December 15, 2012

The Hockey Mom: The five words every hockey mom dreads

By April Bowling

A good plan for Sam, and many other youth players, is to rotate at other positions besides goalie to foster learning the complete game. (Photo: Michael Belliveau)

I write this column knowing full well that my fellow columnist Brion O’Connor, aka The Goalie Guru, is going to take me to task immediately upon its publication (if not before). Fortunately, we are pretty good friends, so I think he’ll continue speaking to me. In fact, Brion was the first person I thought of when my son uttered the five words that every hockey mom dreads hearing: “I want to play goalie.”

I alluded to Sam’s past experience in goal and how I was pretty sure that his appreciation of the position wasn’t going to translate to a desire to take up full-time residence between the pipes. Apparently I was wrong. On the way to our first practice this season, Sam asked me if his team had a full-time goalie or whether he could take turns like they had the previous season. I had no idea, but I told him I’d ask his coaches.

Next thing I knew I was going home with the bag of goalie gear and a son eager to suit up for that Saturday’s game. What. Just. Happened?

Despite the incredible expense, heartburn and time commitment of a child who plays goal, we weren’t reflexively opposed to Sam’s choice. He ended up playing the team’s first three games in goal before my husband finally intervened. Sam actually was pretty decent although his team got shellacked in two of the three games, and I was surprised at the determination and resiliency with which he dealt with the losses. Both times he accepted full responsibility, which only motivated him to get better.

There was only one problem. My husband knew Sammy wanted to play goalie because he wanted to avoid skating. As much as we always told him the goalie has to be the best skater on the ice, Sam absorbed the lesson of tryouts and team assignments that he wasn’t as good a skater as most of his old teammates. And he wasn’t wrong about that. But instead of becoming determined to become a better skater — which he already has — he had become determined to hide his weakness. And he figured the best hiding place was in goal.

Add to that the praise he got for being pretty good at stopping pucks (this is a relative statement … he is a Mite, after all) and Sam had decided that full-time goalie was the position for him. His dad was having none of it, and after listening to his arguments, I agreed that we should push Sam out of the net, at least part of the time.

The most persuasive argument my husband made was that the next couple of years were the most important for Sam’s skating. Goalie is a specialized position, and Sam is only 7. He can wait a couple more years before choosing his position and it won’t hurt him, but if he passes up acquiring general skills now, he will have a much harder time adapting if he changes his mind later and wants out of the net.

His other point — which I’ll just have to trust him on because I don’t play — is that Sam needs to be out on the ice, involved in plays, to learn the intricacies of the game. By rotating through goal but maintaining time on offense and defense, Sam will get a well-rounded education in hockey, which is just as important as the physical skills he practices along the way.

So we asked his coaches to pull him out of goal and start rotating some other players in. They are great guys and totally committed to these kids’ long-term development over the win-loss record of the team they are coaching at the moment. In other words, they’re the kind of coaches you pray your kid will have. They agreed, even though it meant putting some less experienced kids in goal, and Sam has practiced and played defense the past couple of weeks. 

He’s kicking butt, if I do say so myself. More importantly, he is loving skating again. He’s looking forward to the games he plays in goal, but he’s also pretty jazzed about being back digging pucks out of the corners and guarding the blue line. 

Sam has one more season left in Mites. We’ve agreed that if he still wants to play goalie full-time when he moves up to Pee-Wee, then we’ll sign him up for goalie camp (hmmm … who can we call for that?), and he can try out for the position then. It’s a plan Sam has said he can live with and so can his parents. I’ll start saving now for those goalie pads and lessons, and if he changes his mind in a year, those savings probably will make a sizable contribution to his college fund. 

Meanwhile, Brion O’Connor will have to wait a couple more years before he gets to be my son’s Goalie Guru. Sorry, B.

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal