December 31, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Desperate measures

By Brion O'Connor

One of my favorite coaching sessions over the course of the season is Desperation Day. This is the day when we show our goalies how to make those impossible saves, the ones that top pros make with alarming regularity (when the NHL isn’t in lockout mode). Yes, there’s a method to the apparent madness of a desperation save (more on that later), but in reality what the session ultimately reveals is whether or not the youngster has the heart and courage to be a top-flight netminder. 

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

Just for fun, I typically start the session by asking my pupils if they know who Winston Churchill is. This little Q&A invariably winds up sounding like an installment of “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” (“He’s a goalie, right?” is by far the most popular answer). But it was Churchill, the legendary prime minister of Great Britain, who rallied a nation against the threat of Nazi Germany on June 4, 1940, with his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech before the House of Commons. The line that has always stayed with me, the one I want my goaltenders to remember, is this: “We shall never surrender.”

Now, I don’t mean to make light of war, or place too much importance on sports. There are already too many pro athletes and high-profile sportscasters doing that these days. What I’m talking about is character, and the willingness to battle, to dig deep in order to expend every ounce of energy needed to do your job. In this case, that’s keeping the puck out of the net, using any means necessary.

Here’s the “team” lesson I want my young goaltenders to take home from Desperation Day: There is nothing desperate about effort. If you quit on a play — even an impossible play — that can deflate your teammates. Goalies, by the nature of the position, have to be leaders. If you don’t give a full effort, then your teammates suddenly have an excuse to go less than 100 percent as well.

Simultaneously, giving up gives your opponents an extra boost, thinking you’ve thrown in the towel. Make no mistake about this: Quitting on a play is like tossing fresh chum into a pool of starving sharks. The feeding frenzy can be frightening.

Fortunately, the opposite is true.  A lot of coaches and athletes talk about “giving 100 percent” (or more), but in reality that’s quite rare. However, those who do have the ability to fire up their team. Imagine two scenarios. In the first, you dive across the crease and deflect a sure-fire goal over the net. You don’t think that’s going to get your teammates jacked up?

Or maybe the opponent misses the net altogether. Ask players, and those who answer honestly will tell you they’d rather see a nice, wide-open net to bury the shot. The last thing they want to see is a flash of goalie equipment, whether a stick, glove, blocker — anything! — flying into their field of vision. They might rush, or grip their sticks a little too tight, and send their shots wide or over the net. That doesn’t even count as a save in the scorebook, although it sure does in my book. And it gets even better.

In a desperation-save situation, the shooter is expected to score. And most of the time, they probably will. But that’s when something almost magical can happen. In this second scenario, if a goalie makes every effort to make the save, tossing aside personal pride and safety to fling across the open net, it almost doesn’t matter if the opponent pots the puck. The goalie’s team will still rally behind that effort. It’s almost as if they say, “Heck, if our goalie is going to bring it, we better bring it too.”

And, even as the opponents celebrate, the heroic goalie — the one who refuses to quit, ever — has planted a seed of doubt. He (or she) has served notice that nothing will come easy. And, believe me, the other team will see that. I’ve seen it again and again over the past 35 years. These types of goalies are winners, and they can will their teams to win.

So, is there a method? The short answer is, yes. Visual attachment is critical. If the goalie loses sight of the puck, the task becomes infinitely more difficult. A goalie caught out of position doesn’t have the luxury of tracking the puck and “deciding” to make a move. In the time it takes to make that decision, the puck will be in the back of the net. Instead, the goalie must simply react. If he (or she) gets to the rebound, only to find there’s no imminent danger, all he’s expended is a small slice of energy. It’s like the winter hiker’s credo regarding gear: “Better to have it and not need it, instead of needing it and not having it.” You have to go to the puck, with all the energy you can muster.

The key is getting your body to move with your eyes. Set that back edge by driving your knee to your chest, and push. Hard! When you go, build the wall from the ice up. A ridiculous number of goals are scored along the ice, so that’s where you want your stick. Paddle down, creating a wall, not a ramp. Aim your goal stick toward the opposite post, so you have that added support if the puck happens to hit the paddle. Engage your core muscles, and bring your catching glove above the stick, just in case the puck gets lifted.

And, perhaps most importantly, remember that even if you make that highlight-reel save, your job still isn’t done. You’ve got to track the rebound, and be ready for the next shot. That is, after all, our job description.

Last, bring it all the time. Effort comes from habit. If you quit in practice, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to pull off the effort required for a miraculous save in a game. It has to be part of your mindset, and that’s honed in practice.

As a bonus, I’ll share this universal truth — coaches love these kids. Even if they’re not the most technically gifted, they’ll get their share of playing time, because coaches know that they’ll compete from whistle to whistle, and that they’ll inspire their teammates. That is a special gift. It’s not the sole domain of goaltenders, since every player can help raise the bar. But other players can quit on a play, and they still have the goaltender behind them. Goalies don’t have that safety net. That’s why, in my mind, the position is imbued with certain leadership qualities. And when you go all out, all the time, refusing to surrender, you’ve proven yourself to be a worthy team leader.

This article originally appeared in the December 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