December 18, 2011

The Goalie Guru: On equal playing time and riding the pine

By Brion O'Connor

Aside from team placement, there’s probably no thornier topic in youth hockey than playing time. And, like most issues regarding hockey, sports and life in general, it’s typically easy to identify — “My kid’s not getting enough ice time!” — but more difficult to address. That’s because it can be a complex issue. 

Bruins goalies Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas. (Getty)

This is especially true for goaltenders, for one reason. There’s only one goal to protect and goalies, traditionally, don’t come off the ice. If a youngster is the only goalie on a team, he/she plays the entire game, every game (which isn’t always a good thing either, as some shellshocked ’keepers have discovered). If you have two or three goalies, the situation becomes exponentially more complicated.

Here are some thoughts on how to handle it, as a coach and as a parent:

There are “age-appropriate” guidelines for distributing playing time. Assume a team has two goaltenders. For Atoms and Mites, I recommend that each play half the game, alternating starters. Younger goalies can get tired or bored. When their minds start to wander, pucks get behind them. Asking them to play only half the game (with the natural break between periods) gives them a chance to stay mentally fresh.

Things start to change at the Squirt level, and accelerate at Pee Wees. The youngsters are older, stronger and better prepared to focus from start to finish. That ability to concentrate — keeping your head in the game — is just as important as good technique but must be developed. Many Pee Wee teams with two goalies continue to have the goalies play half of each game. I’m not a proponent of this approach, especially as kids enter middle school.

Older goalies play the entire game for a number of well-grounded reasons. Foremost, goalies are at their best when they’re in a rhythm. That’s their comfort zone. Plus, substituting a second goalie halfway through the game puts that child, and the team, at a distinct disadvantage, because they’re coming off the bench cold (the worst-case scenario is the second-half goalie gives up a soft goal or two, and suddenly feels the weight of the team on his shoulders).

Again, the only time I vary from this stance is if a team is playing only one game on a weekend; then it’s only fair to give both kids a chance to play. Ideally, if you have two goalies, your team will play two games each weekend, and they can each play a full game. The other goalie — and I’ve found this to be surprisingly controversial — ought to suit up as a backup.

Why? Because at this critical age, young netminders should learn all the responsibilities of the position, not just the fun stuff (i.e. making saves). This speaks to the “team” element of hockey. Taking a turn on the bench is the goaltender’s lot. I realize it’s another trip for the parents, but as goalies move up the ladder, it becomes more commonplace for one child to play the entire game.

However, the “backup” goalie is still a vital part of the team. Having two goalies also gives the coach options if the starting goalie gets hurt, or the team is getting pummeled that day, and the starter needs a break. This stuff happens.

Here’s another example. In one program I know, there are three goalies for two Pee Wee teams. When the coach put out a note suggesting that one child play a full game, and another child dress as a backup, he got three distinctly different replies. One family said, “Absolutely,” adding that their son was a part of the team whether he was playing that day or not. Another family didn’t respond at all and haven’t made their son available for any backup duty. The third responded but disagreed with the coach’s thinking.

Essentially, Dad No. 3 said if the kid shows up, he/she should play. He added that watching from the bench in a cold rink wasn’t “going to endear the game to an 11-year-old.” While I understand the sentiment, Dad No. 3 should rethink his priorities. First, the game doesn’t need to “endear” itself to anyone. If watching from the bench discourages a child from playing, then he’s in the wrong sport to begin with. Or the wrong position.

Plus, parents should understand that other kids notice the commitment a backup makes by showing up, even if he/she isn’t playing. That endears the child to his/her teammates. Further, the backup goalie can learn a lot about the position by observing from the bench, listening to the coaches and cheering on teammates.

At the Pee Wee level, kids are transitioning into a different realm of sports, where the better kids play more. There’s competition between teams and within teams. Allowing a child to sit home and not make an effort because they don’t expect to play makes a mockery of what sports, and teamwork, are supposed to be about.

Finally, in Bantam, middle school and high school, the rules change again. Now, it can be pretty cutthroat. While sports are about building character and teaching life lessons, there’s a lot more emphasis on winning. Coaches at this level will put the players on the ice that they feel give their team the best chance to do that.

Sports have now become a meritocracy. I’ve listened to many parents complain that their child is buried on the bench because the coach is playing favorites, or doesn’t like their child. That doesn’t pass the giggle test. Ninety percent of the coaches I’ve met aren’t looking to win popularity contests. They want to win games.

Now, what makes things dicey in this day and age of high school user fees is this question: “Why am I paying if my kid isn’t playing?” Remember, all a user fee does is promise a child the “opportunity” to make the team, to earn a spot in the playing rotation. There are no other guarantees. Period. Sports aren’t like band or chorus. There are a finite number of spots on the ice. If you’re a goaltender, there’s only one. That’s a harsh reality. But better goalies rise to the challenge of competing for that spot.

Do coaches screw up sometimes, and neglect to find playing time for the loyal foot soldier (say, when playing a weaker team, or when the score is lopsided)? Sadly, yes. But they’re not so much blind to the kids on the bench as they’re myopic with regards to the kids on the field. They develop tunnel vision.

So do some parents. The worst thing a parent can do in this instance is enable a child when he/she starts making excuses (or, as often happens in youth hockey these days, find another program). There’s much to be said for sticking with a tough situation, and bringing your best effort — your “A” game — every time you suit up. Trust me, those kids always manage to get enough ice time.

This article originally appeared in the December 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