November 27, 2011

The Goalie Guru: Hands-on coaches can get back to basics

By Brion O'Connor

Goaltending is pretty simple: Get to the right spot, at the right time, in the right position, and you’ll make the save more often than not. However, getting to that spot, in the correct stance, can be surprisingly difficult.

Don’t think so? Try this little experiment (like I did). Have your youth hockey coaches get together for a goalie-coaching clinic with an experienced goaltending coach. Have the goalie coach demonstrate a very simple goalie-specific skating sequence, including shuffles and drop-steps (we won’t even get into stuff like butterfly slides or pushes). Then make the coaches do the drills.

Nine times out of 10 (if not more), regular hockey players will struggle with these maneuvers. Even guys who are really good players. I’ve seen it firsthand, over and over. Why? Because goalie-specific skating is so much different than anything a position player ever has to perform. That point rarely hits home unless you make the coaches do it themselves, so they can see for themselves. And I’ve got to admit, it’s hilarious to watch.

Now, the idea isn’t to embarrass anyone. Good coaches know that. The idea of having every youth hockey coach at least go through the motions of a goalie-skating drill will help nurture an understanding, to clearly demonstrate that goalies have a much different role, and a much different skill set that comes into play on the ice. Plus, if you have a coach who can get pretty good at it, you’ll have someone on staff who can help develop better goalies, and probably save your program a bunch of coin (on full-time goalie instruction) in the process. Goalie coaches always will be an asset, due to the intricacies of the position, but having a volunteer coach who can at least make sure the goalies are doing their warmup skates properly is a big plus.

So, now that many leagues already are past the parity round and into full swing, I’d like to offer a quick primer, featuring several essential particulars that EVERY hockey coach ought to know about goaltenders. If you’re going to have high expectations of your young netminder, then you ought to expect the same of yourself. Let’s start with the basics:

Stance — You want your young goalies to look balanced, with a nice bend in their knees, chest up, gloves in front and stick on the ice, about 10-12 inches away from their toes. Imagine a spotlight in the middle of the goalie’s chest. If that spotlight is shining straight down into the ice, there’s a good chance he’s bending too much at the waist, with straight legs, and is off balance, with nose over toes. That spotlight should be shining out at the puck. Get them to bend their knees! Also, beware of the catch glove that’s either scratching the back to the goalie’s knee (too low), or ear (too high). You want to see the gloves a few inches in front of the body, so the goalie can comfortably see them in his peripheral vision.

Angles — This is another simple, yet critical, concept. Unless the puck is behind the goal line or at a really sharp angle (say, by the corner), you want to be able to draw a straight line through the puck, the goalie’s chest, and the center of the net (not the back of the net, but that plane between the two posts). If they set up on the shooter, the shooter is going to have a ton of net to hit. Remind your goalie that it’s the puck that he has to stop, not the shooter.

Skating — This involves movement, stopping and setting up for the shot (shuffle, drop-step, butterfly slide, butterfly push). The eyes naturally follow the puck. A good goalie follows his eyes with his hands, and then the rest of his body. Try to make sure your goalie can move while staying compact, in his stance, without opening up too many holes. For example, when a goalie shuffles across the crease, his skates should remain parallel, both pointing at the puck. Too many youngsters open up, like a T-glide, and that’s just too slow when the puck is in tight. It also opens holes in his stance. Stopping on a dime is just as important, because if a goalie isn’t “set” for the shot, he or she typically wind up on all fours, or on his or her backside.

Recovery (correctly) — Perhaps the most under-appreciated, but most vital, skill a goalie has to master. Experienced goalies recover so quickly they make it seem effortless. Young goalies can look like they’re either nailed to the ice, or flopping around like a beached whale (how often have you head a coach yell, “Get up!”). Give your goalies adequate time to recover properly after each shot (unless it’s a battle drill, where desperation saves are required). Have them concentrate on good technique; the speed will come as they mature. The rule of thumb? Goaltending is rear-wheel drive. Make sure your goalies recover using the backside leg, so they can drive toward the puck.

Following the rebound — This is another critical component of good goaltending. Most goalies can catch pucks because it’s become second nature. Following the rebound has to be done just as quickly. This can only be done through repetition. If you don’t allow your goalies time to recover toward the rebound, or don’t require them to do it, then it won’t become habit, and it won’t happen in a game.

Last, some early-season equipment suggestions for first-time goaltenders:

Leg pad straps — Some kids have their pads strapped on like corsets. That’s often the result of a well-intentioned parent who simply doesn’t know how to put the pads on. Do yourself a favor. Get involved, and have the sales rep at your local hockey shop show you the correct way to strap on pads. Then teach your kids to do it themselves. If the pads are a newer model, they have to be loose enough to rotate when the child drops into the butterfly. The idea is to land on the knee stacks on the inside of the pads, not the face of the pad. That’s why those stacks are called “landing gear.”

Knee pads — Get some. These will protect your goalie’s lower thigh, below their pants.

Boot straps — If the straps that go underneath the skate are too long, cut them back. Excess strap can result in only one thing, and that’s tripping up your goalie.

Catch glove — Break it in. Do this while sitting in front of the TV, watching the Bruins, opening and closing, opening and closing. There’s no easy way to do this, but if you don’t, you won’t catch pucks.

Paddle length — Goalie sticks come in different sizes because goalies come in different sizes. Get a stick that allows your goalie to hold it with his pointer finger on the top part of the paddle while in a comfortable stance, blade on the ice. Paddles that are too short or too long will throw your goalie out of balance.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 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.