Behind The Mask

Few positions in sports hold as much influence on the outcome of a game as the player who occupies the space between the pipes. In this issue we celebrate all those who stare down opposition shooters and serve as their team's last line of defense.

BEHIND THE MASK

Spencer Knight has heard it all before. Despite holding the distinction of being one of the rising young stars on the American goaltending scene, the Darien, Conn., native has faced more than just shots from the opposition. He also has to deal with the good-natured ribbing from teammates that goalies often receive when it comes to playing the position.

"I hear that a lot, some people say it in a joking way," Knight said of being called "quirky," "odd" or "weird."

"But I don't think it's weird at all. A goalie's preparation and superstitions could be seen as weird, but for me every goalie has their own little quirks to get them going. It may seem weird by non-goalies but to goalies it's just what we do."

Like the protective armor he wears as a member of the U.S. National Under-18 Team, Knight has developed a thick skin when it comes to dealing with the slings and arrows that come from those outside the goaltending community. 

"One thing I've learned and what I've done is I try not to take myself too seriously," said the future Boston College netminder. "If someone says something I just laugh because they're more than likely just joking with you. I've always said they can say it, but I'll just go and stop the puck and then I'll have the last laugh."

And he does that better than most, leading the U.S. to a silver medal at the most recent IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

His coach Seth Appert can definitely relate. He too wore the tools of ignorance growing up in Minnesota and then at Ferris State University before turning to the coaching profession. He's known a few goalies over the years who may have been a little on the quirky side, but that perception could have more to do with the solitary nature of the position than any character flaws.

"Players are always together in the locker room together, and on the bench. They play together on lines together, and in [defensive] pairings. The goalie, for the most part, is alone back there with his own thoughts, and sometimes his own demons," said Appert, who completed his first season as a U.S. National Development Coach.

"There's a different element to that, and you have to be very comfortable with that loneliness."

They must also be comfortable with the pressure.

"Forwards can make tons of mistakes and most people don't even know and they get seen for what they do well," he said. "A goalie makes a mistake and the red light goes on and 10,000 people scream."

It's a message that Appert passes down to young netminders, including his 15-year-old nephew Roan, who plays goalie for the Mahtomedi Bantam AA team in Minnesota. 

"I told him the position will become easier once you understand that every goal is your fault, and that it's OK," he said. "You have to take accountability for every goal, but you don't have to beat yourself up about it. It's the balance of those two things that is tricky for young goaltenders."

It's something that even the best goaltenders have had to get used to over the years. John Vanbiesbrouck has won more games than any American goalie in NHL history, and he has heard it all from the time he was a youngster growing up in Detroit right on through to today.

"I would say generally that nobody wanted to be abusive and I didn't take it that way. I took it as a funny, tongue-in-cheek kind of comment and went along with it," said Vanbiesbrouck, who recently took over as USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations. 

"It didn't influence me to not want to be a goalie. Maybe the laugh was on me, but I went along with it."

Like many of the colorful expressions associated with the game, the origins can be traced back to a bygone era when it took a certain breed to get between the pipes.

"I think that stigma was born out of a time when goalies didn't wear masks and it took a certain type of person to play the position," said Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, who also played his college hockey as a goaltender at Ferris State. 

"I've never known that to be true. I think it's something that is either a fallacy or something that was true a long time ago, but certainly not anymore. I know lots of normal goalies. I know some weird goalies, just like I know some pretty weird forwards and defensemen."

From the days of Clint Benedict and Jacques Plante first donning rudimentary forms of facial protection right on through to Andy Brown, the last NHL goalie to slip on a mask in 1974, and right on through to today, for whatever reason the stigma continues to stick. And just like Vanbiesbrouck did throughout his career, most goalies just go along with the joke.

But Phil Osaer isn't laughing. In his new role as the manager of goaltending for the American Development Model, Osaer sees the stigma as an impediment to recruiting talented youngsters to the position. And for someone who has a goal of having 51 percent of all goaltenders in the NHL and NWHL being Americans, he's ready to fight anything that stands in the way of that ambition.

"If you're living in the youth hockey world, goalies are not weird. They just aren't," Osaer said. "It's not cool or funny to make fun of a kid because of the position he chose. I don't want anyone in our sport to ever feel like they're on an island."

If Osaer sounds a little defensive it could be because he's heard it all before, and quite frankly, it's gotten a little bit old.

"People always say, 'Phil, you're pretty normal for a goalie,'" said the former collegiate and professional netminder. "Since I've been coaching I started thinking about that statement and it's not even remotely true. They're all really good kids. They're smart, they're engaged, they're leaders on their team. Then it started to bother me a little bit. And the last thing that I want is for one of these kids to think 'oh, I'm a goalie so I'm weird.'"

More importantly, Osaer worries about how that stigma could potentially dissuade parents from allowing their sons and daughters to try the position. 

As a person whose livelihood is directly tied to the play of his goaltenders, Blashill says there is a better stigma to attach to goaltenders.

"I would say that mental toughness is more associated with goaltending more than being weird or anything like," he said. "From a young age they're in a spotlight to a greater degree than other positions and you have to be able to bear the brunt of losses or goals against even though it's never totally their fault. They're the ones who are ultimately responsible for those things and they have to bear the brunt of that. The ones who survive and move on are the ones who are mentally tough."

USA Hockey is working hard to remove those types of stigmas by introducing a couple of additional measures aimed at getting more kids to try the position. One is the quick-change goalie pads, which give kids at the 6 & Under and 8 & Under levels more opportunities to play goalie for a shorter amount of time. The other is to split playing time, which allows both goaltenders to keep their head in the game.

"No one wants to go to the rink, put gear on and then not play, especially when you're 10, 11 or 12," Osaer said. "Through those years of sports sampling, long before you decide to specialize on a sport, we want to make our position more aligned with what we know about the adolescent brain so they're going to have the most enjoyment."

Vanbiesbrouck would also like to see coaches get their goaltenders more involved in practices and preparations for games rather than leaving them to their own devices on the ice.

"If he was a pitcher in baseball he would get the most coaching, if he was a quarterback in football he would get the most coaching but a hockey goalie probably gets the least amount," he said. 

"I think that's certainly something we need to take a look at in the future of how we develop practices around this very important position and remove all the stigmas."

No matter what, even though many goaltenders will still go along with the joke, it's a stigma that has run its course as Osaer and others work hard every day to entice the best and brightest athletes to don the pads and get between the pipes.

"I just hope that we can evolve past this because the kids that I've gotten to know are not weird. They're really, really good people and great athletes," he said. "I hope this stigma dies with this generation." 

 

Issue: 
2018-06

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