May 18, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Lessons from the Heights and the NCAAs

By Brion O’Connor

You’ve heard it here before, but it bears repeating: Goaltenders can’t be afraid to admit when they mess up. The best thing a goalie can do after letting up a soft goal is to tell teammates, “Hey, gang, that one was my bad.” And since coaches should hold themselves to the same standards, I need to admit when I’m wrong. And I was wrong about Parker Milner. 

Parker Milner earned each and every victory during BC's 19-game winning streak. (Dave Arnold Photography)

See, in my “other” life, I’m fortunate enough to cover college hockey in the Northeast. That gig gives me a chance to watch some of the nation’s best college goalkeepers, guys such as Boston University’s Kieran Millan, Merrimack All-American Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.), UMass-Lowell’s Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.), Maine’s Dan Sullivan and New Hampshire’s Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.). I even got a peek at Union All-American Troy Grosenick.

I also got to see Milner, the Boston College junior from Pittsburgh, Pa., play early and often for the Eagles. I worked with Milner briefly while he was part of BC’s tandem with stalwart John Muse (East Falmouth, Mass.). And though my time with Parker was limited, I could see he was an athlete, capable of playing at the Division 1 level. But ability and performance, as most coaches know, can be two very different things.

Following Muse’s graduation, Milner was the consensus starter this preseason (though the Eagles also recruited two highly touted freshmen). His early returns, frankly, were underwhelming. Against Denver on Oct. 14, Milner looked shaky, nervous. He had happy feet and seemed jittery. Denver coach George Gwozdecky acknowledged after the Pioneers’ 4-2 win that he wanted to test Milner: “That was one of the things we emphasized tonight; get the puck on the net, and get after the rebound.”

Sometimes, the Pioneers didn’t need a rebound. Denver took a 2-1 lead when Beau Bennett snapped a quick, bad-angle shot that beat Milner high glove side and snuck under the crossbar. It was not a goal that inspired confidence.

By the semester break, Milner was mired in a three-goalie rotation, the very antithesis of BC coach Jerry York’s preferred approach. And the Eagles were struggling through a 2-4-1 slump. The low point for Milner came in a 3-2 loss to Notre Dame, when he surrendered a soft, last-second overtime goal to the Irish, and two losses to archrival Boston University (giving up nine Terriers goals on only 34 shots).

Milner saw the ice just once in the next nine games, and not at all during a two-game sweep at the hands of Maine in late January. That’s when Milner’s story takes a dramatic turn, for the better.

“We were really in a hard situation … through the middle of the season with stopping pucks,” said York (Watertown, Mass.). “We sensed at the time we had a lot of ‘B’ goaltenders. It’s hard to win championships without an ‘A’ goaltender. It just doesn’t happen. We challenged our goaltenders, and Parker stepped up.”

Somewhere, deep inside Milner’s psyche, the young netminder owned up to his shortcomings. He didn’t pout; he took responsibility. And he made up his mind that he wasn’t going to be satisfied with simply being a Div. 1 goalie, riding a three-goalie carousel on a top-flight team. Milner decided he would be the man.

“He’s really come on strong lately,” captain Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.) said of Milner after BC won the Beanpot, 3-2, in overtime over BU. “We’ve got competition at every position on our team, and goaltender is no different. Those guys push each other every day, and I think it’s made Parker better, and his attitude has remained very positive. I think he took it upon himself personally to take over that spot.”

Essentially, Milner proved how special an athlete can be when he fuses talent with hard work. He accepted York’s challenge and rededicated himself to getting better. He started skating extra morning sessions, working with BC goalie coach Jim Logue and assistant coach Greg Brown.

“We’ve all been impressed. He’s really elevated his game,” Brown said. “He looks so much more confident now than he did earlier in the year.”

That was pure understatement. Through his own grit, Milner orchestrated one of the most stunning midseason improvements I can recall.

“He’s our backbone,” BC’s All-American defenseman Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) said after the Eagles knocked UMass out of the Hockey East playoffs. “That gives us tons of confidence, knowing that if we make a mistake, it’s not over. He’s going to make a big save like he has in these last couple games, and he has the last couple months.

“That’s just huge going on these runs in the playoffs, sometimes it’s going to be a goaltending battle, sometimes it’s just going to be a scoring battle. And knowing we have a good goaltender behind us is awesome.”

Still, I was unconvinced. In press-row conversations during the Hockey East semifinals, I told colleagues that if BC had an Achilles heel, it could very well be Milner. My thinking was this: Boston College would go only as far as Milner could carry them.

But Milner finished what he started in late January. He was between the pipes for every one of BC’s 19 consecutive wins, culminating in a 4-1 victory over Ferris State in the NCAA championship game. Ironically, he was the only goaltender of the Frozen Four starters who wasn’t an All-American. And Milner left Tampa, Fla., not only with another national championship on his resume (though he didn’t play in 2010), but he also was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

In the NCAAs, Milner gave up two goals in four games, whitewashing both Air Force and Minnesota-Duluth in the Northeast Regionals. During BC’s 19-game win streak, he posted numbers (1.09 goals against average, .960 save percentage) that would make any All-American jealous.

“Maybe I was trying to do too much,” Milner said of his early season struggles. “There’s been some incredible goalies here, and maybe I was trying to live up to that too much. But I’m not John Muse. I’m not Cory Schneider. I’m Parker Milner. And I’m going to try to do the best I can to be a part of this story that we’re writing for the 2012 team.”

It was a tale with a storybook ending, thanks in large part to Milner’s efforts. So, my apologies to Parker. And congrats. You earned every one of the accolades that came your way this season. See you next year.

This article originally appeared in the May 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