August 18, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Playing goalie requires parent commitment

By Brion O’Connor

A few years back, I paid a visit to my sister in New Hampshire, because she and her clan build a first-rate home rink in the winter, and I absolutely love playing a little shinny there with my daughters, nieces, nephews and their friends. On this particular evening, my nephews had a new friend join us, and the kid was absolutely all over the ice. He never strayed far from the goal, but nothing got by him. He used anything and everything — stick, body, arms, legs — to stop the puck. 

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

During a break in the action, I asked my nephew Luke about this kid, whom I’ll call “Joey” (to protect his parents). Luke tells me that Joey is an only child and lives to play goalie, which of course gets my attention. For Joey, “hockey” means street hockey. He plays every single day after school, and almost all day on the weekends.

Luke introduced us, telling Joey that I coach “real” goalies. The kid’s eyes just lit up. He started in on all the goaltending books he has, and his favorite goalies, from Martin Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist to Tuukka Rask. He didn’t have a favorite team — “I’ve got 10 genuine NHL jerseys” — but he had plenty of spunk. It was impossible not to like the kid right from the get-go.

As the game is winding down, a big pearl-white Cadillac Escalade pulled up to the curb by the rink. It’s Joey’s mom. When she stepped out, I told her that Joey was quite the young goaltender, and asked if he’s planning to play anywhere.

“You mean a real team? Oh, god, no,” she replied. “What a pain. Who needs that?”

The next few seconds can be described only as awkward. Joey’s mom had this plastic smile stuck on her face, and my response was stuck in my throat. “You’re kidding, right?” I finally blurted out.

The woman looked back at me like I slashed her tires. “I mean, all that driving around to practices and games, that’s a big commitment for my husband and me,” she said. “And then there’s all that stinky equipment …”

“Seriously?” I replied, now dumbfounded. I almost added: “Then why bother having kids?” But I managed to restrain myself. After all, I don’t have to live in the neighborhood. Plus, it’s really none of my business. Later, though, while gabbing with my sister in her kitchen, I couldn’t shake my brief encounter with Joey’s mom.

“A big commitment,” I told my sis. “Really? Isn’t having a child a big commitment?”

Goalie coaches ask kids to make commitments all the time. We do it because, in our hearts, we truly believe that the kids who make the requisite effort get the most out of whatever God-given talents they have, and they get the most out of this game. And this game teaches a number of essential life lessons that you simply won’t find in a classroom.

Now, I’m asking parents to do the same. If your children have a passion for something, you ought to let those kids pursue that passion. At the very least, give them the opportunity.

My mom was remarkable in this regard. She was widowed just before I started eighth grade, and she had six of us to look after. I wanted to be a hockey goalie. Street hockey was just the start. Ice hockey was my dream. Fortunately, a few of my brothers had the same dream. Mom looked around, and said: “Fine. You get the equipment, and I’ll get you to the rink.”

That’s what we did. I got a paper route, and made enough coin in a few months to buy a new set of “Made in Canada” goalie gear (which, admittedly, was considerably cheaper to buy in the early 1970s). Mom never failed to keep up her end of the bargain, shuttling us all over New Jersey’s Bergen County to our practices and games. We started networking with other families — seemed like everyone had a huge Ford LTD wagon in those days — to form car pools, and give mom an occasional night off.

Today, my wife and I have two teenage daughters. I’m really lucky in that my bride shares my opinion that sports are vital to a child’s development. She’s a Midwest gal, and grew up playing basketball and volleyball. She also swam competitively. So she knows a thing or two about sacrifice, both as an athlete and as a parent of an athlete.

Our youngest daughter — our hockey player — also happens to be nuts about horses. I mean, over-the-top crazy. I know very little about horses except this: They’re ridiculously expensive. Still, my wife and I understand how important they are to Brynne. This is, after all, the same child who once asked me to take her to a local stable so she could get a job in exchange for riding lessons. She was 6.

“Oh, child,” I remember telling her seven years ago. “If it means that much to you, then Mom and Dad will make it work.” And we have. Brynne doesn’t ride as much as she’d like, but she rides enough to keep her happy (while the family remains financially solvent). It’s required some sacrifice, but the smile on Brynne’s face when she is spending time in the saddle makes any “sacrifice” seem small. I like to think that my mom felt the same way when she watched us playing hockey.

So now you’ve got a youngster telling you that he or she wants to play goal. First, make sure they’re serious. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your child. This was the genius of my mom’s response to her boys, those many years ago. If my brothers and I didn’t want it bad enough, we wouldn’t have found a way to buy our own gear, and Mom would have been off the hook.

But if your child sticks with it, then you’ve got to go all in. It can be expensive and it can be time-consuming, especially if you get additional coaching. Make the extra effort to get your child to the rink on time for the practice as well as the games. Learn how their gear goes on; help them when they’re young, encourage them to do it on their own.

Trust me, your child won’t ever forget, and it will be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have.

Guru’s Quick take

The Goalie Guru postscript.

Earlier this summer, I took Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas to task for what I believed was his selfish behavior this past year, and how it helped doom the Bruins’ season. Obviously, his decision to take next season off, walking out on his front-loaded contract and leaving the team with a $5 million hit on the salary cap, only reinforces my belief.

In contrast, I love what I’ve seen from Connecticut’s favorite son, Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick (Hamden,Conn.), this year’s Conn Smythe winner as the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Consider this terrific quote from LA defenseman Willie Mitchell on Quick, from Sports Illustrated: “He’s also one of the best teammates ever because he’s such a selfless guy. I’ll make a mistake, it’ll end up in our net, and he won’t glare or say anything except ‘I shoulda had it.’ Love the guy.”

Who wouldn’t? Quick not only played like an all-world talent during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but he also was the consummate teammate in the consummate team game.

Thomas could learn a thing or two about team play from his former USA Olympic teammate. That is, if he ever plays again.

This article originally appeared in the August 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.
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