October 25, 2012

Juniors Journal: Breakers backstop Halford does it all

By Shawn Hutcheon

Throughout hockey history, the position of goaltender had long been awarded to the kid who was the worst skater on the team. The general consensus was that since the goalie was not required to skate up and down the ice, he would not need to learn how to skate properly. Just stand there and stop pucks, they were told. 

Breakers netminder Ben Halford (Photo: EJHL)

That was then. Fast forward to the last couple of decades. People began to believe that skating was just as important for goaltenders as it was for the forwards and defensemen.

These days, the first things a scout looks for in a goaltender at the junior level are how fast his feet are, how quick he moves from one side of the crease to the other, how fast he can skate behind his net to stop a puck that gets shot deep into his zone in order to set it up for his defensemen and how quickly he can recover to a standing position after going down to block a shot. The puck-stopper of the 21st century must be just as fast and quick as his teammates.

Bay State Breakers netminder Ben Halford learned the importance of being a strong skater as a youngster from his father, Andy, who was a favorite at the University of Vermont before embarking on a pro career in Germany.

“My dad made me skate out (as a forward) when I was little,” Halford explained when asked about his strong skating skills. “He wanted me to be a good skater before strapping on the (goaltender’s) pads.”

Halford, who hails from Lenox, Massachusetts, is in his first season with the Breakers and is quickly making a name for himself with his size (6-foot-2), skating, mobility and lightning-quick reflexes. He is rarely out of position in the crease and keeps himself square to the puck in all situations. It is those abilities that have enabled him to win five of his last six starts and post the fourth best save percentage (.951) in the EJHL. Add a goals-against average of 1.96 into the conversation and it is easy to see why the 1993-born puck-stopper is garnering plenty of attention from scouts.

Halford credits his skills and abilities to constant practice of the fundamentals and seeks to improve them each time he steps on the ice.

“I do a lot of work with my goalie coach, Brad McDonald,” Halford said. “We do a lot of work at being quick and being square (to the puck). We look at bigger guys like Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes) and Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators) and how they move and try to emulate that.”

Ask the well-spoken teenager about his early season success and he is quick to deflect the attention away from himself.

“We’ve got a good team.” Halford says proudly. “We’re getting stronger and really starting to play together.”

Halford, of course, is hopeful that his team can finish the 2012-2013 season as EJHL Dineen Cup champions. He plans on attending college and would like to continue his playing career at the NCAA level.

“I hope to play in college next year, if not, I have one more year (of junior eligibility) here,” Halford said. “A couple of Ivy League schools have talked to me but the goal, this year, is to be EJHL champions.”

Halford is proof positive that a goaltender must possess exceptional quickness and skills in today’s game. Given the fact that he excels at all facets of his position, the young backstop’s future looks very bright.     

 Game of the Week

The contest that will draw attention throughout junior hockey this week will be between Eastern Junior Hockey League’s North Division co-leader, the Boston Junior Bruins, and the South Division’s top club, the Jersey Hitmen, on Sunday at The Rinks in Exeter, New Hampshire.

Jersey boasts the top two scorers in the league in Tim Clifton (22 points) and Brendan Bradley (22 points).  They lead the circuit’s most potent offense (66 goals for). At the other end of the rink, the Hitmen have two goaltenders, Tanner Creel and Chris Funkey, who are first and third, respectively, in the EJHL in goals-against average. The club’s power play is one of the most feared in all of junior hockey with a 33.3 percent success rate, while the penalty killing units have successfully succeeded in 94.3 percent of man-down situations.

The Junior Bruins have outscored their opponents 42-32. Ryan Cloonan (Longmeadow, Mass.) is the top point producer for BJB with thirteen. Three of Paul Russell’s (Andover, Mass.) six goals have been game winners. In the crease, Sean Lawrence carries a 7-3-0-0 record into the match. Special teams have been adequate for Boston, but not outstanding. The squad’s power play has converted on 20.6 percent of its chances and the penalty killers have shut down 84.1 percent of opponents’ man-advantages.

Power Rankings 

To read Shawn Hutcheon’s analysis of each team in the top 15, head over to our junior power rankings page.

1. Valley Jr. Warriors (10-3-0-0)
2. Boston Junior Bruins (10-4-0-0) 
3. Bay State Breakers (8-5-0-0) 
4. South Shore Kings (7-4-0-2)
5. Walpole Express (9-1-1-0) 

6. Islanders Hockey Club (5-2-0-0) 
7. Boston Jr. Rangers (8-1-3-0) 
8. Northern Cyclones (7-2-0-1) 
9. Connecticut Wolfpack (7-2-1-1)
10. Springfield Jr. Pics (6-5-0-0) 

11. Boston Bandits (6-8-0-0) 
12. New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs (5-4-0-0)    
13. Connecticut Oilers (4-6-0-2) 
14. Portland Jr. Pirates (1-11-0-1) 
15. Laconia Leafs (1-9-2-0)

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.