July 27, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Tips for getting the most out of your gear

By Brion O’Connor

There’s an old axiom in beer league hockey: Beware the guy who shows up with a ratty old bag of well-worn gear. More often than not, those are the characters who can skate circles around the guys sporting a head-to-toe top-of-the-line set of pricey gear that they bought with their year-end bonuses. 

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

Here’s the goaltending corollary — equipment doesn’t make the goalie. Now, good gear will help a good goalie play better. But even the best equipment isn’t going to turn a dumpy, unmotivated kid into the next Martin Brodeur. I always try to judge each goaltender I coach on his own merit, but there’s a growing group of kids who watch guys like Tim Thomas or Tuukka Rask (or Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller or Jonathan Quick), see them as stars, see the accolades that come their way and want some of that action.

What they don’t understand, initially, is that it’s not enough to toss on all this cool gear and jump in between the pipes. That additional equipment, designed to protect them, takes some getting used to, and considerable effort to master. That challenge gets even more difficult if the gear is outdated, incomplete or ill-fitting.

So here, free of charge, are a few tips to help your young netminder get the most of the gear you do buy.

First, get the properly sized equipment. Apply the Goldilocks’ Rule — don’t get gear that’s too big (no matter how much you think your kid will grow), too small (no matter how good the deal is), but is “just right” for your neophyte netminder. Gloves, pads, chest protectors and pants are all made in junior, intermediate and adult sizes. A few items (like pants) can be bought oversized. But most gear that’s too large will only inhibit your youngster’s ability to move properly.

For this reason, I often advocate buying your child’s gear from a reputable “brick and mortar” store, with a knowledgeable sales staff. You can find great deals online, but you’re also making a “blind purchase” to some extent (unless you already know exactly what you’re looking for, in which case you probably don’t need my advice).

I’m typically a fan of second-hand stores or even places like Craigsist, provided you’re confident that you can correctly assess if the gear will fit. If you’re as new to the sport as your child, then you’re really at the mercy of the person making the sale. There have been dozens of design changes in gear (particularly leg pads and chest protectors) that mirror recent developments in how the position is played. Getting an old set of pads — even if they’re in great shape — might inadvertently put your child at a disadvantage if they’re not designed to play the butterfly technique. Specifically, look for adequate knee stacks and synthetic leather (not cloth) on the insides of the pads, which allow goaltenders to execute modern techniques (like the butterfly slide and push) with greater ease, while protecting their knees.

Similarly, goalie gloves should be comfortable, with straps that cinch around the wrist, permitting the hands to move freely. Some new gloves, and many old ones, can be stiff, preventing the goaltender from catching a puck, covering a puck on the ice or holding a stick properly.

Employees at better retail stores will not only help you get the correct-sized equipment but also show you how it’s supposed to be worn. I can’t stress this last point enough. Once you’ve laid out your hard-earned coin, take a few extra minutes to learn how to put the stuff on (and teach your child how to do it as well).

Most straps on leg pads have a specific purpose, but none are more important than the toe lace/buckle, and the knee straps. I’m amazed at the number of times I’ve seen young goalies — obvious beginners — get on the ice with the toe straps removed altogether, or tied not to the skates, but to other straps to keep them out of the way. When I ask parents why, I get one of two responses: “I didn’t know what to do with them,” or “I didn’t think they were that important.” Invariably, these are the same parents who strap on their kid’s pads so tight that they fit more like a corset than goalie gear. No wonder these youngsters have so much trouble moving.

In reality, these toe straps are essential to keep the leg pads “centered” as they rotate back and forth while a goalie executes butterfly saves. If the toe straps are used correctly (laced through the skate, and tied by the ankle), the remaining straps can be loosened, which enhances the pads ability to rotate, forming a tight seal on the ice. That’s why the knee strap is important; it keeps the knee secured in the knee cradle while the pads rotate.

Two more quick points: Goalie skates make a huge difference in a young netminder’s ability to execute goalie-specific movements. Regular skates, with their thinner blades and a more rounded radius, are far more unstable (which can be very frustrating for youngsters). Goalie skates are a much better investment than a goalie helmet at the mite and squirt levels (though a neck dangler is recommended). However, if you do buy a goalie mask, make sure it fits correctly. A loose mask that moves is dangerous.

Last, but certainly not least, is the goalie stick. This is perhaps the most underappreciated piece of equipment among a goalie’s “tools of ignorance.” What many parents, and coaches, don’t understand is that the paddle length of the stick often determines whether the goalie will have a balanced stance. The key is to make sure the goalie is holding the stick properly (with the blocker hand at the top of the paddle, with the index finger on the paddle for stability) while in his or her stance.

So, for example, a goaltender who plays in a low crouch can get by with a shorter paddle. I’m almost 6-foot-3, but I use a 26-inch paddle. Many goaltenders my height, however, play more upright and will use a 27-inch paddle. Personal preference is huge. So when you buy a goalie stick, bring your young netminder to the store, and have them try different paddle lengths (while wearing their goalie skates). The correct stick will be the one that feels most comfortable. Simple as that.

This article originally appeared in the July 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 TheGoalieGuru.com.

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