May 17, 2013

The Goalie Guru: A pair of goalies we can admire

By Brion O'Connor

When the ridiculously long “regular” youth hockey season finally comes to a close, I always find a few leftover topics that I meant to address but never got to, for one reason or another. Here are two that tie together nicely.

First, I wanted to follow up on the remarkably selfish and immature exit of the high school goalie in Farmington, Minnesota. Remember this clown? He’s the guy who literally threw away a game on Senior Night as his way to exact revenge on his coaching staff, because he wasn’t getting enough playing time (The Goalie Guru, March 2013). I can’t even bring myself to mention the kid’s name, because I don’t want him to have any more publicity.

What I will do, however, is celebrate the actions of another high school senior, Matthew Nemia.

According to Mike Geragosian (Wakefield, Mass.), the goalie coach for Boston University, young Mr. Nemia was a senior at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts this season. Though only 5-foot-5, with a slight learning disability (speech), Nemia started the season on fire, with two shutouts in his first two games, including the Raiders’ 1-0 win over rival Needham, Wellesley’s first win against the Rockets in a decade.

But then Nemia “got a little off his miracle game,” said Geragosian, and the starting job went to a sophomore (a situation identical to the senior in Farmington, Minn.). The difference is that Nemia was a model teammate, despite losing his starting spot.

“Interesting how similar situations can be handled very differently,” said Frank Nemia, Matt’s father, after reading about the Farmington fiasco. “Matt has been nothing less than supportive to the sophomore. He was a true leader and senior as he continued to drive underclassmen to practices and encourage his teammates. He is a solid goalie who is quick, agile and a smart hockey player and student. Despite his challenges, he developed into a solid student academically who was accepted to all of his colleges, including Roger Williams University, University of Scranton, Loyola Maryland and Fairfield.”

On Senior Night, Nemia’s commitment to the team was rewarded, and he got the nod against a strong Framingham club. Nemia held the Flyers scoreless through two periods before his team eventually dropped a 3-0 decision. But Nemia was able to leave the game, and his high school career, with his head held high.

“There was no doubt that Matt felt similar frustrations with his coaches and the situation but handled it with class and maturity,” said Frank Nemia. “This was a life lesson for Matt. It is where kids and the fun of sports create challenges that they just did not count on. As Matthew ends his high school career, one thing was certain — he grew up through this experience.

“Matt learned you cannot control all the events of your life but can control how you respond to them. He realized the importance of character and dealing with the challenges of life.”

We, as hockey coaches, like to talk about the important lessons that this game teaches, lessons that go beyond the ice and the locker room. But those lessons can fall on deaf ears if parents don’t reinforce them. As a hockey coach who has seen his fair share of parental interference, and as a father, I have to salute not only Matthew Nemia, but his parents as well, for never losing sight of the big picture. Matt Nemia dealt with a difficult situation with class and maturity. Our sport needs more like him.

Speaking of maturity, and people making a difference, I wanted to give a shout-out to Quinnipiac University goaltender Eric Hartzell. The Minnesota native had a monster senior year for  the Bobcats, being named a Hobey Baker finalist while leading Quinnipiac to the Frozen Four and the NCAA championship game.

“Obviously I’m thrilled with the year he’s had, helping us win games,” said Bobcats coach Rand Pecknold (Bedford, N.H.). “But it’s been a pleasure on my end to watch him mature as a person, from where he was as a freshman. That’s one of the nice things about having a kid for four years.

“Eric Hartzell is the perfect example of what’s great about college hockey,” said Pecknold. “Because at 21 years old, which is when you have to leave major junior, he was not ready to play pro hockey. At 23 years old now, he’s ready to play pro hockey. He just needed a little more time to mature.”

I’ve seen Hartzell’s maturation firsthand. At Stop It Goaltending, we worked with him early in his collegiate career. While his talent was undeniable, his work ethic was inconsistent at best. He was a raw gem who needed refinement, but wasn’t always inclined to put in the requisite effort. Clearly, he’s turned it around at Quinnipiac.

“He’s been just an incredible, solid block back there for us to build off of,” said Bobcats captain Zach Currie. “We have a lot of skill out in front of him, but his commitment to his game and his practice habits and his focus is next to none. He’s obsessed with the little things, and building on getting better each and every day.”

Two years ago, I don’t know anyone who would have said that Hartzell’s practice habits were exceptional. One of the most important lessons that Hartzell has learned is this: The benefits of hard work far outweigh any of the blood, sweat and tears that must be sacrificed in order to improve your game.

“The boys all get along so well together. When we go from play time to work time, it’s the same thing. We’re all striving for the same goal, so it’s fun to be on a team like this,” said Hartzell just before the NCAA playoffs. “We know what we have to do every night to be successful. And I think that’s why we are so successful. Every guy shows up to the rink and practices every day. They know their roles, and every guy does his job really, really well. And our identity is just an an extremely hard-working team, from start to finish.”

Notice that last part, about hard work? There is simply no substitute for it. Regardless of your god-given talents, whatever they may be, you will never, never reap the full benefit of them unless you’re willing to put in the work.

Hartzell is a great model. A few summers ago, he showed up out of shape, and didn’t last a week. Admittedly, I was among several coaches who wondered if he had the intestinal fortitude to make the commitment to be a great player.

Well, he did, and he is. So I need to tip my hat to Eric Hartzell. Ultimately, each goalie must decide for himself (or herself) whether to buckle down, and take advantage of whatever physical gifts he has and the coaching he gets. Hartzell did just that. And he, and his team, won because of it.

Next month, my suggestions for the best off-ice sports to help you get in shape for the start of next season.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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.

Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com