Blue Crease Goaltending in particular, are developing and employing some cutting-edge skating and blocking techniques that continue to revolutionize the position. But many of our top-flight collegiate goalies are hesitant to even try them.

Others, however, are always willing to experiment, guys like Northeastern's Clay Witt, US Olympian Molly Schaus, and Union's Colin Stevens. I always tell my goalies that they can never have too many arrows in their quivers. If you have the chance to try something new, take advantage of that opportunity. And don't give it a half-hearted effort, either. Give it everything you've got. You just might find it works for you, and you'll be able to use it.

"People in the growth mindset understand that effort is the way that ability is brought to life, and allowed to reach fruition," said Dweck. "Far from indicating a lack of talent, they believe that even geniuses need great effort to fulfill their promise. People with a growth mindset not only believe in the power of effort, they hold effort as a value."

Colin Stevens is always willing to learn and always puts in the effort. And now, he has an NCAA championship to validate all the time he's spent perfecting his craft.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lessons learned from goalies behaving badly

Josh Ho-Shang and Anthony Stolarz battle for the puck.
Hi gang,

Once again, summer has gone roaring by, filled with goalie camps featuring every kind of goaltender imaginable. I worked with boys and girls, men and women, from tiny 6-year-olds to NHL netminders Cory Schneider and Scott Darling. The sheer spectrum of ages and abilities is what makes coaching so challenging, and so much fun. But, as we often say about goaltending, if it was easy, everyone would do it.

This summer has also had an unmistakable bittersweet mood, as my eldest child, Maddi, prepares to head off to college. Maddi is our volleyball player, and I suspect she's in for a surprise when she gets to the University of New England, and realizes first hand the demands of a collegiate program. That reminded me of this column, which I'm pulling out of the archives. The theme is a simple one: How do you handle adversity?

The examples below illustrate the wrong way to do it, but it's my hope that there are lessons that can be learned from the actions of these two short-sighted netminders. Let me know what you think ...


Lessons learned from goalies behaving badly

For some goaltenders, the late-season and playoffs can bring out their best performances. For others, that pressure-cooker can be too hot to handle.

Last year at this time, I was writing about a punk netminder from a Minnesota high school who, on Senior Night, intentionally put the puck in his own net, erasing his team's one-goal lead. After giving a middle-finger salute to his bench and coaching staff, he left the ice, and his team wound up losing the game, 3-2. Nice, huh? Fortunately, the school saw fit to suspend this clown, though the damage was already done.

Then, this spring, an OHL playoff game between the Windsor Spitfires and the London Knights featured not one, but two acts of incredibly selfish behavior by goaltenders. The first was Knights' goalie Anthony Stolarz, who took exception to a tap on the pads after tying up the puck and clubbed Spitfire forward Josh Ho-Sang in the back of the head. This was a full-fledged tomahawk chop, with Stolarz holding his stick at the top of the shaft for a maximum arc. Ho-Sang wasn't even looking, having turned away at the whistle (you can see a video clip here).

It was an indefensible act, "temporary insanity" notwithstanding. Stolarz is lucky that Ho-Sang didn't suffer more serious injury, or the former USA national development team member might have seen his major junior career come to a sudden and swift end. And justifiably so. This is not a Billy Smith-style swing at a guy's ankle (not that I'm condoning that course of action either). Stolarz targeted Ho-Sang's cranium (giving a new meaning to his previous junior team, the New Jersey Hitmen).

In this day and age of increased awareness of concussions and head injuries, Stolarz's attack was as cowardly as it was premeditated. It showed total disregard for an opponent, which is a disconcerting trend in the game. I was stunned that the on-ice officials only gave Stolarz a 2-minute minor, which was a ludicrous decision. Fortunately, officials with the Ontario Hockey League saw fit to take far more appropriate action, banning Stolarz for eight games. I hope he takes the time to give some serious thought to his ill-conceived actions.

Another guy who'll have plenty of time to consider the fallout of his actions is Spitfire goaltender Dalen Kuchmey. In the same game, which the Knight's ultimately won, 10-2, Kuchmey pulled himself from Windsor's net with 5:34 left in the second period. He stormed off to the dressing room, changed, and drove off after surrendering eight goals on 26 shots, leaving the Spitfires trailing 8-1.

