August 11, 2014

The Goalie Guru: There’s no breaking the Goalies’ Union

By Brion O’Connor

“Goalies are special people. When goalies meet goalies, they become fast friends. Only goalies know first hand the trials and tribulations of donning the tools of ignorance.”

— Fred Quistgard, Quistgard Goalie Training

I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my summer coaching season. I worked with 16 high school goaltenders attending Stop It Goaltending’s One-on-One camp at Merrimack College. We had kids from Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, Oklahoma City and points beyond. And they all got along famously, on the ice and off.

This is no small feat. While the number of “me-first” kids appears to be on the rise, it’s so refreshing to see a number of young men who, though they were “competing” against one another, truly enjoyed being with each other. I saw it in every high-five as they exchanged places during a drill, or the appreciative stick tap when a colleague made a did-you-see-that save. Without even knowing it, they were paying those oh-so-important dues into the “Goalies’ Union.”

This seemingly innocuous interaction is an integral part of goalie development. The concept of a Goalies’ Union isn’t a new one. In fact, it goes back to the very origins of the game. Since Day 1, goalies have held a very special space in hockey because they play a unique position, one full of exquisite pressure and quiet valor.

Any sport with a guardian at the gate — lacrosse, soccer, water polo — features a bond between the players who fill those roles. Watch almost any soccer game that goes to penalty kicks. The recently completed World Cup had a number of high-stakes knockout games decided by this made-for-television melodrama.

Ending these games, which come around only every four years and feature the expectations of nations resting on the shoulders of the players, with a carnival sideshow of penalty kicks seems patently unfair. What’s worse, goalies must protect a goal measuring 24 feet wide by 8 feet high. The shooter gets to set the ball only 12 yards away. The odds are so stacked against the goaltender that he (or she) typically has to guess which side to dive to have any hope of making the save.

Yet right before these penalty-kick scenarios, I would watch the goalkeepers. Without fail, these two players from different countries always took a moment to share a handshake, a quick hug or a word of encouragement. The reason why, when the other players would have absolutely nothing to do with one another, speaks to the very heart of the Goalies’ Union. It’s about mutual respect.

It’s hard to overstate just how hard goaltending can be. Not necessarily the act of stopping a puck, a soccer ball or a lacrosse ball. Sure, that can be tough enough. But there’s the added stress of being the last line of defense. Yes, we volunteer for the job, but signing up doesn’t make it any less difficult. The fact remains, as I’ve mentioned a number of times in previous columns, that every other player has a safety net. They can make mistakes, but their opponents still have to put the puck past the goaltender.

The goaltender, meanwhile, is a high-wire circus act performed without any net. When the goaltender makes a blunder, the results usually end up in the back of the net, and on the scoreboard. That’s why goalies tend to have a natural understanding — they know better than anyone what it’s like to play without a safety net.

“Union goalies genuinely feel bad when another goalie has a bad moment,” said John Carratu, a Stop It Goaltending director and goalie coach for Merrimack College. “Who didn’t feel bad for (Philadelphia Flyers goalie) Michael Leighton when that weird goal by Patrick Kane snuck in and Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010?”

So often in today’s upside-down youth sports universe, goalies are pitted against one another in an unfair and destructive competition. I’m not talking about competing for a starting role. That’s a normal part of team play, where everyone pushes themselves and their teammates to improve the team. No, I’m talking about kids who, for whatever reason, think they have an inside track for the starting job and allow those preconceived notions to skew their reality.

Sometimes that mindset is born from overbearing parents who’ve convinced themselves, and their child, that they’re simply better. I’ve experienced this firsthand, and it’s not pretty. Interestingly enough, when parents are removed from the equation, this kind of negative tension tends to dissipate.

Sometimes, upperclassmen believe they’re owed the starting spot. That’s understandable, to a degree. They’ve paid their dues as understudy, and they deserve a shot. But the opportunity is all they deserve. It’s up to them to make the most of it. And if the coaching staff decides that the underclassman gives the team a better chance to win, they have to accept that.

The best recent example I’ve seen of this was at UMass-Lowell. The River Hawks had a phenomenal 2011-12 season behind sophomore Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.), reaching the NCAA tournament. For the next two seasons, however, Carr took a back seat to All-American Connor Hellebuyck. It could have been a poisonous situation, but Carr never put himself above the team. As a result, in part because of Carr’s selflessness and his adherence to the Goalies’ Union code, the River Hawks became a very special team, winning back-to-back Hockey East crowns and returning to the NCAAs each of the past two years.

That point is crucial. Goalies want to be part of a team, but because of the nature of their position, they’re a very separate and distinct part of a team. Which is why they need to be able to rely on one another.

Here’s another part of what makes the Goalies’ Union so special: The group doesn’t discriminate against age or sex or ability levels. You strap on the pads, and you’re in.

“Goalies of any era who are in the union can talk about goaltending with each other for hours,” said Carratu. “I enjoy talking with my high school goalie coach (and current Northeastern women’s goalie coach) Todd Lampert, and AHL goalies Joe Cannata and Scott Darling. I learn from all of them. Goalies in the union appreciate how goalies from each era played the position.”

That’s because while techniques might have changed, the general job description — keep the puck out of the net! — and the distinctive pressures haven’t.

“Union goalies are good people,” said Carratu. “Legendary Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak said it best: ‘Seldom have I met a good goalie who is not a good person.’ “

Great observation, from one of the all-time greats. And I saw his words reflected in the actions of 16 teenage goalies during the first week of July.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a longtime hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com.

This article originally appeared in the August edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.

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