March 27, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Encouraging coaches to take ownership

By Brion O’Connor

Psssst! Hey, coach! Yeah, I’m talking to you. This column is not for players or parents (though they’re welcome to read along). This one is for you, coach, the man or woman who has admirably accepted responsibility of teaching this young group of boys or girls (or both). I commend you for taking on such a huge — and often underappreciated — task. And I’m going to ask you to do more. I’m going to ask to you spend a little more time understanding the role of the goaltender. 

Brion O'Connor, The Goalie Guru, gets in position at the top of the crease at Fenway Park.

Keep in mind, I don’t make this request lightly, or without understanding all the pressure you already face. I’m a youth hockey coach, too, and fully aware of the juggling act that it involves. It’s time-consuming, and the on-ice challenges are only the tip of the iceberg. But, at the end of the day, we signed on for this, and if we want our team — not just goaltender, but the entire team — to be successful, we should pay more attention to the kids who get between the pipes.

Because, typically, we don’t. Instead, here’s what I’ve found in my two decades of coaching. Most hockey coaches want to hand off the goaltending responsibilities to someone else. Sort of like calling the plumber the second the toilet backs up, instead of getting the plunger yourself.

If head coaches abdicate their own responsibilities in helping develop good goaltenders, they risk creating a situation that’s like couples in a struggling marriage, when just one spouse goes to counseling. To be effective, both partners need to sign on if they hope to gain any real insights. Likewise, hockey coaches need to design practices that benefit everyone. In short, coaches must do a better job of incorporating goaltenders, which means understanding the unique requirements of the position. That means creating practice plans that feature more realistic drills.

Coaches also should know the basic terminology, and the basic techniques, of goaltending. This would allow them to have goalie-specific warmups, instead of having the goalies skating end-to-end with everyone else. So here’s a quick primer:

Getting square

A huge component to successful goaltending is getting square to the puck. This means facing the puck not just with your eyes and head, but your chest (many coaches refer to having a spotlight on the chest, and shining that light on the puck). When a goalie sets up properly, his shoulders, hips, knees and skates all are equidistant from the puck, presenting the biggest surface area possible.

The shuffle

This is a surprisingly difficult maneuver for younger, or inexperienced, goaltenders (if you don’t believe me, try it yourself). The idea is to move laterally, in your stance, while facing the puck, without opening the hips. The key is keeping the skates (or toes) facing the puck, virtually parallel, and allowing the lead skate (your left, if you’re moving to the left) to glide while the trailing leg supplies the power.

The dropstep

Once known as the T-glide, this move evolved when it proved to be quicker, and more efficient, to drop the leading skate to the heel of the drive skate, forming an “L” before pushing off. So, if a goalie is moving left, the left skate drops back, heel to heel with the right skate, pointing left. This helps open the hips properly, and then the goalie drives off the back, or right, skate toward the left, stopping on the leading skate.

The butterfly

Often mistaken as a style, the butterfly really is a save technique (i.e. you don’t use it all the time). There’s a big difference between a well-executed butterfly, and simply flopping to the ice. In the latter, the goalie lets gravity do the work, the arms and butt typically dropping too low, and the stick flying away from the 5-hole. When done correctly, the butterfly is a tight, disciplined move, where the knees are driven to the ice, the butt and hands stay high (allowing the goalie to remain “big”), and the stick stays on the ice, covering the 5-hole. Also, be aware if your young netminder drops too quickly, especially on shots going over the net. The butterfly requires patience (not a strong suit of little ’keepers).

The butterfly slide

Another move that proficient goalies make look easy. Youngsters, though, tend to “hop and flop,” turning out in a drop-step motion and then jumping to the side. In the butterfly slide, the skates continue to point at the puck, like a shuffle. The lead pad drops to the ice, and the drive legs loads (as in a squat) and pushes off. So, again, if a goalie is moving left, the left knee drops first, the goalie loads the edge of the right skate, and pushes off to the left. When done correctly, the upper body remains quiet, and the stick blade tracks in front, between the skates to cover the space that a goalie must open to push effectively.

The butterfly push

In this quick recovery move, the goalie already is down in the butterfly, on his knees. To execute the butterfly push, the goalie lifts the back knee to the chest, setting the edge of the back skate underneath him. This is what he pushes off of. So, if the goalie wants to move to the right, the left knee comes to the chest, the left edge sets underneath, and the goalie pushes off that edge to the right, while keeping the lead pad flush to the ice.

Recovery

A common problem for young goalies is they tend to always recover on the same leg. This is their dominant leg. But as I tell my students, dominant legs are for soccer players, not hockey goalies. The correct recovery leg is predicated by the direction of the puck. And 95 percent of the time, that means recovering on the back leg. If a rebound squirts to the right, the goalie recovers on the left leg, which allows him to push into the direction of the puck. If he recovers on his right leg, all he can do is get straight up, then turn and push. In a game as quick as hockey, that’s two moves too many.

The Belfour (Paddle Down)

Perhaps the single most overused maneuver in the game today, and often used incorrectly, the Paddle Down technique was named after Hall of Famer Ed Belfour, who knew how to use it. The concept is sound — when the play is in tight, the paddle down along the ice takes away the bottom of the net. However, far too many goalies use the technique all the time, and usually at the wrong time. In most instances, it’s far more preferable keep the stick blade on the ice, in the 5-hole.

Finally, educate yourself. Entire generations, mine included, learned the position almost exclusively via self-taught techniques. I still have my dog-eared copy of Jacques Plante’s classic, “Goaltending.” This tome, though outdated, still is grounded in the bedrock principles that all goalies can benefit from.

Today, though, you’ve got a slew of websites (start with USA Hockey) and YouTube clips that can provide the basics and beyond. Other excellent resources include books such as Brian Daccord’s “Hockey Goaltending,” Francois Allaire’s “The Hockey Goalie’s Complete Guide” and Jim Corsi’s “The Hockey Goalie’s Handbook.” Daccord and Joe Bertagna, both former goalie coaches for the Boston Bruins, also have top-notch instructional videos that reinforce the fundamentals of the position in easy-to-understand terms.

So hit the books (or the videos), and design a complete practice plan. You owe it to your goaltenders, and your entire team will benefit.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com