September 22, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Why every player should get in the net

By Brion O'Connor

I’m the first to admit my coaching style can be unconventional on occasion. I’m OK with that, because the position, and the game, continues to evolve. And I’m always happy to explain my rationale. The reality is, much of the hockey coaching and hockey parenting that you’ll find today is demonstrably Old School, typically based on the “that’s how I learned the game” theory (which explains, in part, the resistance to USA Hockey’s well-reasoned call for cross-ice games at the Mite level). 

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

So, on the eve of a brand-new season, here’s another of my offbeat ideas. It’s my firm belief, certainly not shared by the majority of hockey parents, that every player ought to spend at least one game in goal. Not a practice, but a game. At least once.

Five years ago, I was coaching my daughter’s Squirt team. Our squad had a half-time goalie who also was playing for another team. To accommodate the absences, I implemented a rule at the start of the season that everyone had to take a turn playing a game in the nets. My reasoning was two-fold. First, from a practical standpoint, I figured one or two of my young charges might actually like playing between the pipes, which would solve a raft of problems.

Second, though, I wanted every kid to understand what it feels like to get pelted with pucks. It’s been my experience that some of the biggest crybabies are the same kids who, in practice and “warmups,” take slap shots from five feet away, or fire away regardless of whether the goalie is actually looking (or pre-occupied with the previous shooter), or constantly shoot high, flinging pucks at the goalie’s head. They’re also the first to blame the goaltender for a soft goal.

So I wanted to make sure that everyone experienced that unique anxiety that the position brings, hoping to instill a little compassion (not a bad exchange for only 36 minutes of game action). And it worked pretty well, in part because it was a “shared burden” that all the kids understood, and it was established right from the get-go. Until the final week of the season. There was one kid — let’s call him “Oscar” — who never volunteered to play, and I’m convinced he and his parents were just hoping he’d fly under the radar and escape the responsibility. They didn’t know me.

I called Oscar out for the last game of the season, and told him that I expected him to suit up for the last pregame practice, just so he could get comfortable with the gear. His mom pulled me aside, and said her son was incredibly nervous about playing goal. I told her I could understand that, but coming to me at the end of the season, when the policy had been in place for six months, was not only bad form but also limited my options. I reminded Oscar’s mom that every child already had played goal (a few, including my daughter, several times), and it wouldn’t be fair for me to give her son a pass. After all, lots of the kids weren’t wild about playing goal, but they all had stepped up (and none, to my knowledge, had suffered grave emotional scars).  

Last, I told Oscar’s parents what I figured they already knew, that there are many, many times in life when we’re asked to do things we’re not entirely comfortable with, and avoiding those moments is not the ideal approach.

So what did Oscar and his parents do? They bailed. Just didn’t show up for the final game. Was I surprised? Not in the least (in fact, I’d already warned my daughter — the joy of being the coach’s kid — to be ready to suit up if Oscar went AWOL). But was I disappointed? Absolutely. Rather than subject their child to a short lesson in facing up to his fears, Oscar’s folks let him skate free. What, if any, benefit could be derived from that?

Somewhat predictably, Oscar didn’t return the next season. I don’t know if he went to another program or not. On one hand, it saddens me to think he may have quit the sport over this situation. On the other hand, if a 36-minute stint in the nets is enough to sour him on the sport, better he find out early that he’s not cut out to be a hockey player.

Here are the lessons that Oscar missed out on:

n First, goaltending is hard. Kids who don’t play the position don’t understand how tough it can be (much like coaches who never played in the nets). It requires an entirely different skillset, from skating to setting up on your angles. You’ve got to follow a rock-hard puck, measuring only 1-by-3 inches, and stop it from entering a 4-by-6-foot goal. And you’ve got to do it while trying to move around in bulky gear designed to protect you. That’s a tall order for most youngsters.

n Second, you can’t take a shift off. Regular players make mistakes all the time, but most of the time those gaffes don’t result in goals. Coaches might see the mistakes, which can lead to some tough love on the bench. Kids, though, rarely notice the errors of their linemates. But they do notice the goals, and if a goalie makes a mistake that leads directly to a goal, that goalie is going to hear about it from his or her peers.

n Which leads to my third point: Goalies, even young ones, face tremendous pressure. Even on teams with enlightened coaches, who try to shield their netminders from unwarranted criticism, being the last line of defense is no picnic. I’m sure this was the major reason Oscar refused to play. But I’m just as certain that, if you never play the position, you never develop the appreciation of that particular brand of torture.

We live and die a little bit with each save and each goal (that probably goes double for goalie parents). I still remember the breakaway goal that Mike LaValliere (the former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher) scored on me in high school, when the puck hit my glove, my shoulder and then agonizingly rolled down my back into the net. The year? 1975.

That’s how much goalies carry the weight of each goal with them (fortunately, my memory has become much more selective during my beer-league career!).

Giving regular players a small taste of that isn’t a bad thing. Hopefully, the experience develops a little empathy, and camaraderie, within a hockey team. Try it.

This article originally appeared in the September 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

Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com