Dynamic Duo

Two Of The Game’s Greatest Goalies Share Stories And A Few Laughs At National Hockey Coaches Symposium

LAKE PLACID – Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck spent five seasons together with the N.Y. Rangers and teamed up for 501 victories. Two of the greatest American goalies reunited here last week and produced nearly as many laughs as they did NHL victories while keeping the capacity crowd at the National Hockey Coaches Symposium informed and entertained during the course of a wide-ranging conversation about the state of the goalie nation.


Their biggest revelation came right out of the chute as two of the finest to ever play the position said there would be no room for them in today’s NHL.


“I was hoping nobody was going to check our size when we came in here,” joked Vanbiesbrouck, who despite being listed at only 5-foot-8 is the all-time winningest American-born goaltender. “A lot has been said and written about the trend for NHL teams to have taller goalies. Maybe we should measure them by what’s between their ears and the way they approach the position.”


The comment raised eyebrows among the 450 coaches in the audience, but Richter, who set the record straight that he is a half inch taller than the 5-foot-9 his former teammate gave him credit for, sees the current shift not as a missed opportunity but rather as a chance to leave a different mark on the game.


“John makes a good point [about the trend toward bigger goalies], but what he failed to mention is that we would both be power forwards,” Richter said with a laugh. “I just want to make sure everybody knows that.”


All kidding aside, both U.S. Hockey Hall of Famers said the pendulum could soon be swinging back thanks in large part to the work USA Hockey has done to create a new culture when it comes to coaching and developing goaltenders. Coaches can no longer leave their team’s most important asset on an island to figure things out on their own. 


This new emphasis on coaching education is making that happen. For the first time, USA Hockey added a goaltending track to its coaching symposium so that coaches who work with young goaltenders could come together to share best practices for developing young netminders. It’s all part of a call to action to increase the number of American-born goaltenders playing in the NHL and in the women’s professional league.


“The coaching of goaltenders has come a long way. It’s still an art form,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who was recently named the assistant executive director for hockey operations for USA Hockey. “We talk about how the game isn’t suited for the smaller goalie, but I think that that goalie is going to come back because of the way we are coaching the position now.”


Regardless of a goaltender’s size, there is one attribute that stands out among all the rest in Richter’s eyes.


“The most important piece of equipment you have is your brain,” he said. “How you approach the game is what matters most.”


And he showed that over the course of his 14 years in the NHL. In addition to leading the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, the Abington, Pa., native also led the U.S. to victory at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and a silver medal at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Richter retired from the game in 2003 after dealing with the lingering effects of multiple concussions, but remains close to the game as a coach with his son’s 14 & Under team in Stanford, Conn. 


For his part, Vanbiesbrouck has spent much of his career since retiring in 2002 involved with Junior hockey in a number of different capacities. After serving as a volunteer on USA Hockey’s executive board for six years, the Detroit native joined the organization as a full-time staff member in charge of leading the U.S. onto the international stage just as he did as a player in the 1998 Olympics, four world championships, two Canada Cups and two World Junior Championships.


“I’m surprised and pretty impressed that John doesn’t have more gray hairs in his new role,” Richter joked. 


Like so many others who have worn the USA crest in the past, Richter is proud of how far American hockey has come since he slipped on the jersey as a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team.


“The U.S. is producing fantastic goalies,” he said. “We have a good history of producing some really good goalies but the group of kids who are coming up right now are spectacular. The growth in terms of the professionalism of the goaltending profession is just incredible.”


The key to staying on that path to success is to create a bigger talent pool to draw from. And that starts with changing the way we view those who play the position.


“We have to get rid of the stigma that goalies are weird,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We want to get more kids playing the position and that growth starts with how we treat our goalies.”


As their time in Lake Placid drew to an end, these two long-time friends posed for one more picture and signed one final autograph before going their separate ways. As usual, their time together was too short, but the bonds of friendship formed almost 30 years ago on Broadway are as strong as ever.


“It’s like time goes by but we’re still the same two people,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “You still have that common denominator, which is this great game that we have. It’s a blessing for both of us to see USA Hockey continue to grow.”

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