The Goalie Issue: What Were You Thinking?

Some Of The Top Goaltenders In The Game Explain Their Passion For The Position
Jess Myers

Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning is among a growing cadre of talented American puckstoppers who are taking the NHL by storm.Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning is among a growing cadre of talented American puckstoppers who are taking the NHL by storm.

You’ve probably never heard of Brandon Johnson or Nick Stalock, and you’re definitely not aware of the vital roles they played in launching the promising careers of two of the most talented American goaltenders. But if not for the efforts of these older brothers, two well-known netminders who provide their teams with a last line of defense under a bright spotlight might still be anonymous.

Cam Johnson, the star goalie who backstopped the University of North Dakota’s NCAA title in April, got his start between the pipes as a way to play hockey with his older brother, Brandon, in their suburban Detroit neighborhood. Ditto for Alex Stalock, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ puck-stopper, whose first forays into a crease with pads on were done as a way to play with his brother, Nick, and the older kids in their South St. Paul, Minn., neighborhood.

Anyone who has ever watched a college or pro goaltender stand in front of a rocketing slap shot that most fans can barely see, let alone stop, has probably wondered, “What were they thinking?”

Talking with some of those goalies reveals some great stories about what inspired them to don the big pads in the first place, and proves that they may be crazy enough to play the position. But they had good reasons for giving it a try, and sticking with it.

While some 5-year-olds would protest if you told them they’d have to let their teammates shoot pucks in their direction, Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson recalls crying to his coaches because they said he couldn’t do just that.

“We were rotating goalies when I was a Mite for the Northbrook Bluehawks. We had three goalies and I was playing defense,” Anderson said, recalling his youth hockey days in suburban Chicago. “I remember the game. We were getting beat by Winnetka. We were down, 6-0, after the first period and I sat on the bench crying, saying ‘I wanted to play goalie.’”

One problem – Anderson’s goalie pads weren’t in the arena at the time. A quick-thinking adult found a solution.

“The coach ran across the ice between periods to ask my parents if I could play goalie,” Anderson said. “The stuff was in the car, so my parents ran to the car and brought the gear in. Halfway through the second period I was in the nets and never really left.”

While some people would worry about the impact of the puck hurting too much for them to enjoy stopping shots, Anderson found the body contact he encountered when playing other positions made him feel safer in goal.

“I did play forward in summer hockey,” Anderson recalled. “I think my last year of that I was a Peewee and I got hit into the boards in the neutral zone and said, ‘This isn’t for me.’”

While Johnson and Stalock started playing goalie to play with their brothers, Anthony Stolarz took up the position to be like his older brother. Now one of the top goalies in the Philadelphia Flyers’ system, Stolarz grew up in Jackson Township, N.J., wanting to be just like his elder sibling.

“My older brother actually played goalie, so when I was growing up, I just tried to follow him to the rinks and be his biggest fan, which kind of led me to the position,” Stolarz said. “All of my gear growing up was hand-me-downs from him, and I just always kind of looked up to him. I just liked to always be on the ice. When I was younger, I tried playing forward, but I just didn’t have as much fun playing out there as I did goalie.”

Cam Johnson  backstopped the University of North Dakota to the 2016 NCAA title.Cam Johnson backstopped the University of North Dakota to the 2016 NCAA title.

That may sound crazy to an outsider, but to those who truly love playing goalie, and thrive on the pressure and the occasional pain, it’s what they love to do.

“I just fell in love with the thinking part of the game and I always liked being involved in the game and being on the ice for the full 60 minutes,” said New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider, recalling his youth and high school hockey days in suburban Boston.

“I didn’t like sitting on the bench in between shifts, so maybe that was part of it, too. I wasn’t the best skater when I became a goalie, but I learned how to skate as a goalie. It’s a very important part of having good footwork.”

But when an arena is full, the crowd is excited and a game is on the line, the weight on a goalie’s feet is nothing compared to the weight on his or her shoulders. By the time opposing players get to your net with the puck, they have probably already eluded a pair of defensemen and a forward or two, but if their shot goes in the net, everyone looks upon the goalie as the last one with an opportunity to stop the puck. That’s not necessarily fair in a team game, but it’s a part of hockey that goalies enjoy.

“I love the amount of pressure we face,” Johnson said, not long after getting a taste of that pressure on college hockey’s biggest stage, helping the Fighting Hawks to a Frozen Four crown before a crowd of better than 19,000 in Tampa.

“When you’re in goal, more often than not you’re either going to be the hero or you’re going to cost your team the game. I love having that on my shoulders.”

When all that emotional weight is on you, losses can be devastating, but winning feels even better. Stalock was also a baseball and football player as a kid, and sees a natural comparison between the person between the pipes on a hockey rink, the person manning the mound on a diamond and the person under center on the gridiron.

“You win a game and you kind of get hooked on the feeling,” Stalock said. “Like a pitcher in baseball or a quarterback in football, there’s only one of you, so you’re the difference maker. Of course it goes both ways, if the game doesn’t go well. But you learn to thrive on having that on your shoulders, and having the chance to be the hero.”

Of course, the guy scoring a hat trick can be the hero as well. That was a lesson Ryan Miller taught his father. Miller’s size and skills helped him star at Michigan State. That was before his stellar NHL career, first with the Buffalo Sabres and now with the Vancouver Canucks, and before he helped Team USA to within an overtime goal of an Olympic gold medal in 2010. But had he not gotten a hat trick during a youth hockey game in Michigan many years ago, none of that may have come to pass. To this day, Miller vividly recalls a day where he played forward, and via some on-ice work and a hardline stance, earned the right to play goalie.

“I already had an assist and I took a seat on the bench. My dad was our coach and I said ‘I really want to play goalie. I want to try it. I’m not going to play another minute until I get a chance to play goalie.’ He thought it was pretty funny,” Miller recalled.

“I think I was 8 years old and when you’re 8 your dad is probably cracking up inside. He said, ‘You can do it, just go score three goals and get that Playmaker patch. Go out and do that this game and you can try goalie.’ So I went out and took him up on it. I scored the goals, got the assist and he was just shaking his head. From that point on I never really turned back and it’s been a lot of fun.”

To some, standing in front of pucks will never seem like fun. But to those who came to the position through a variety of circumstances, it’s an endeavor they love. And based on their on-ice results, teammates and fans love watching their work in the crease.

Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.





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