At USA Hockey’s National Coaches Symposium this August, John Vanbiesbrouck challenged one of sport’s most common stereotypes.
“We’ve got to get rid of the ‘goalies are different’ stigma,” the all-time winningest U.S. goaltender in the NHL said. “Especially with kids. They don’t know how to take that sarcasm. The growth in goaltending we want to create starts with how you treat them.”
Don’t say they’re different? Don’t say they’re weird? Really?
Fight the stigma
Vanbiesbrouck, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations, gives credit where credit is due – he didn’t come up with the idea. Fighting that stigma came from Phil Osaer, who until recently was USA Hockey’s American Development Model manager of goaltending and is now a goaltending scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I had never really thought about it,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007. “When people talked about goalies as being weird – which has been around forever and everybody laughs and jokes about it – I had never really thought about it until Phil said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think it’s good to let young goalies know that they’re weird for playing the position.’ I thought, that’s really interesting. I’ve taken it upon myself to, tongue-in-cheek most of the time, make people aware of it. Not to make them feel uncomfortable about it, but it is something that has gone on for a long time, and I never realized how much it really bugged me. It does.”
It’s hard enough
Increasing the number of youth hockey goaltenders is a priority. That’s why USA Hockey encourages all 8U players to try playing goalie at least once. As Vanbiesbrouck points out, there are already enough reasons to make a child think twice about picking goalie as their position of choice. Telling kids that they are ‘weird’ or ‘different’ obviously doesn’t help the cause.
“I think the position is hard to begin with,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “It’s unique to a couple sports – you know, soccer being one, lacrosse being another – but hockey being probably the most prominent. First of all, getting young kids, males and females, to want to skate and enjoy the game and not be afraid of playing a position for the fear of getting hurt is a big accomplishment, especially when people are shooting pucks at you. Most of all, to know how much fun it is to, you know, track plays and to follow the puck and not just to win or lose but to participate as a really important player in the game, equal to a baseball pitcher or a football quarterback.
“Just to encourage young players to play a really cool position – I think we have to find ways to encourage that, not make them feel weird.”
That also means focusing on goaltenders in practice and giving them the attention they deserve, not just peppering them with shots and breakaways for an hour without providing any instruction or skill development. Help them gain confidence, develop their skating skills and mental makeup – and let them play out if they’re not starting a game in net.
“In our association, we only dress one goalie for the games so the other can play out,” said Corey Schwab, a former NHL goaltender who coached youth hockey at Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association in Seattle before being named Arizona Coyotes goaltending coach. “It’s better to have them playing, skating and learning the overall hockey sense rather than just sitting on the bench for the whole game.”
The focus for coaches and parents alike should be how to make playing goalie a fun and rewarding experience for a youngster.
“First of all, don’t always try to analyze them,” said Schwab. “When a goal goes in, the red light goes on, everybody’s looking. That’s a story in itself. I think the hardest thing for the position is to know that everybody wants you to play the position and that you’re accepted whether you get scored on or not. I found that, I get asked questions a lot about my kids, and whether they’re goalies or not. I had one who liked the position, but he quit when he was about 12, 13 years old, and I never knew why. I still don’t know why, but, you know, there’s a lot of focus and attention on the position.
“It’s such a hard thing to have that much attention on you as an athlete. I’m not being soft when I say those words. What should we be as parents and coaches? The only word I think can sum it up is ‘encouraging.’”
And even if your child isn’t in the crease, don’t forget about the other goalie parents on the team and what they might be going through.
“I think being a goalie parent might be one of the loneliest and toughest jobs in sports. Parents see that and get nervous, and it’s on us to create a better environment,” Osaer said. “Goalie parents need to be supported by everyone on the team and we need to make sure the goalie is not looked at as an outlier, but as another hockey player.”