Not even the great Patrick Roy, when he famously told the Montreal Canadiens that he'd played his last game for Les Habs after the Detroit Red Wings lit him up for nine goals on 26 shots in 32 minutes on Dec. 2, 1995, left the ice on his own. He waited, enduring the shortsighted wrath of the Montreal crowd, until clueless coach Mario Tremblay pulled him from the game. And Roy had two Stanley Cups on his resume by that point.

In the Knights-Spitfires game, there were extenuating circumstances. Kuchmey was Windsor's backup, but got the starting nod because the Spitfires' first-string goalie, Alex Fotinos, was on the bench, sick as a dog. Spitfire coach Bob Bougner told reporters afterward that he had no choice but to leave Kuchmey in the game, given Fotinos' condition. But that, apparently, wasn't Kuchmey's primary concern.

"They embarrassed me in front of my fans, especially in the playoffs," Kuchmeny told the Windsor Star. "(Boughner) could have put Fotinos in to let the bleeding stop. He knows I wasn't having a good game and could have recognized it."

Excuse me? Parents, you really need to read that last graph again. Because if your child has ever complained about a coach's decision, and you allowed it, then you're enabling your child. Excuses are a dime a dozen, and they're for losers. Not only did Kuchmey equate getting torched with Fontinos' illness, but he completely forgot his role.

"A big part of goaltending is situational awareness, everything from knowing how the puck bounces of the boards in a rink to how a team runs their power play," said Stop It goaltending director John Carratu, the goalie coach at Merrimack College. "This goalie knew the situation the team was in. They needed him to fill a specific role, and he didn't want to do it.

"It's like (former Red Sox pitcher) Tim Wakefield in Game 3 of the 2004 series against the Yankees," he said. "He went in to give the pitching staff a chance to rest and regroup. He absorbed a beating from the Yankees, but the staff got the rest it needed. It was the ultimate 'take one for the tea' moment. The Sox came back to win the series, and Wakefield is held in the highest regards amongst Sox fans."

Kuchmey went on to say he was considering quitting the game. My guess is that OHL coaches and general managers have already made that decision for him. Teams, at the major junior level, don't invest in quitters.

Clearly, Kuchmey "was not mature enough to understand the consequences of his actions," said Carratu. "I know hockey is an emotional sport, but part of the game, and life for that matter, is learning to control emotions."

Now, compare Kuchmey's behavior to two outstanding goalies from Hockey East. Lowell's Doug Carr and Boston College's Brian Billett are very good goaltenders in their own right. Carr deservedly got huge props for backstopping the River Hawks to the NCAA tournament in 2012. But last year, he relinquished the starting role, only because of the stellar play of freshman Connor Hellebuyck. Similarly, Billett, a junior, this season lost his starting spot to Eagle freshman Thatcher Demko.

But neither upperclassman complained, or sulked, or quit. Quite the contrary, their coaches repeatedly held them up as shining examples of model teammates, willing to do whatever was necessary to help the team win. That's how it should be.

Unlike Stolarz, Kuchmey in all likelihood ended his career with his premature exit. That's a shame, because he has to have some talent to play at that level. But somewhere along the line, the concept that hockey is a team game was lost on him.


Guru mailbag

The letter: Hi. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed your article in the Hockey Journal about having a thick skin (NEHJ, February, 2014). I couldn't help but think of it the other day as I watched a goalie have a meltdown because he was being scored on at stick-and- puck skate. I've always believed in showing nothing. Just drink some water, and get back in my stance. I look forward to future articles!

My answer: Thanks for the note. I couldn't agree more. Sports are often a great corollary for life, and how we deal with adversity is important. There are two main lessons. First, like this month's column points out, it's not about you. It's about your team. If a goaltender loses his cool, it engenders doubt among his teammates, and emboldens his opponents. Neither helps his team's chances of winning. Second, you can't allow an opponent's taunting, or a bad goal, to rob you of your love for the game. At the end of the day, hockey is a game, and the object of games is having fun. By getting upset with either trash talk or a bad outing, you cheat yourself of the game's greatest trait.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Guru Mailbag

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

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