October 14, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Why coaches must preach 'team'

By Brion O'Connor

This past summer, my eldest daughter (not a hockey player) and I had an animated discussion about team sports. Her swim team was having an end-of-the-season pizza party, and she wanted to invite a friend who wasn’t on the team. 

“No way,” I told her, just that bluntly.

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

“Why, Dad?” she replied (repeatedly). “It’s no big deal.”

“I disagree, honey. It is a big deal,” I countered. “This is an event for you and your teammates. It’s not about hanging out with your other friends. This is about all the kids on the swim team. Your team.”

I’ve been involved with team sports for so long that I consider these basic tenets to be absolute truths. But things are different today. I’ve seen family gatherings where parents allow their kids to bring a friend, instead of encouraging them to play with their cousins or — God forbid — interact with the adults. To me, that’s just bizarre.

To make a hockey comparison, a team is a collection of the individuals in the locker room. Really good teams nourish that environment, building a true “team” where players care for and rely on each other. Critical to that development is including the goaltenders.

All too often, hockey goaltenders are separated, both consciously and subconsciously, from their team. That’s never a good thing.

The reality is that the position already is set apart by it’s very nature. We stand in one place, for the entire game, while the action swirls from end-to-end, and the players change up as often as my wife changes her mind about what color to paint the house. When a goal gets scored, everyone else heads to the bench, but the goalie is left alone to dig the puck out of the net. That’s no fun (speaking from experience).

Remember, youngsters aren’t drawn to the position because they’re loners. More often than not, they’re attracted by the unique responsibilities that come with playing goal. For me, I always loved the idea of being a difference maker, and being the one player that, if I was really on my game, could prevent an entire team from winning (which didn’t happen as often as I would have liked, but that’s another story). The point is, despite loving the actual position, I was disappointed by just how rare it was to feel like the  goalies actually were being incorporated into the team. 

Frustratingly, you see this in many, many aspects of the sport, both in practice and in games. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a coach pull the team together during a drill, but leave the goalie standing in the net 30, 40 feet away. That doesn’t make any sense to me, but I suspect that the coach isn’t even thinking of it in terms of an insult. It’s just an error of omission, but one that gets compounded each time it’s repeated. Eventually, the goalie loses interest.

Now, this is important, because it’s not a part of the game we, as goalie coaches, can teach effectively during our goalie clinics or mini-ice sessions. Those primarily are reserved for the art of stopping the puck (though we do discuss team-oriented topics such as reading the play, or being a good passer). Team practices are the best environment to bring goaltenders on board with everyone else. Still, even in the team practice setting, I’ve been told by coaches, “Just work with the goalies,” as if it’s such a specialty that the rest of the team couldn’t possibly benefit from what I’m teaching. (Here’s a hint: Goalie coaches know a few things about how to put the puck in the net!).

So, while I’m telling the young netminder to take charge, instructing teammates about where to be and whom to cover, the same young netminder is left out of the discussion by his or her coaches. The result often is a goaltender who isn’t on the same page as his or her teammates. In a sport as fast and mercurial as hockey, that can only lead to trouble.

“Goalies are the only players who can see the whole ice surface,” says Fred Quistgard of Quistgard Goaltending in Maine, and the former head coach of Union College and Bowdoin College. “They should be totally familiar with the defensive, neutral and offensive zone systems. They can recognize problems before they happen and can anticipate the saves that will be required based on where the puck carrier is attacking, where the opponents without the puck are moving, and how the defense is lining up against the rush.”

In other words, Quistgard is asking coaches to “explain to the goalies what their responsibilities are.” And those responsibilities go far beyond the classic, short-sighted edict of “just stop the puck.”

Ultimately, coaches should want a goaltender who thinks like them, or at the very least can bring their game plan to the ice. As Quistgard says, we see the entire ice, much like a point guard in basketball, a catcher in baseball or a quarterback in football. I tell my youngsters that the position brings with it natural leadership responsibilities. And leaders can’t be passive.

For the majority of the game, goalies are in the calm eye of the hurricane. Positional players actually are in the hurricane, chasing the puck or the play over the entire 200-foot-by-85-foot expanse of ice. Goalies, though, know the play is coming to them. That makes us invaluable teammates. It’s never too early to start learning what the coach expects of not only you but also all the players, at every position. At the younger levels, keep it really simple. If there’s a loose puck, tie it up and get a whistle. If your defenseman is chasing a puck behind the net, let him know if he has time to make a play (either skating the puck or making a break out pass), or if he has a forechecker in hot pursuit.

As goalies climb the ladder of youth hockey through high school and even college, their responsibilities grow, from verbal commands to puck-handling duties, and I plan to detail those in later columns. In short, though, they are more involved. The point today is that goalies should never think of themselves as a castaway on an island. They are part of a team, and being a good teammate means more than simply stopping the puck.

Coaches, you need to realize that, too. I was lucky in high school. After practices, my coach would drive me to my part-time job at Osco Drug, and we’d talk about various aspects about the game, and the team. It gave me a chance to prove that I knew what was going on. And to his credit, my coach listened. Neither of us had all the answers, but at least the two of us were on the same page.

Every goalie, and every hockey team, deserves that.

This article originally appeared in the October 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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