Raising The Bar

USA Hockey’s Ambitious Goalie Initiative Takes Aim At Lofty Goals

Leave it to one of the greatest goalies of all time to sum up the solitary nature of the position.

"Suppose you were working at your job one day, and you made a little mistake. Then all of a sudden a red light went on over your desk, and 15,000 people stood up and yelled at you," Jacques Plante, the Hall of Fame netminder, once said.

Whether it was superstition or tradition, hockey coaches have historically kept their distance from the men (and women) behind the mask, asking only one simple yet nearly impossible thing of them: Just stop the puck. 

But those in the know have always acknowledged the importance of the position on the outcome of a game, a tournament or a season.

"I think they're going to change the name of the game to the goaltending at some point because it's just so damn important," said Kevin Reiter, the director of player personnel at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and himself a former goalie.

"Ask any coach and they love getting off the bus with the best goalie."

Reiter doesn't have to look far beyond the walls of the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., to find comrades who share that opinion. Seth Appert, the head coach of the U.S. National Under-18 Team is a former goalie, as was Scott Monaghan, the senior director of operations for the program. And down the hall from Reiter's office sits one of the greatest American goalies of all-time, John Vanbiesbrouck, who now serves as USA Hockey's assistant executive director for hockey operations.

"It's so nice to have so many resources to bounce ideas off of and try to help these kids chase their dreams," Reiter said.

Building A Foundation

And that's been the driving force behind the organization's efforts to bulk up its goaltending development initiative that began to take off in 2015.

Starting with the hiring of Phil Osaer as the first goaltending manager for the American Development Model, USA Hockey has been on the fast track to expand not only the quality but the quantity of puckstoppers at all levels of the game.

Working in conjunction with the organization's coaching education efforts, the Goalie Development Program is designed to give every coach, regardless of whether they ever stood between the pipes, the opportunity to hone their goalie-teaching skills.

The goal is to have at least one coach on every youth staff qualified to teach the basics of the position. To get there, USA Hockey created a three tier system - Bronze, Silver and Gold - to give every coach the proper tools to help them work with their young netminders.

To aid in the learning process, USA Hockey has also created online modules, instructional webinars and various goalie drills on its website and mobile app specifically aimed at goaltending education.

It's all part of USA Hockey's drive to become "world leading" when it comes to the development of goalies.

51 in 30

Becoming a world-leading goalie development nation is more than just words. It's a belief that percolates down from the very top of the organization with USA Hockey's Chairman of the Board Ron DeGregorio, who rarely misses an opportunity to tout the importance of the position.

When DeGregorio and a handful of others created the initiative, they wanted to create a goal to shoot at. That target was to have American goaltenders playing 51 percent of the minutes in the NHL and women's Div. I college hockey by the year 2030. It's become the battle cry of the campaign ever since.

To get there USA Hockey has surveyed what's being done at other federations to develop their goalies and cherry picked some of the best practices and brought them together into a melting pot of ideas to suit American netminders.

"The reason why we set those goals and why I felt so confident and comfortable sharing those goals with coaches and goalies and parents, whether it was at a try goalie day or at our NTDP tryout camp, was because I believe wholeheartedly in encouraging kids to chase their dreams," said Osaer, who has since left his position with USA Hockey for a new role of goaltending scouting and development with the Detroit Red Wings. 

"We knew that putting the goal that high was a bit of a daunting target, but we also knew that by empowering kids to chase their dream, that we would hopefully develop intrinsic motivation in some of them to work hard to do it."

Quick Change Goalie Pads

Becoming world leading doesn't start at the top. As legendary U.S. coach Herb Brooks liked to say, the wider the base the higher the pyramid. And to build the base of goaltenders at the grassroots level, USA Hockey has teamed up with its partners and others in the manufacturing sector to create quick change goalie pads.

These easy-on, easy-off pads allow any youngster the opportunity to try playing the position for even a fraction of a practice. Equipment fits comfortably over regular protective gear, allowing for less bulk and less drama. Where it might typically take a young skater several minutes, and a few pairs of helping hands, to put traditional goalie gear on, the quick change pads are optimized to take less than 60 seconds to take on and off, giving youngsters more time to enjoy playing the position.

"It's great to have that tool in our bag, so to speak, because it gives everyone an opportunity to try and enjoy it without the commitment that it sometimes takes with the equipment," said DeGregorio, who was the founder of the popular mini one-on-one back in his home state of Massachusetts.

The move not only allows skaters to try the position, it allows them to see the game from a different perspective, which creates better understanding of the game along with a little more empathy for those tasked with stopping pucks.

"Sometimes it's good to be in the other person shoes," DeGregorio said.

Boots On The Ground

There's no way that a handful of dedicated goalie coaches can do it all by themselves. It has to be a team effort, that ranges from the grassroots to those at the junior, collegiate and professional ranks all working together to put forth a unified and consistent message.

They need boots on the ground, or in this case skates on the ice. That's where goaltending development coordinators come in. This nationwide network of coaches working in local affiliates take a hands-on approach to enhancing grassroots goalie development.

These coordinators meet with local clubs and associations to implement goalie training curriculum by conducting goalie coaching clinics and distributing materials to aid them in their effort.

"This program is about identity, uniformity and accountability," said Steve Thompson, who joined USA Hockey in 2019 as the new goaltending manager. 

"We have unbelievable people across the country that have been doing things like this well before we came up with the idea. It's been a matter of traveling around and seeing who's done things well and then adopting all those good examples to build a world-leading program so that if you're a young goalie and climbing a ladder, what's the safest way for you to climb as high as you can?" 

Changing The Perception

A big part of scaling to new heights starts with tearing down the tired old perception that goalies are somehow strange or different because of the role they play on a team. A deeper dive into the position shows how instrumental a goalie is to his or her team's success. 

Thompson equates a goalie's value to that of a quarterback in football and a pitcher in baseball.

"Over the years, baseball teams have a long history of dedicated pitching coaches. The same holds true for football. Yet in hockey, this is a relatively new phenomenon, at least at the national level," he said.

But now, thanks to USA Hockey's continued emphasis on teaching and training those who stand between the pipes, the future is bright.

"In order for the game to continue to evolve and get better, you need more kids playing, you need more innovative minds working with those kids to make the game more fun," Osaer said. 

"And then you need people who are doing everything they can to do all the right things for the kids. I'm proud that we're doing that."

 

Issue: 
2020-06

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