I WAS 3 YEARS OLD the first time I skated in full equipment. By 7, I was moving with the best of them. By the time my young career was in full swing, the thought hit me — like a puck square off the noggin — that I wanted to be the man behind the mask.
Good thing I put all my effort into becoming a well-balanced skater, with the payoff being the chance to spend the remainder of my playing days schlepping around the goal crease.
There is no exact science behind a player’s conversion to the crease, the loneliest position in team sports. Maybe it’s the opportunity to be different and stand out from the crowd. Or maybe it’s getting to wear all that cool equipment.
Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: once you strap on the pads, there is no turning back.
It was an easy decision for me. Ask and you shall receive. For others it may be more of a scenario where the coach asked for a volunteer to step forward and everyone took a step back except for one unsuspecting soul.
“I loved playing goal, but never wanted to pull the trigger to do it,” says Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, a former collegiate and international goaltender who served as goalie coach for the Boston Bruins.
Bertagna found himself in net just one week before trying out for his high school varsity team because the chances were slim that he’d make the team as a defenseman.
“One of the things that’s changed the position is there were a lot of guys who went into goal not from the start, or not necessarily for positive reasons,”
Bertagna says. “Some kids couldn’t skate, the heavy kid or the little brother went in as the target, or in my case if I wanted to make this team I wasn’t going to make it at this position.”
U.S.Women’s National Team goalie Chanda Gunn got her first taste of goaltending while playing street hockey with her older brother and his friends. She played well every time she was in net, she says, and gained everyone’s respect as a goalie.
Much to her dismay, though, Gunn suited up in goal the first time she hit the ice at age 14.
“I didn’t want to be goalie — I wanted to be Cammi Granato,”Gunn recalls. “My parents made me be a goalie because there was more equipment and they thought I would be better protected. But I just wanted to play hockey, so any position was exciting tome.”
TO SOME IT’S QUIRKY; TO OTHERS IT’S COLORFUL
Don’t tell Gunn that goalies are quirky — that’s her biggest pet peeve. That and when her teammates score on her during practice. The U.S. backstopper keeps track of the number of pucks that slip by her, which isn’t many.
“You have to be competitive in a high pressure situation,” says Gunn, “and anyone under pressure is going to act different.”
Minding the net is all about high-pressure situations. What else do you expect from the player who holds the key to a team’s success night in and night out?
“There’s no position in sports more than playing goal where you have as large an impact on the end result,” says Mitch Korn, goalie coach for the Nashville Predators.
“You have to be competitive in a high-pressure situation, and anyone under pressure is going to act different."
– Chanda Gunn,
U.S. Women’s National Team goalie
“A forward can make two or three bad passes on one shift, miss the net twice, then go back to the bench and the score hasn’t changed,” adds Bertagna. “What comes with the ability to influence a game is the reality that your margin of error is very small, and little things can make you influence the game the wrong way. Little things end up with big results sometimes.”
It’s not just a goalie’s on-ice game that can serve as his or her best friend or worst enemy. Much is to be said about what’s going on upstairs in a goalie’s mind.
“If you’re playing well and you just strung together a number of good games, you’re really not thinking — you just play,” Bertagna says. “If you’re in a slump, you really do have to overcome that…and you are at the mercy of the situation you are dealt.”
Jeremy Smith, USA Hockey’s 2007 Goalie of the Year, says the true character of a goalie is displayed by his or her ability to stay sharp mentally.
“Those soft goals really showa goalie’s true side,” says Smith, a netminder for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. “If a goalie can bounce back after an early goal or a bad goal, it really shows what you’re made of. It’s a tough spot to be in as a goaltender, but that’s what I love about it.”
To keep tha tmargin of error to a minimum, goalies turn to a variety of tactics to help prepare for games.
“A lot of mental preparation before games,” says John Vanbiesbrouck, who has the most wins by an American-born goalie with 374.
“Visualization techniques came over time. It was about how can you repeat a good performance, and you grab little tidbits from each good performance and try to apply them to the next one.”
Vanbiesbrouck says he was more passionate about playing goal than hardworking, and he would put forth every ounce of energy he had into his performance.
“I didn’t want to talk about anything but hockey,” he says. “There were things that I would like to do the same way — not because it felt good or because I was superstitious—but it was the power that drove the good source.”
GEARS OF WAR
Long before the flashy saves, hightech pads and custom-painted helmets, there were skate saves, deer-hair stuffed leg protectors and Jason Voorhees stylemasks.
“I had the old, flush-faced mask with the Winwell helmet, and I’m surprised I wasn’t killed,” says Korn, who also serves as the director of summer camps at Miami (Ohio) University.
“We used to do two-pad slides, not because it was the most efficient way of getting your pads across, but it kept your face away from the puck. Guys used to challenge down the wings and literally drift and run at guys, for no other reason than to get to the puck before it elevates to hit you in the body or the face. Now, it’s all about making saves with the body.”
“When you’re hot, your team is hot, and you can change the momentum of the game with a single save."
The innovation of goaltending has certainly come a longway, and the latest advances in equipment are influencing the position more than anything else.
“Changes in equipment bring different ways of playing goal,” Vanbiesbrouck says.
“The form of unconventional goalies is probably gone, and there’s a lot more conventional guys that play some type of style.” Gunn, who admits she has “a severe lack of style,” is working on improving new butterfly moves that don’t come naturally to her.
“There’s no such thing anymore as a stand-up goalie,” Gunn says. “It’s not like I’m kicking out skate saves. Skate saves went out with poke checks and eight-track tapes.”
Not only are goalies’ styles changing, but also their role in the defensive zone has become all encompassing.
“You’re the quarterback — the guy that runs everything in the defensive zone — and the big penalty kill guy,” Smith says. “When you’re hot, your team is hot, and you can change the momentum of the game with a single save.”
EVER WONDER IF ...
Netminders have spent the bulk of their playing careers trying to stop the puck, butmore than a few have entertained the thought of slipping out of the pads and taking a turn on the opposite end of the offensive onslaught.
She may not be Cammi Granato, but Gunn gets the best of both worlds. An Olympic bronze medalist in net, she skates out as a forward for fun in an adult league during the week.
“I love to skate, but at the same time I know how much better I am at goalie,” she says. “So I’m actually that much more competitive at goalie than I am at forward because I have a fewer limitations.”
Others are content to keep their skates firmly planted in the crease.
Smith says he’s just your average goalie “sitting back there” in his own world, and he’s perfectly content with being the guy that his teammates can depend on.
“Being a player and scoring goals is always the fun part,” Smith says, “but being a goalie and being in between the posts is where my home is.”
As mentioned before, once you strap on those pads, there’s no going back.
As Bertagna simply says: “Goaltending is all I know.”