There are some hockey coaches and fans who cringe each time they see a goalie leave the crease to play the puck.
But once you’ve seen how much of an advantage it is to have a goalie who can handle the puck well, it’s hard to ignore how important of a skill it is for young goalies to develop.
“At the older ages, it makes a world of difference,” said Steve Thompson, USA Hockey’s ADM Manager for Goaltending. “It’s like having a third defenseman.”
“We all know the more time the puck is in your zone the more trouble you’re in. If you have a goalie back there that’s going to change the place of the dump in because they’re nervous about keeping the puck away from the goalie. It adds a whole other element to that chess match with the other team, their forecheck and your breakout.”
Thompson acknowledges that goalies playing the puck frequently at young ages can come with some risk but points out examples like Spencer Knight and Alex Stalock in which those risks eventually result in some of the game’s best puck handling goaltenders.
Stalock, a South St. Paul native, was known for taking significant risks to play the puck while leading the Packers to the 2004 Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. Now playing with his hometown Minnesota Wild, he’s lauded for his ability to limit hits on defensemen and jump start the breakout.
A Consistent Hand
Some of the most important components of a goalie’s ability to handle the puck starts right when players first put on goalie pads.
“It starts off with the entry level for the position in the sense that we have a lot of goalies that are right-handed as a forward,” said Thompson. “That’s how they play when they play street hockey. That’s how they play when they play out. Then, we throw them in a left-handed catching glove because when you play baseball you throw with your right hand and catch with your left. We immediately handicap these kids from having the confidence and ability to play the puck well.”
“If you are a right-handed shot, I would really encourage kids to try and learn how to catch with their right so they can play the puck with their right.”
In the same way, players who shoot left-handed while playing out are encouraged to catch with their left hand while playing goalie.
Many of the top puck handling goalies in the world have a consistent hand whether they’re in net or using a forward stick even if it wasn’t intentional. Stalock certainly falls into that category as he shared in this Minnesota Wild webisode on puck handling how he grew up playing forward left-handed, and it played a major role in developing his puck skills.
“That would really help the process off the start is being consistent with which hand they play and how they catch,” said Thompson.
Play All Positions
For decades, teams have rotated goalie gear among players at the youngest age groups. While the primary benefit of the rotation is viewed as introducing as many kids as possible to the position, there are also a number of benefits for the kids who eventually play goalie full-time.
“I would strongly encourage that everybody plays forward, defense and goalie,” said Thompson. “You play all the positions when you start playing hockey because there’s really no better way to experience the game and learn all the facets of it.”
Players at those young ages are learning fundamental skating, puck handling, passing and shooting skills that not only help forwards or defensemen but are also very beneficial for goalies.
“If you’re a full-time goalie at nine years old, it limits the puck touches and puck handling opportunities you have,” said Thompson. “Make sure goalies aren’t forced to stay in one station with the net during practice. If the kids are all rotating and one of the drills is puck handling and passing centric, allow your goalies to participate in that too.”
An Age-Appropriate Stick
“One thing we recommend at our eight and ten-year-old ages is to not use a goalie stick,” said Thompson. “You can wear the QuickChange equipment but to actually use a forward stick. It’s so much lighter. It gives them the ability to play the puck better.”
Much like using blue pucks at young ages, a lighter stick helps players develop proper technique and boosts confidence in their ability to puck handle, pass and shoot.
“It is challenging,” admits Thompson. “Kids do like the way the goalie stick looks. It’s cool. Part of the appeal of being a goalie is looking the part. That’s kind of where the art of coaching comes in. Kids probably want to eat dessert three meals a day if they could, and they probably want to use a 25-pound stick because it looks cool.”
The Coach’s Role
Like any component of player development, coaches have an important role to play too. First, provide goalie with opportunities to practice playing the puck in practice, and second, use mistakes as opportunities to learn instead of worrying solely about the outcome.
“We see a lot of prioritizing winning at a young age over development,” said Thompson. “That’s just another way to depreciate our kids’ skill sets too soon.”
“Be very cognizant of, ‘how many puck touches did my goalie get today in practice?’ If it seems to be zero more often than not, it should not be too shocking that when they do have the defense-goalie exchange in a game, it’s not as clean as we would like it to be.”
Two simple ways to add repetitions for goalies into practices are having your goalie start drills with a pass and dumping pucks to them during small area games so they’re the first one to play the puck. Thompson also encourages coaches to try to make the drills as game-like as possible.
“You have to add stress,” said Thompson. “Everyone at a certain level can make a tape to tape pass with no pressure. That’s not really what the game challenges of you.”
Play, Shoot & Score
It’s common for coaches, especially goalie coaches, to encourage goalies to wear their glove and blocker when puck handling or shooting off-ice, but it isn’t always necessary.
Former Arizona State goaltender and current Ottawa Senators prospect Joey Daccord is a great example of why. His dad, Brian Daccord, is a well-known goalie coach and currently a consultant for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he hounded Joey about using his goalie equipment while shooting pucks.
“Joey was always shooting pucks,” said Thompson. “He was using the same hand as his goalie stick, but he would be downstairs shooting shot after shot. His dad would get frustrated with him because he wasn’t wearing his blocker and glove. He wasn’t taking goaltending serious enough because he wasn’t wearing his glove and blocker. Sure enough, over time, Joey became an elite puck handler.”
“Don’t be too scared to just go out and play hockey and have fun and enjoy it. Play street hockey and pond hockey with your buddies. That is going to make you a better puck handler.”