January 30, 2014

The Goalie Guru: Your gear, your responsibility

By Brion O'Connor

Sometimes I really feel sorry for my hockey-playing daughter, Brynne, because she has to deal with me. I'm the poster child (grown-up?) for Old School, and that goes for every aspect of the game. I believe in sportsmanship — "Yes, act like you've been there before." — and respecting the game, your opponents, your teammates and your uniform. Just the other day, I got upset because my daughter left her game jerseys on the basement floor. That's a big no-no in my book.

At the risk of getting all crusty on my daughter (I promise, there were no tall tales of "hiking 10 miles to and from school, uphill both ways"), I told her that a game jersey is something you take care of, because it's more than just a jersey. It's a symbol. It represents the ideal that you've "earned" your place on a team, instead of just a uniform that you got because your mom and I shelled out the coin to get you placed on a team.

This means a great deal to me. In New Jersey in the late 1960 and early 1970s, there weren't enough rinks to accommodate the demand. That meant most league teams had tryouts. And kids got cut. Period. There were no apologies, no lengthy explanations. It was pure hockey Darwinism. You went to the tryout, played and then waited for the teams to get posted. If you didn’t make it, tough. Try harder next time. But if you did make a team, that jersey represented the effort, and the accomplishment.

I'm not sure that kids who are oblivious to the cost of the game — from the gear to the ice time — have a same appreciation for their jerseys. Now that I'm a parent, I feel the same as most parents. I want to provide for my kids. I want Brynne to have good equipment, not only to protect her, but also to help her get the most of whatever abilities she brings to the game. Good equipment does make a difference. While there's no substitute for god-given talent and a determined work ethic, the right gear helps. And most parents who love their kids, and love the game, are happy to spend the money needed to outfit our players adequately.

So this month, when we see lots of youngsters coming to the rink with the shiny new equipment that Santa brought, I'd like to ask parents a favor. Tell your kids to take care of their stuff. All of it. Require them to carry their own bag, and make them responsible for everything in that bag. This cultivates ownership, and ownership is a critical component of hockey. In hockey terms, "ownership" translates to accountability. That's one of the bedrock principles of the game. Don't make excuses, and don't point fingers. Be accountable.

Second is the literal definition of ownership. I had to buy my own gear. That was the deal I made with my mom (she paid for the leagues, not to mention playing taxi driver to all my practices and games). When you have a little sweat equity invested in your jersey and your equipment, you're more likely to care for them. Every player should take care of his or her own equipment. This is not mom and dad's responsibility. This is your responsibility. Air out your gloves and skates (removing the footbeds to prevent the rivets from rusting out). Hang up your game jerseys. Always.

The same goes for a goaltender's gear. Maybe even more so. For starters, goalies have more equipment. But it's also critical to remember that our ability to stop the puck relies on our gear working correctly. If a particular piece of equipment is faulty, because it's either worn out, doesn't fit correctly, or is put on the wrong way, it will affect your game. I love the old expression, "A good craftsmen never blames his tools." But a good craftsmen also knows the right tools make a difference. He knows how to use them, and makes sure his tools are in good working order.

Goalies, even young goalies, should inspect their gear on a regular basis. Make sure the snaps and buckles aren't broken (or missing), that all padding is in place, all the screws are snug, and the laces are in good shape (if they're frayed, replace them before they break). If you lose a screw on a toe bridge, the leg pad can pull away from the skate, and you can lose control of the pad. Same goes for a toe lace. With today's rotating leg pads, the toe lace (or strap) keeps the pad centered on a goalie's leg, which is critical for both safety and performance.

Here's another reason why goaltenders (young and old) need to be mindful of their gear: If the equipment doesn’t fit correctly because straps and laces aren't maintained properly, a goalie risks injury. The obvious example that jumps to mind is the knee cradle of the leg pads. These days, with the emphasis on the butterfly style, it's critical that the knee is secured in the pad's knee cradle. If the elastic is worn out, or the Velcro doesn't hold, the knee can slip out of the cradle and slam into the ice. Painful at best, a potential injury at worse.

This basic caveat also holds true for body armor like chest protectors, knee/thigh protectors, pants, masks and neck danglers. A loose or lost screw on a goalie mask can leave the cage dangling and your face unprotected (I've seen this happen firsthand). If a padding pocket is torn, Murphy's law dictates that's exactly where the next shot will hit you. What's worse, it would be an injury that was entirely preventable if the goaltender just took a few extra minutes to properly inspect his or her gear, and got it repaired beforehand.

Granted, many veteran goalies are gear geeks, but that's a good thing. We're always looking to get an edge, and we know that equipment plays a part in that. It's not that we just like the new gear; we also enjoy taking care of it. It's part of our routine, and makes us feel vested in the position (part of that classic "us against the world" mindset).

Here are a few additional tips. Again, unless your child is very young, encourage them to take the time to learn how to put the gear on themselves, from skates to helmets. I understand this takes a little extra effort, but trust me, you'll be glad in the long run. And they can practice while watching whatever game happens to be on TV. What could be easier?

Buy your child a skate stone, and show them how to use it to remove burrs from their skate blades (a common problem for goalies, who often smack their skate blades against the posts). Nurture that sense of pride that a good craftsmen has in maintaining his tools. Make sure your young goaltender keeps a spare set of laces, and a replacement screw set, in a secure pocket of his or her goalie bag.

And don't ever — ever! — allow your child to leave his or her jersey on the basement floor.

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

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