The Goalie Issue: Homegrown Goalies

USA Hockey Looks To Develop More Top Athletes To Excel Between The Pipes
By: 
Scott Powers

Peter Thome, Aberdeen WingsPeter Thome, Aberdeen Wings

When the Canadian Hockey League made the bold decision to ban import goalies in 2013, the ripple effect could be felt on both sides of the border, and beyond.

“The goaltender position is the most important in our game,” CHL president David Branch said at the time. “In partnership with Hockey Canada, the CHL has identified the need to further develop Canadian goaltenders by providing increased opportunities for them to compete in our league and succeed at the next level.”

Now two seasons into the CHL’s goalie import rule, the goaltending community continues to monitor the situation as it tries to understand the impact it has on the player development system in the United States and around the world.

Opinions differ among the top Junior leagues in the U.S., but the one constant belief is that everyone’s top priority needs to be focused on what is best for the future of the American goalie.

“It’s going to get to the forefront and we’re going to find whatever that happy medium is and that next step,” said Phil Osaer, whose focus is on goaltending in his role with the American Development Model. “I think we have to continue to learn from what’s going on in Canada and see if this is working for the Canadian goalie.

“We have to do our due diligence and pay attention to how this is affecting everyone and make an educated move in the next direction, not just a knee-jerk one just because Canada has decided this is the option and that, ‘Well, we have to do it as well.’”

USA Hockey addressed this topic at its winter meetings in January and created a goaltending committee, which includes Osaer, USA Hockey’s National Goalie coach Kevin Reiter and USA Hockey Junior Council Vice President and John Vanbiesbrouck, a Hall of Fame goaltender who serves on USA Hockey’s executive committee.

Some of the data the committee will look at is the number of import goalies in the top U.S. Junior leagues, and how many U.S. goalies are playing in the CHL, which does not count United States’ players as imports.

The top two Junior leagues in the United States are the USHL, the country’s only Tier 1 league, and the North American Hockey League, which is a Tier 2 circuit. Of the USHL’s 16 teams, there were five import goalies in the 2012-13 season, six in the 2013-14 season, nine in the 2014-15 season and nine this season. The NAHL has eight import goalies currently playing on its 22 teams and had seven import goalies play at least 20 games last season.

Commissioners in both leagues have described the number of goalie imports in their leagues as negligible.

“On average, there’s seven,” USHL Commissioner Bob Fallen said of the trend over the past four years. “Does that look like a huge impact and is the import rule in Canada the only impact? I would argue that there’s other factors in play here as well, including the fact that the USHL is proving itself as a path to the pros and college, which is really now starting to get the attention of people outside the United States.”

According to Fallen, the USHL is committed to providing American players of every position with the best opportunities to move up the ladder of development and into the college ranks.

“What’s interesting, though, is we have not wavered in the amount of imports allowed in our league. We established many years ago the notion that we have a maximum of four imports per team regardless of position. That hasn’t changed,” Fallen said.

Cal Peterson, Waterloo BlackhawksCal Peterson, Waterloo Blackhawks

“We recognize that our primary role in the amateur hockey player development landscape is to develop American players. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for. So, the vast majority of players in our league are American.”

NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld has a similar response.

“I would say [our import goalie] percentage has probably been pretty consistent,” he said. “I would say that’s another reason why it’s not been on our radar because it hasn’t really affected us as much. We’ve had a lot of success in gaining momentum with goalies, for sure, but the numbers haven’t changed that much for us. We’ve always been a pretty much on good path to the NCAA.”

The USHL and NAHL do have a four import quota, which includes Canadians, and that is a number some have suggested should be reduced. Osaer floated the idea that an import goalie should equate to two roster spots.

USHL senior director of hockey operations Adam Micheletti doesn’t think that reducing the import goalie spots would automatically benefit U.S. goalies as much as some might think. His concern is that too many younger U.S. goaltenders who weren’t ready for the USHL level would be rushed into those spots.

“I don’t think by changing our import rules it’s going to improve the goaltending in the United States,” Micheletti said. “I think we need to look at them in a much larger picture at what we can do at a younger age with goaltenders to make sure they are prepared by the time they reach 17, 18, 19 to play in the USHL and beyond.”

Vanbiesbrouck has a unique perspective on the debate because he’s involved with USA Hockey and the USHL. He is also a Hall of Fame goaltender who played 19 seasons in the NHL. He thinks it’s important to recognize the distinction between competition and development.

“When you start talking USHL, college and things like that, you’re talking about a real high level. The USHL only has 32 goalies in the league, college hockey has 120 total goalies,” he said. “That’s not a lot when you look at the total numbers.”

Another piece of the puzzle is U.S. goalies continue to find opportunities north of the border. The Ontario Hockey League alone has 10 American goalies.

As a former standout at Ferris State University, Osaer personally believes that college hockey provides a better path to the pros. Reiter said USA Hockey wouldn’t negatively recruit against U.S. goalies playing in the CHL or NCAA. His concern is simply whether those players receive the proper coaching to fulfill
their potential.

“Like anything else, the route you choose will impact your development in one way or another,” Reiter said. “The CHL route has proven to be beneficial for many American-born goalies over the years. In turn, when goalies choose to play in the NCAA, they know that they will have four years of development. This is significant because the average age of an NHL goalie this season is over 27.”

Both Reiter and Osaer feel that the biggest impact on the development of young goaltenders is coaching. When players reach a critical stage in their development it is important that they have access to full-time goalie coaches. That is often not the case.

“Most teams only have a part-time goalie coach who is not with the team that often, and some don’t have one at all,” Reiter said. “There needs to be more coaching support for these goalies while in their prime stage of development. This is a major difference compared to our European counterparts who receive goalie-specific coaching numerous times per week at this age.”

Aside from taking a look at Canada’s import rule, USA Hockey is also approaching goalie development in other ways. USA Hockey’s development committee is working to spread universal goalie philosophies and teachings to youth coaches nationwide.

Reiter is hopeful that will provide more quality goalie coaching outside of just private lessons. USA Hockey is also attempting to promote the position through a variety of programs in hopes of attracting more kids to become goalies.

“I believe we have made great progress and are seeing growth in quantity and quality. But we could always do more,” Reiter said. “Our Warren Strelow Program has seen tremendous success over the past few years.”

The proof is in the number of U.S. goalies who have risen through the ranks and are now considered among the elite players in the game.

“It was great to see that four out of the eight goalies in the 2016 NHL All-Star Game were U.S. goalies,” Reiter said. “Ryan Miller, [Jonathan] Quick, Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider, Al Montoya and Bishop are now active household names. But it’s great to see some ‘new blood’—John Gibson, Mike Condon, Jeff Zatkoff, Keith Kinkaid, Alex Stalock, Scott Darling and Connor Hellebuyck—show that they are more than capable of playing in the NHL.

“In saying all this, we still need to continue developing NHL-caliber goalies.”

Scott Powers is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Issue: 
2016-06

Poll

Who is your favorite American player?: