January 31, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Not my fault!

By Brion O’Connor

A few weeks back, I was prepping for a Sunday micro-ice coaching session when one 10-year-old netminder popped out of the dressing room, raring to go. Since we had time to spare, I asked him if he’d played any games that weekend. 

“Yep, two,” he said.

“How did they go?”

“Not so good. We lost both our games.”

“How’d you play?” I asked, knowing wins and losses don’t always tell the whole story.

“Well, my defense …”

The poor kid never got another word out.

“Whoa, whoa,” I interrupted. “That’s the wrong answer. A good goalie never blames his defense. I asked you how you played, not the rest of the team.”

The youngster just stared back at me, wide-eyed. I understand that my young understudy was only 10, but I also saw it as a perfect teaching moment. Hockey players, and especially goaltenders, are never too young to start learning the indispensable tenets of the game. Chief among hockey’s bedrock principles is you need to look in the mirror before pointing fingers. If you’re a goalie, that means assuming responsibility for keeping the puck out of the net. Full responsibility. Every … single … time.

That’s not always easy. Positional players can shrug off mistakes, because they have the goalie to fall back on. The goalie bears the brunt of those blunders, because when the puck winds up in the net, the goalie is usually the last player it goes past. If it’s a weak goal, the talk between the players — sometimes whispers, sometimes nothing quite so subtle — starts. It happens all the time, and it drives me nuts. The “blame game” is a popular pastime in far too many locker rooms.

Worse, coaches and parents occasionally do the same thing, sometimes almost without realizing it. There are two important factors in play here. First, coaches (and parents) should never lay fault for an entire game on the goalie — or anyone else, for that matter — in front of other players, particularly at the youth level (this dynamic does change somewhat at the high school and elite levels, but that’s a topic for another column).

That type of criticism can crush a kid. ESPN anchor John Buccigross once wrote that the single most important attribute for a hockey player is confidence. That goes double for goaltenders. But confidence needs to be cultivated. Remember, the goalie doesn’t have the same safety net as other players. And, as any tightrope walker will tell you, performing without a safety net is a whole lot more nerve-wracking.

Badgering a goaltender for a bad goal isn’t going to instill confidence. In fact, it will do just the opposite. A much better approach is to take a quick note of the mistakes that happen — was the goalie off angle? or did the goalie fail to cover a rebound? – and then create a practice plan that addresses those shortcomings.

Second, coaches can’t lose sight of the big picture. They need to understand the breakdowns in the offensive- and defensive-zone play that resulted in goals, or goal-scoring opportunities, and to assess responsibility correctly and fairly. I’ve watched more videotape than I care to think about, and believe me, the “fault” for a goal isn’t always the final shot, or even the final pass. Listen to any quality hockey color analyst (NESN’s Andy Brickley is terrific, as is Eddie Olczyk of Versus/NBC), and you’ll typically get a thorough account of how a goal-scoring chance developed. More often than not, it’s a mistake that happened two, three or even four touches before the actual shot on net.

Yet, over and over, I hear coaches focusing on that final instant, and placing the blame squarely on the goaltender. Just a few weeks ago, one coach was telling me how his goaltenders clearly were his team’s weak link. So I took a quick peek at the standings for his league, and noticed his squad was tied for dead last in scoring. Obviously, goaltending wasn’t his only issue.

Of course, I’m not blind, either. I’ve coached some teams with pretty suspect goaltending. Interestingly enough, the kids often have a better read on just how good, or bad, their goaltenders are. I’ve seen defenders raise their games in order to keep shots to a minimum, knowing that’s their best chance to win. But I’ve never allowed kids to point fingers.

Instead, coaches must foster cooperation. The bottom line is that this is a team game, and there’s no place on a hockey team for prima donnas, whether at forward, on defense, or in goal. These players are like acid, burning through the tightly knit fabric that is so necessary for team success. They might be talented, or they might just think they’re talented. If that player plays defense or offense, their commentary regarding the goaltending (legitimate or otherwise) can be a poison. Likewise, the goalie who thinks a goal is always somebody else’s fault is also a huge liability. No matter how talented the players are, they’re rarely worth the aggravation.

There are, I’ll admit, exceptions. My favorite whiner of all time was Patrick Roy. There’s no debating Roy’s ability and his resume. The guy is a first-ballot NHL Hall of Famer. In my book, he’s also a first-ballot inductee to the Whiner Hall of Shame. My most enduring memories of Roy are of Saint Patrick, slumped on the ice with the red light glaring behind him, raising his gloves and eyeballing his defenders as if to announce to anyone watching: “That goal wasn’t my fault.”

Roy got away with his on-ice antics for one simple reason. He was a tremendous goaltender, probably one of the top 10 of all time (my own Fab Four includes Glenn Hall, Vladislav Tretiak, Tony Esposito and Dominik Hasek, in no particular order). Roy was also a “me first” guy of the first order. Unless young goaltenders can play at Roy’s level, they shouldn’t even think about showing up their teammates. (Roy was still a jerk, but it’s hard to argue with his accomplishments. Still, there’s a “right way” to win and a “wrong way.”)

What’s more, it rarely happens in reverse. Think about it — When was the last time you saw a player publicly berate his or her goaltender? It almost never happens. Now, in private, and behind the goalie’s back, is another matter entirely. This is when parents and coaches play a critical role in making sure goaltenders aren’t singled out. Teams win together, and lose together.

All that said, goalies can’t forget that they are the proverbial last line of defense. It’s their job to make up for mistakes by other players, and to make sure they stop the puck. And part of the job description is “ownership.” The sooner a goalie realizes and accepts this basic truth, the better. The goalie is the safety net. End of story.

For coaches and parents, it’s essential to deevelop that mindset right from the get-go. Excuses are like a virus — give them a warm, welcoming environment, and they’ll spread like wildfire. Soon, you’ll have a full-blown epidemic on your hands.

Furthermore, excuses can become a crutch, replacing hard work and the drive to improve. Without that drive, a young goalie is going to start giving up more goals, and will need to find even more excuses. That’s not a formula for success.

This article originally appeared in the January 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