As Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick was raising the Stanley Cup over his head in June, he was also helping to raise the profile of American-born goaltenders up another notch.
For the second straight year, an American goalie not only led his team to the Stanley Cup, but also captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP in the process. Quick’s haul added to the already crowded trophy case for American goaltenders.
Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins preceded Quick in grabbing the Cup and Smythe in 2011. Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller’s 2010 Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender was sandwiched by a pair won by Thomas in 2009 and 2011, while Quick was the runner-up for the award in 2012. And let’s not forget the silver medals won by the trio as members of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.
“It has been an exciting time for all the guys who were on the Olympic team. Three years in a row [they] have had some pretty good years [with] a couple of Vezina trophies [and] a couple of Stanley Cups,” said Miller, who was named the MVP of the Olympic tournament in Vancouver.
The three goaltenders from that Olympic squad in particular have been leading the charge, but are getting some company at the top.
During the 2011-12 NHL regular season, five American-born netminders were the primary starters for their teams, while a total of eight American backstops made at least 30 appearances. Eighteen different Americans saw action between the pipes in at least one NHL game.
The top of the statistical leaderboard was flooded with Americans as well.
Quick led the way, finishing in the top five in each of the major statistical categories for goaltenders, including first in shutouts (10), second in goals-against average (1.95) and fifth in both wins (35) and save percentage (.929).
Meanwhile, Thomas and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings finished tied with Quick for wins, while Howard and Miller also finished tied for fifth with six shutouts apiece.
So where did all this success come from? It certainly didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. In fact, it may have been over 20 years in the making. While American goalies are finding success in the league at a higher rate than ever before, this isn’t the first time U.S. netminders have grabbed the spotlight.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, American goaltenders like Tom Barrasso, John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter were collecting many of the same accolades as those of today. It was their accomplishments that helped create a generation of U.S.-born players that wanted to be goaltenders.
During media day for the Stanley Cup Finals, Quick told reporters he had a picture of Richter holding up the Stanley Cup in his childhood bedroom.
“I grew up a Rangers fan. I saw a lot of him,” said the Milford, Conn., native, who pointed to Richter’s competitiveness as one of the qualities he admired most.
Howard, who posted his best season to date in his third full year with the Detroit Red Wings in 2011-12, shared Quick’s admiration for the Abington, Pa., native.
“When I was growing up, I was a big Mike Richter fan,” said the Syracuse, N.Y., born goaltender. “I idolized him with everything that he did.”
Miller got an up-close look at several NHL goaltenders growing up watching his cousin Kelly Miller’s games.
“There was a time when Kelly was playing with the Rangers and being able to pay close attention to Richter and go back further to Vanbiesbrouck, guys like that got me interested in the position,” said Miller, who also won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player in 2001.
Just like the players that idolized him, Richter had an American role model to look to for inspiration in his younger days.
“[If] you have somebody, I can remember even reading about Jim Craig when he was at Boston University and that gives you something to shoot for,” Richter said of the man who backstopped the Miracle on Ice in 1980.
“We happened to have this single figure who was a great role model. I think that’s a big part of it.”
Now the current generation of American netminders is in a unique position to inspire the NHL stars of tomorrow.
Mike Ayers, USA Hockey’s national goaltending coach, shared just how important their success has been.
“I think it’s great because you have somebody to put a face with in regards to the younger kids,” he said. “Now they have a chance to watch these [American NHL goalies] in action and learn from them, and I think that’s an important piece to it.”
While inspiration is a key factor in attracting new goaltenders, a lot more goes into creating an elite goalie.
“I think we’ve got some really solid noted guys that are out there in the field that are good coaches that are working with American goalies,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who won the Vezina Trophy in 1986 as a member of the Rangers.
Not only are there great coaches, but the way goalies are being trained has fundamentally changed in recent years, according to Joe Exter, assistant coach for the men’s ice hockey team at The Ohio State University and former USA Hockey national goaltending coach.
“Before, when you were growing up, the goalie’s job was just to stop the puck,” Exter said. “That’s how everybody would like to describe it, but that has changed.
“Everybody realized that there’s no way you’re going to learn if it’s just, ‘hey, stop the puck.’ It’s a fundamentally trained and advanced position that you have to acquire. We want them to stop the puck, now let’s teach them how to do it in the most efficient way.”
Additionally, training the mental aspects of goaltending such as focus, competitiveness and confidence has become a priority according to Exter and the current crop of American goaltenders in the NHL is showing why it should be.
“The best thing about all of those goalies is that they’re all different,” Exter said. “But the most common thing that they’ve shown is their ‘moment focus’ – their ability to, when everything rises, stay straight toward what’s the process at hand.”
Vanbiesbrouck shared similar sentiments.
“For Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas, they showed us great mental elevation, which it takes to play two totally different styles of goaltending, but to get it done,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who is now a member of USA Hockey’s executive board as the vice president of the Junior Council.
“There might not be anyone more technically sound than Ryan Miller, and what a great approach to the game. It’s those fine lines.”
Miller believes the change in perception of goaltenders is another key factor in the growth of the position.
“I think it’s a case of where the protection is better, the athletes are better, the challenge of being a goaltender is a little more respected now,” said the East Lansing, Mich., native. “It’s interesting that people get into the net and it’s not looked on as you’re completely crazy, like back in the day.”
There’s always concern that this current stretch of success is merely cyclical and could soon come to an end, but there’s reason to believe American goaltenders will continue rising above.
“I think you’ll go through streaks no matter what, but I think [the stretch of success] shows how much we’ve developed and it’s kind of set the bar for everybody,” Ayers said.
“I think it’s a case of where the protection is better, the athletes are better, the challenge of being a goaltender is a little more respected now. It’s interesting that people get into the net and it’s not looked on as you’re completely crazy, like back in the day.”
The current group of NHL goaltenders is also setting the bar for each other, driving each to be better.
“I met Tim [Thomas] and Jonathan Quick this year at the All-Star Game so I’ve gotten to know them pretty well, and I met Ryan Miller at the awards show a couple years ago,” said Howard, who is entering his fourth year as the main man between the pipes for the Red Wings.
“It’s those guys that have set the bar real high and I’m just trying to chase them down.”
Quick and Cory Schneider, who had a breakout season in Vancouver in 2011-12, are just 26 and Howard is 28, meaning each has a lot of good years ahead of them. Additionally, 23 American goaltenders have been selected in the NHL Entry Draft since 2007, including eight within the first three rounds, so the pipeline appears to be well stocked.
USA Hockey’s Warren Strelow National Goaltending Mentor Program, which was founded in 2007 and aims to provide a consistent nationwide program to recruit, develop and produce elite goaltenders, could play a big role in making sure this recent string of success isn’t just a fad.
Ayers, who also serves as the program’s coordinator, stressed the importance of taking advantage of this current stretch of American dominance in order to sustain it in the future.
“Right now, it’s a great opportunity for us where we need to capitalize on the success of the guys being in the NHL,” he said.
“I think [their success] will help tie some comparisons to younger kids to try to incorporate some of the abilities of the older guys into their own game and enhance it.”
While there are many theories as to how American goaltending got to this height and what it will take to keep it there, Vanbiesbrouck pointed to one unique ingredient that perhaps has helped this current crop separate itself from the rest of the world.
“Maybe the additive is that American spirit,” the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer said.