Being a hockey goalie is not for everyone, but USA Hockey wants to make sure that it could be for anyone.
That’s an ambitious task, but the payoff that comes from breaking down barriers and dispelling myths about playing goalie make it well worth the effort.
Phil Osaer, goaltending manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, helps explain why it’s so important to encourage players at the 8U level to give the position a try – and how the organization is trying to make it easier to do just that.
Making it easy to try
One of the biggest game-changers in terms of making it much easier for youth players to try playing goalie was the introduction in 2016 at the 8U level of QuickChange goalie gear. Players can put on the goalie gear in 60 seconds – much faster than traditional clunky goalie gear.
“First of all, we want to provide an environment where it’s easy for kids and parents to try the position. Sometimes parents are the biggest hurdle,” Osaer said. “With QuickChange, the idea is to bring the pond or basement or street hockey to ice. Kids can put on a pair of pads, play goalie for a part of a cross-ice game and put it on over normal equipment and then take it off quickly and continue to play as skaters.”
Introducing that equipment has helped eliminate the excuse that equipment is inaccessible or too daunting to put on.
“QuickChange has been in rinks for about 18 months now, and getting over the parent and equipment hurdle is big,” Osaer said. “Learning to put on goalie equipment on is daunting. That’s one thing that we’ve kind of taught and tried to address. We want to have coaches encourage kids to try goalie. Maybe not even a full practice commitment, just try it. And when you love it, we’re going to give you an environment to try it again soon.”
Getting multiple players to try playing goalie has far-reaching benefits. It of course has the potential to identify talented and enthusiastic goalies at an early age, but it also helps other players.
“It makes our sport better. When we do a 4-on-4 game with empty nets it’s not quite as much fun. We know what it’s like when there is a goalie versus when there isn’t a goalie,” Osaer added. “For me, our sport needs goalies as an integral part of scoring goals. That’s why we want to encourage kids and give them that chance.”
Even those who try it and don’t want to stick with it come away with a different perspective.
“They have newfound respect for the position,” he said. “Every one of them will benefit from the lessons learned.”
To create that environment, coaches need to embrace the position even if they lack experience specifically coaching goalies.
“We’re trying to find a way to make the youth hockey experience better. In our department, with goaltending, we know that the better goalies are, and the better that coaches are educated, it’s going to create a more competitive environment with more goal-scorers,” Osaer said. “Goalies are prepared for each shot in practice, the coach rhetoric on the bench is positive and reflective of the sport.”
Equipment accessibility can be an early hurdle to parents letting kids try goalie, as can the eventual cost of permanent goalie pads.
“That’s one of the things is we’re trying to correct is make it less expensive with equipment shares and hand-me-downs. Introduce kids to the position and keep them in the position at a reasonable cost,” Osaer said. “Equipment companies make really good stuff that lasts long, and the more families can share, the better.”
Even more important, though, is supporting goalies and their parents emotionally.
“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.”
The ultimate payoff
USA Hockey’s hope is that giving more young players access to the position at a young age will result in more elite goalies as time goes on. That was part of the thinking behind the organization’s “51 in 30” initiative, which strives to have at least 51 percent of minutes played by NHL and NWHL goalies to be played by American-born goalies by the year 2030.
“On the surface, we want to gauge ourselves as being world-leading. The only way to be measured that way is to have the majority of minutes played,” Osaer said. “We want that battle cry to resonate with kids who look to the NHL. We want to be a goalie development group and encourage kids to chase their dreams. We want them to look at that as a thing they can chase, be the next Jonathan Quick.”