June 11, 2014

Goalie Guru: Lessons learned from goaltenders behaving badly

By Brion O’Connor

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, I wrote 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 done.

This spring, an Ontario Hockey League playoff game between the Windsor Spitfires and 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.

It was an indefensible act, “temporary insanity” notwithstanding. Stolarz is lucky that Ho-Sang didn’t suffer a more serious injury, or the former U.S. National Team Development Program member might have seen his major junior career come to a sudden and swift end.

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 gave Stolarz only a 2-minute minor. Fortunately, officials with the OHL banned Stolarz for eight games.

Another guy who’ll have plenty of time to consider the fallout of his actions is Spitfires goaltender Dalen Kuchmey. In the same game, which the Knights ultimately won 10-2, Kuchmey pulled himself from Windsor’s net with 5:34 left in the second. 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 a 1995 game, 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 résumé by that point.

Goalie Guru mail bag

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.

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. Spitfires 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,” Kuchmey 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 ever has 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 Fotinos’ 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 (ALCS) 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 team’ moment. The Sox came back to win the series, and Wakefield is held in the highest regards amongst Sox fans.”

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 (Hanover, Mass.) and Boston College’s Brian Billett (Kennebunk, Maine) 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 Eagles 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.

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.

This article originally appeared in the May edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

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