A searing red light, a blaring foghorn and the sound of thousands of fans on their feet cheering. For a goal scorer, these are the sights and sounds that dreams are made of. But for the men behind the mask, they signal a nightmarish feeling.
Welcome to the yin and yang world of the goaltender, where one aw-shucks goal wipes out 10 brilliant saves, and every shutout performance is easily erased by a clunker of an evening.
While hockey may be the ultimate team game, few positions in all of sports are as scrutinized, criticized and over-analyzed as that
of a goaltender. That’s why legendary USA Hockey coach Dave Peterson coined the phrase, “they should call the game ‘goalie’ because of the impact that one position has on the game.”
“It’s a position where if you’re playing well and the team is winning, you’re getting more credit. And if you’re losing, you’re taking a little more heat than you deserve,” said Los Angeles Kings and 2010 U.S. Olympic goaltender Jonathan Quick.
“It can go either way. You can steal games and you can lose games. It’s quite a bit of pressure and you have to know how to handle it no matter what happens.”
A goalie since the age of 7, Quick is currently in his third full season between the pipes for the Kings. He learned long ago that the pressure that comes with the position is “part of the job.” For many adrenaline junkies, it’s what lured them into the crease in the first place.
“I loved the pressure when I first started playing. I got addicted to it,” said USHL Fargo Force goalie Ryan Massa. “Being the last line of defense for my teammates and knowing if I had a good game and kept my team in it, they would do the rest of the work for me and score goals. That’s what helps me perform my best every night. That pressure is what makes me love being a goalie.”
For Colorado College goaltender Joe Howe, it was pressure of a different sort that put him between the pipes. His older brother, Mike, needed a backyard target to shoot at, and his 4-year-old brother fit the bill.
“He got in a little bit of trouble for that from my parents, but honestly I knew I wanted to be a goalie ever since,” laughed Howe, now a sophomore with the Tigers.
And whether it’s your brother buzzing shots past your ear or an opposing center slipping one through the five hole, the mark of any good goalie is a short memory. The next shot is the only one that matters, and the truly great goalies have a way of forgetting the past and focusing solely on the present.
“You have to let a lot of it roll off your back and you have to have a short memory, for sure,” said Howe, who played in 36 games as a freshman and recorded an impressive 2.80 goals-against average in the high-flying Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
“You can’t sit and dwell on what just happened. You have to be confident in yourself and not let little things like that get to you and realize that some things are out of your control and some things you can control, and you need to focus on the things you can control.”
And while Howe may not admit to having nightmares about his brother scoring on him, for others, there will always be snipers who will forever cause them to lose sleep.
“Anders Lee [currently at Notre Dame] got me quite a bit last year,” said Casey DeSmith who currently leads the USHL in wins with the Indiana Icers. “He scored four goals in one period, so I hated every time he came down the ice, especially that game. He gave me a little bit of trouble to say the least.”
Even years after hanging up the gear, a goalie can never shake the ones who consistently found the back of the net.
“Mike Bossy is one scorer I will never forget,” recalled Bob Mason, former Washington Capital and 1984 U.S. Olympic netminder. “He’d get the puck in the slot or come in on the right side and you knew wherever he shot it, he would put the puck in the net. He was one of the all-time greatest shooters and he scored some early ones on me my first couple games in the league, which is probably why I will never forget him.”
Still, no matter how many goals he surrenders, a goaltender knows he only needs to make one more save than his counterpart at the other end of the ice. At the end of the day, it’s wins and losses, not shutouts or goals-against averages, that most goalies care about.
“If I’m playing well but we’re not winning games, it doesn’t mean anything,” said Quick, who has finished in the top three in wins among NHL goalies for the past two seasons.
“I’m sure the goalies who have great numbers and save percentages, but their teams not winning would tell you they would trade those numbers any day.”
Although the components of the overall team need to be there for a successful season, Quick led the Kings to the 2010 playoffs for the first time since 1992-93, proving that pressure and the profile are raised several notches in the postseason. It’s that time of year that many goaltenders really stand out as either a hero or a zero.
“You can have an average team but a great goaltender and get to the Stanley Cup finals,” said Mason, now a goalie coach with the Minnesota Wild.
“Goaltenders can make or break a team in the playoffs. Just look at last year’s playoff teams. Philadelphia finished 8th in the conference and [Brian] Boucher and [Michael] Leighton got hot at the right time.”
And as far as that little red light is concerned, it’s just another day at the office, just another goal that snuck through and another reason to refocus on the next shot on goal.
“I try to minimize how often I see that light and hear that horn,” said Massa.
“Every time I am scored on, I think it’s a new game and the score goes right back to 0-0 whether it was a soft goal or regardless of how it was scored, I have to quickly refocus and mentally forget about it.”