These games are the reason why "you play hockey like a girl" is an endangered-species insult. You should be lucky to play like these girls.
Hockey is an emotional sport. This emotion is not specific to women, but it certainly doesn’t help our mental state to have to be put through the wringer in do or die situations. When a group of people puts their hearts and souls into achieving a common goal, and when that common goal is or is not achieved, the outcome can lead to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And sometimes, the difference between experiencing a high versus a low can be miniscule – a couple of seconds, a couple of inches. This is what we sign up for when we become athletes. Whether at a recreational level or at a competitive level, we are resigned to the fact that we will, at some point in our careers, experience heartbreak. We work like crazy to avoid it at all costs, but it is still inevitable.
When these devastating losses occur, we as a group need to ask ourselves how we wish to respond. Looking around the locker room and seeing the agony on the faces of your team mates is always tough. It is natural to go through the process of asking "what could I have done better?" The experience is even tougher for goalies. It is often said that goaltending is the closest thing to an individual position in a team sport. By sheer virtue of the fact that goalies look different, play a different role, and often act different (hey we’re not THAT weird!), they are primed to always be picked out of a crowd. When a team wins, the goalie is the hero. When a team loses, all eyes are on the goalie. It really is a double-edged sword. Unless you’ve been a goalie, it’s hard to ever relate to the feelings of isolation that are felt when you’ve given up 5 goals, you’re only half way through the game, the hockey net looks like a soccer net, and the puck looks like a marble. As members of a hockey team, everyone needs to get to know each other. When a large team of people come together there are always different personalities and energies within the group. Priority one is for each player and each coach to figure out what different personalities they have amongst them, and what role each of these personalities will contribute towards the overall group dynamic. Once that has been established, the team as a whole is more prepared to support one another through the good and through the bad times that inevitably come in the duration of a hockey season.
As a goalie for 11 years, here are some of my general tips on Goalie Handling 101:
- Take the time every now and then to chat with your goalie. Checking in with the goalie is like a staff meeting. Goalies often have a different perspective of how the team is playing because their vantage point is different. It’s never a bad idea to make sure they are on the same page as the rest of the team.
- If you have an experienced goalie, feel free to turn to them during a game and ask "Hey, what are you seeing out there? Anything we should be doing differently?" It makes goalies feel appreciated for more than just their role as puck stoppers. And we like to be confided in. We want to help our team mates out.
- Listen to their suggestions. Goalies, especially experienced ones, are very specific in how they want their team to play defensively in front of them. Some want their D’s to try and block shots in front of them, while others prefer to have a clear view of the shot so that there’s no danger of a screen or deflection from their own team mate. If they tell you to move…MOVE!
- If a goalie is struggling and you see something they could improve upon, feel free to mention it…respectfully. If we can critique our players, certainly our players should be able to give us tips too.
- Sense when your goalie is in pre-game prep mode. It’s great to talk a goalie’s head off about your latest boy (or girl) troubles, how you’re pretty sure you picked up a nasty infection from your pedicure place, or why you need to move out of your parents’ house pronto. We care about our team mates and we’d love to counsel you through these clearly very tough times…but not right before a game! When your goalie is trying to get into "the zone" please leave them to it.
- Recognize what the goalie brings to the team. Often, especially at the rec league level, multiple goalies lobby to get onto the team, but one goalie is clearly the frontrunner to be the team’s #1. Don’t make that goalie split games 50/50 with a backup if one’s skill level is clearly superior to the other. Give credit where it’s due.
- Light a goalie up in pre-game warm ups. You want your goalie to be confident heading into a game, and sending pucks whizzing past them, or worse, drilling them in the mask from close range, is not a good way to achieve confidence. Start with basic warm-up shots and get harder as they get more comfortable.
- Kid-glove a goalie. Most goalies who have played the position for a long time know their capabilities and limitations. They don’t need anyone to point out that they had a bad game. And the worst is when a goalie has a bad game and all their team mates can say is "OMG you were AMAZING!" Thanks for the gesture, it’s appreciated, but it’s actually also a little humiliating. To use Roberto Luongo’s favourite word, goalies are not looking for a "tire-pumping". We just like appreciation (when it is deserved) every now and then.
- Compare them to the back-up or to the goalie at the other end. Much like parenting multiple kids, nothing pisses a goalie off more than to be compared to someone else. There is a tremendous amount of respect between "tendys" but there is also a recognition that each goalie has their own style of play. While we are always trying to improve our respective games, telling us to mimic someone else is a great way to puncture our belief in our own game.
- Gloat. I once played in a league All-Star game where the format was All-Stars vs Alumni. A current team mate of mine who had been struggling to perform so far that season was put on the Alumni team because they needed a few extra players. She scored a few goals on me and then loudly and publicly gloated about it for the rest of the day. She’d walk by me (several times) and yell "oh yeah guys, it’s coming back! I can feel it guys, the swagger is coming back and no one can stop me, I’m back baby, yeah yeah yeah." I know it was just a fun event, but goalies are competitive and we like to play well all the time. The irony was that in a few days, we’d be on the same team again, and all this player had done was gain confidence by trying to shatter mine. A friendly ribbing when you score on a team mate is always fun, but walk the line and don’t cross it!
A confident goalie is a good goalie. It’s not easy being on a team with so many different personalities and roles. But that is also what makes it great. Having that person who will jam tunes and have an impomptu dance-off in the locker room right before a big game to lighten the mood and ease the nerves, or having that person who will rally the troops after a tough loss and get everyone to believe in the team again – these are the people and these are the moments that make the losses so worth it. Because when they finally lead to a victory, in that moment, you realize that this is why you play on a team.