European Pro Coach: Goalie Development in Switzerland
by Dusan Sidor, former goaltending coach of HC Lugano in Switzerland. Edited by Taylor Lush.
The main difference between being a goalie growing up in North America and Europe is that almost all major youth organizations are affiliated with professional teams. These organizations usually hire a goaltending coach that works with all the goalies. As a goalie, you start with an organization at a young age and move up through the age groups and levels until you reach juniors or even the pro team. Since there is no college hockey category where goaltenders can mature in Europe, very few players make it all the way to the top in the professional leagues. In Switzerland for example, these prospects usually develop through the youth ranks and are placed onto the pro teams as practice goalies when they reach the junior level, so they can learn from older, and more experienced goaltenders. After their years in junior have ended it’s all on them whether they are signed to a professional contract in the NLA (the Swiss top league) or send to the NLB to develop and get game experience for several seasons.
Sidor responds to the recent debate on InGoal about the proposal to ban European Goalies from the CHL
With the recent debate regarding whether or not European goalies should be banned in the CHL, I feel it is important to look at the differences in goaltender development between Canada and Europe. In my opinion banning European goalies from the CHL does not make sense. While I am not familiar with the ratios of Canadian vs. import goalies in the CHL, I believe keeping European goalies out of the CHL will not contribute to the development of Canadian goalies. I think that the development of goalies has to start much sooner, before their junior years. Because by the time a goaltender reaches the junior leagues, development consists more of getting game experience and improving technique rather than major style changes. Goalies need to be led by qualified goalie coaches from young age in order to develop. Secondly I think that banning European goalies would reduce the competition for Canadian goalies, and this in turn would slow down their development. CHL teams do not seek out mediocre European goalies to replace a Canadian goalie of the same quality, the European goalie has to be much better in order to be successful as an import goalie. This means that the Canadian goalies currently in the league are up against some of the best junior talent in the world, which makes them better. However, the bottom line for improving Canadian goaltending is early development. Thinking about developing goalies at the junior level is simply too late; and if there were more goalies that were developed from young age it would simply mean that they would slowly push out the European competition, since no team will go for a European goalie if they have a Canadian goalie with the same talent at hand. In Europe, there is more systematic goalie development in top tier organizations; this is why there are approximately the same amount of goaltenders coming out of countries with less talent to choose from. Hard technical work from a young age gives them a competitive advantage.
Developing goaltenders through hard and systematic work is the key in Europe; there are usually no try-outs and coaches have to work with what’s available because there is sometimes a lack of athletes in smaller cities. Once in a while a real talent comes through, but this is rare. Hard work will trump talent alone on an every day basis; kids work hard to get better every day and follow their goal to become the town’s pro goalie one day. The cool part is that almost all organizations are run by the same people and teams wear the same logo and jerseys which gives the kids a realistic goal, to be on the A team once they grow older.
Many teams have a professional goalie coach that works with every goalie in the organization, so the youngest goaltenders get to work and train with the same guy that is in charge of the pros.
I have been the goaltending coach for the Hockey Club Lugano in Switzerland for eight years now. I have seen many goalies come and go; some that started with me at the age of eight are now sixteen years old about to make the jump to the junior team others even made it to professional leagues. We work year round, with only a few weeks off in the summer. In most of Europe, hockey rinks shut down immediately after the season in April and do not re-open to late June or even mid July, so we are off the ice for almost three months at a time. This might seem like a large gap but we can manage it easily with a summer training program specifically tailored to goaltenders. We focus on reaction, speed and agility rather than weight-training and instead do body weight exercises, and we try to do everything to simulate the position of a goaltender on the ice. This keeps the goalies in shape and agile. In the past parents would send their children to a summer camp once a year for them to hone their skills, but that is no longer enough. Developing a top tier goalie requires year-round effort under a watchful eye. If a goaltender is not putting all of his efforts into improving his game, his spot will be taken by a goalie who is.
This is important not only for the older goalies but also for the little ones.
Developing skills and techniques from a young age is very important, and consistently working on them year-round makes these basic techniques become part of a goalies’ muscle memory and instinct. I have experienced students that worked with me on a daily basis, doing this hard and detailed work leaving and then coming back after several years because their organization did not have a goalie coach to continuously strengthen their basic goaltending techniques. The easy things no longer came to them instinctively. These instinctual movements and saves are formed in practice through thousands of repetitions, and are a big key to success for developing goaltenders. By using basic techniques without having to think, a goaltender can focus on simply stopping the puck.
As a goalie coach I obviously have my own idea of what the “perfect” goaltender should look like, and the younger a goalie starts working with a goalie coach the better. This way I can form him the way I want from the beginning before any bad habits appear. Older goalies are more prone to thinking that whatever they are comfortable doing is best for them and are reluctant to adjust. But what they do not know is that the art of goaltending is constantly evolving. A goaltender needs to realize that a progressive goalie coach is there to help make their job easier, and not to change their “style.” By evolving their game and utilizing new and progressive techniques, goaltenders can improve and move on to the next level.
Many goalies are accustomed to working on their own or doing everything their player teammates do, because they are not able to work with a goalie coach. The sad thing is that organizations that lack financial means, save their money by not hiring a goalie coach, thinking that goaltenders will develop on their own. This seems a bit silly, because developing strong, consistent goaltending is one of the best ways to ensure the success of a team as a whole. So by cutting financial corners on the most important position on the ice, many teams are undercutting their overall performance on the ice. Because of this, many goalies cannot grow to their full potential, because they have simply been misguided by their inexperienced coaches. Many player coaches do not understand the goalie position, and resort to giving their goalies oversimplified and irrelevant advice like telling a goalie to “get out of the blue paint and cut down the angle” while there is a player waiting for a backdoor pass. Goalies that grew up this way and made it to the next level are great talents because they taught the art of goaltending to themselves through watching other goalies and experimenting on their own. However it is this lack of consistent goalie-related coaching at younger ages that leads to the false belief of goalies, especially in their teens, that a goalie coach will mess up their style or change the things that have worked so well in the past. What they do not realize is that they could get even better when they work with someone what knows what they are doing in the goaltending subject. The most important thing is to accept your goalie coach and trust them that they are there to help you and make you better. Of course sometimes there might be disagreements over certain plays and techniques, therefore goalie coaches have to be willing to be flexible and discuss things with their students in order to come to an agreement and to improve techniques.
The most important question for these goalie coaches is “How do I pick what I want to teach my goalies?” The simple answer is endless hours of video of NHL and European pro goaltenders. At my age, the only advice I can give from my playing experience is about the mental side of things, simply because the game has changed too much. It would be comical if I told my goalies to use skate saves, come out almost to the top of the circles, or use diving poke checks on every breakaway. I pick out what I like most from every goaltender with attention to the smallest detail and try to piece it together like a big puzzle. Tim Thomas’ aggressiveness, Quick’s mobility, Fleury’s post positions, Varlamov’s glove position, Lundqvist’s perfect angles, and Rinne’s work ethic are among these details. With these images in the back of my mind I approach my goalies and we mutually try to develop their game in order to make stopping the puck easier for them. It is a constant process of developing new skills to make each goalie more efficient and successful. It might involve changing something we thought to be more effective in the past.
Specific off ice goalie practice is as important as on ice practice; especially for us in Europe during the early summer where we’re forced to spend three full months off the ice. Doing goaltending specific things such as reaction or slide-board exercises in the summer is essential to maintain and develop skills. Goaltenders in teams like Lugano are lucky enough to be able to do this under the guidance of a goalie coach.