January 17, 2011

Goalie Guru: Taking the pain out of the gear game

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

With the recent holidays, there are bound to be dozens of young goaltenders with gift cards in hand, begging Mom and Dad to head to their local hockey shop for a little shopping spree. Who can blame them? The fact is, all that cool gear is one of the major reasons so many kids want to play the position these days.

Back in the day, when I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s and '70s, playing goal was a calling, for one simple reason. You got hurt. Often. It wasn’t unusual for me to finish a skate with several (or more) multicolored welts, each one recording another save. I took pride in those bruises, and in many ways, it was pride that drove me to play the position. It certainly wasn’t “fun” most of the time.

A big reason was the gear. The equipment hadn’t caught up to the curved sticks and slap shots, and getting hit repeatedly by a puck was going to be painful, period. Oddly enough, that didn’t dissuade me from getting between the pipes. I had decided to play goalie full-time by the time I reached eighth grade. Rinks were starting to sprout throughout northern New Jersey, and my brothers and I were quick to sign up.

I emulated Rangers goaltenders Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemure, and begged my mom, in 1972, to get real goalie gear. She said get a paper route. So I did. In the summer of 1973, Mom drove me to a local sports shop, and I bought my first set of genuine goalie gear. With my own money. I remember paying the princely sum of $115 for the leg pads, $40 for the catch glove and $35 for the blocker. The total bill was about $225 for just about everything I needed, except goalie skates. Those would come later.

Looking back, I can’t believe I got an entire set of brand-new, adult-sized handcrafted leather gear (made in Canada) for a shade over $200. Of course, that was almost 40 years ago, but the point is, I was able to outfit myself with the proceeds of my paper route. How many kids can do that today? And, I guarantee you this much: I kept that gear in impeccable condition, in no small part because I bought it with my own hard-earned coin.

As a coach, I realize the financial commitment that playing goal brings. It’s not cheap. Take the leg pads alone. Pro-level pads, made north of the border, run at least four figures, with the starting point of roughly $1,200. There are exceptions to the rule, such as Simmons, a very nice pad manufacturer that doesn’t spend big bucks on pro sponsorships. But the major players — Reebok, Bauer, Vaughn, Warrior — will all cost a pretty penny. If you opt for customized gear, you can plan on dropping close to $2,000 on pads and gloves alone.

So what is a goalie parent to do? First, if your young netminder is still growing (ages 6-16), don’t go crazy on top-notch gear. Kids will want matching gear, probably the same stuff their heroes wear. Don’t fall into that trap. Get them what they need, and save what you can (you’ll need it later if your goalie stays with it).

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Younger goalies (Mites and Squirts) don’t need bulletproof protection, because their teammates can’t shoot the puck that hard anyway (the coach might get carried away, but that’s another story). Don’t take the “he’ll grow into it” approach. You want equipment that fits correctly, and is relatively lightweight. If the pads don’t fit properly, you’re setting your child up for frustration at best, and failure at worse.

In this regard, secondhand gear is a great choice, because most of it depreciates so quickly, and you can usually find very reasonable prices online at sites such as Craigslist, or stores such as Play It Again Sports. I’ve had great luck on eBay, but that’s because I know exactly what I’m looking for and the size I need. That’s a little trickier for parents, since you’re still buying the item “blind.” If you’re new to the world of goalie gear, you want to actually see the stuff you’re buying, and you want to make sure it’s a good fit.

Most importantly, make sure your child’s knee (with his skates on) fits squarely into the middle of the knee cradle of the leg pads. Likewise, the chest and arm protector should fit comfortably — buying this item over-sized will only prevent your young prodigy from being able to move without difficulty. Newer pads are specifically designed to move with the goaltender, but only if they fit correctly.

Since these pads are only going to be used for a season or two, you might also opt for newer pads on the lower end of the price spectrum. To help take the sting out of outfitting a young netminder, most major gear manufacturers now offer equipment made overseas. And while this foreign-made gear has made significant improvements over the years, it still is inferior, in both materials and workmanship.

Still, it might do the trick, depending on your needs. The benefit here is that you’re dealing with a shop that (ideally) can show you the correct way to put the pads on. I’m always startled to see how many young goalies show up at our camps and clinics with ill-fitting pads. The funniest are the ones with the pads on the wrong leg (yes, there are “left” and “right” pads).

But then I realize that putting on pads, for most parents, is akin to me installing an electrical outlet or changing the brakes on my car. If you’ve never been shown how, it can be puzzling. Take the time to learn, and encourage your young goaltender to do the same. Self-sufficiency is a trademark of the position. Likewise, show them how to take care of their gear (don’t, for example, let them just leave it in the bag, where mold and mildew will flourish). Get a stick that fits properly — with the blocker hand at the top of the “paddle,” the stick blade should rest on the ice when the goalie is in a nice, comfortable stance, with knees bent.

For PeeWees and Bantams (ages 11-15), you want to make sure they’re protected. Kids can start shooting faster and harder, and the puck isn’t getting any softer. Better gear is not just an option; it’s a necessity. You’ll want to upgrade to goalie pants, and probably a mask with a plastic neck protector (or dangler).

Knee/thigh pads are also a critical piece of protection for young goalies. Many smaller, kid-size leg pads expose the area just above the knee, just below their hockey pants, when a young goalie drops into the butterfly (or on the ice). Some pads have “thigh boards,” but in less expensive models, these boards don’t always stay in place. Knee/thigh protectors are an inexpensive yet effective piece of gear to prevent injuries to this susceptible (and sensitive) part of the leg.

Again, go the secondhand route if money is a concern. You can typically find good gear at 25 to 40 cents on the dollar, and your child will benefit from the added measure of safety.

Compared to my circa 1972 stuff, today’s equipment is far superior, which is one of the biggest reasons goaltending is becoming so popular. It simply doesn’t hurt as much.

And that’s a good thing.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a long-time hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction at every age level. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com