The Stand-up Goalie: Life lessons from the crease

By Hans Eisenbeis

It’s a curious thing in life that someone always seems to be bigger, faster, better, smarter. It’s easy to believe that you’re something special when you forget the mirror is attached to the wall and the wall is attached to the rest of the world, and somewhere out there – probably closer than you think – there is someone with a harder slapshot or a better Mohawk turn or a faster glove hand.

With goaltenders, this is a complicated business, because so much of the game is played in the head. Confidence dictates that you know you can make that save, but the scoresheet often says otherwise.

Goalies, then, live in a constant state of denial. They have to, or else they’d either commit suicide or play basketball, neither of which are, as they say, successful outcomes. 

The goalie is good at dissociating himself, his innermost soul that is most easily wounded by the opinions of others, from the main thing he must rely on – his reflexes. You either got ‘em or you don’t, and if you’re still putting on pads by the time you’re 12, you most likely got ‘em.

I was still a PeeWee when I learned this basic cognitive trick: You have to go into a game with the idea that what follows should be a simple act of being in the right place at the right time to make the right save. Basically, you pay attention and let your instincts take over. You move your person to the area where it’s required, and then let your reflexes do the rest.

When this simple approach fails – and it will fail – you blame the defense, duh! That’s a good (I wouldn’t say great) lesson for life. Get to the right place, react to what happens, blame others in the immediate area if necessary. 

But it’s not quite that simple. You can’t just grab anyone from the bleachers or the Zamboni room or the hot dog stand and throw them in the net and tell them to rely on their reflexes – though this has been tried a few times. It’s a good way to give your scorekeeper a repetitive stress injury. Preparation is necessary, and that’s why we all have to put in the hours and the reps, not only to get where we need to go (footwork), but to react in the right way (save selection) with skill and grace (save technique).

In hockey, there are thousands of little motor skills needed to be in the right place at the right time, and we haven’t even gotten above the ankles yet. About skating, I lately keep having this epiphany at the rink: When I see kids during drills or games, skating seems like the most natural thing in the world, like flying or ballroom dancing, but then I realize they are balancing on 12-inch knives on each foot. How could something so contrived be so graceful? 

I wonder whether in a millennium or so, People of the Future will unearth hockey rinks and scratch their heads as they try to reconstruct what humans of the 21st century were thinking when they devised this strange game of foot-knives, hooked clubs and vulcanized biscuits, where the aim was to slide the disk into the net of the opponent. And the enemy, hated equally by everyone, wore a black and white striped shirt and blew a whistle. Perhaps it was some elaborate religious ritual that ended with human sacrifice and cannibalism! (Which it may well have been, if it was a Gophers vs. North Dakota home-and-home series.)

Returning to the present and the point I was trying to make, skating only gets you about halfway. The rest of hockey is a concoction of puckhandling skills, anticipation, vision and so on.

There is one skill that doesn’t get talked about much outside the crease, and that’s tracking. Goalies are taught from an early age that they have one job when they come to the rink, and that’s to watch the puck like a hawk watches a three-legged field mouse. 

Skaters shouldn’t necessarily watch the puck at all times, because if they do, it won’t take long before they’re also seeing stars, clovers, diamonds and little singing canaries too, having been laid out either by the boards, the net or a 200-pound defenseman. But they do need to see it and react to it – and at the higher levels of hockey, this ability to track the puck and react to it with cat-like reflexes is what separates the goal-scorers and playmakers from the dude who can’t quite ever bang home that backdoor one-timer, or make that perfect tip-in, or clean up that second or third rebound.

I hear tell of a tool being used by some NHL goalies these days to help with tracking. It’s a sort of strobe-light-equipped set of goggles that constantly interrupt the wearer’s vision while he tries to catch tennis balls.

There are simpler, less expensive methods of training the eyes to pick up small, fast-moving objects. I know goalies who try to read every license plate on every car on the way to the rink (a designated driver is, by the way, always a good idea if there’s a goalie in the family). Others focus on a nearby object and then something very far away, in quick succession – which, when you get to be my age, can be a cheap substitute for strong drink.

I’m convinced that the best training a skater could get for both tracking and reflexes – to get more of those one-timers, goal-line garbage and even better dangles – would be either to play goalie in the locker room or play ping-pong with a Chinese Olympian.

The goalie, that poor martyr, is constantly forced to grope his way through skater drills. I think skaters could pick up some important skills by trying out a few goalie drills. Even if it’s just a dose of humility and sympathy. The speed of our game is experienced best on the sharp end of it, behind a goaltender’s mask.

Hans Eisenbeis played goalie back when the pads and gloves came in one color (leather) and butterfly goalies were called “floppers.”