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PRO Goaltending Pipeline On Display At Development Camp

The summer is normally a time for hockey players to let their bodies rest, but for goaltenders, it is perhaps the most important time of the year. Hockey season is a mental and physical grind, regardless of the league. Professional goaltenders typically work with their team’s goaltending coach, but that coach’s job is to keep them fresh and work on individual issues as the season progresses. There simply isn’t time to focus on most technical adjustments. Off-season camps are becoming more and more important for this reason.

Michael Lawrence, a goaltending coach for Ambrì-Piotta of the Swiss National League, has been running his PRO Goaltending camps with this mindset for years, and the results are starting to show.

Just this past year, Lawrence saw three of his students get picked in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft – remarkable for a year that saw the fewest goaltenders selected since 1986. Evan Cormier of Saginaw in the OHL went 105th overall to the New Jersey Devils, Colton Point of Carleton Place in the CCHL went 128th overall to the Dallas Stars, and Jeremy Helvig of Kingston in the OHL went 134th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes. Youngsters Michael DiPietro of the Windsor Spitfires and Aidan Hughes of the Sarnia Sting are also students of his, and are highly touted prospects heading into the 2017 draft.

During his time as the goaltending coach for the Oshawa Generals, Lawrence was able to bring Daniel Altshuller and Ken Appleby through the ranks. Both goaltenders have successfully turned pro, with the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils organizations, respectively. Appleby, who was never drafted to the NHL, capped his junior career with a Memorial Cup victory in 2015 and signed a pro contract with the Devils as a free agent.

InGoal Magazine was on hand at the annual PRO Goaltending development camp in Oshawa, Ontario to get to the root of this success.

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While Lawrence doesn’t see himself as an extremely technical coach, each goaltender at the camp spoke highly of his ability to highlight technical issues within their game. Skating was a major focus during the two weeks. Each day started off with increasingly challenging skating patterns, which served to not just warm the goaltenders up, but form proper habits from the immediate outset.

“Mike has crazy attention to detail,” said Colton Point, speaking about Lawrence. “He gets on me about little things, like if my toe comes up off the ice when I stop, for example. He doesn’t try to change your game completely. He tries to adapt certain aspects of your game, to make you better.”

Kevin Beech, a former OHL goaltender currently playing in Germany, and Dan Stewart, goaltending coach for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Cobourg Cougars, were both on hand at this year’s development camp to assist with the coaching effort. Mitch O’Keefe, a former Ottawa Senators farmhand now playing for Amiens in France, saw the best of both worlds – he attended the camp as a student in the morning session, and as a coach in the afternoon session.

“The support of Kevin and Mitch within the business has helped create this family,” Lawrence explained. “These guys are so close, and they’re all home grown. Most of the goalies have been here since they were 13-14 years old. You have to learn the personality of each goaltender to get the best out of them. You need to have relationships with these guys, to understand who they are as people. We maybe have 70 total students. That’s an advantage, in my mind. It’s why the goalies that we have are all like brothers to each other.”

That brotherhood is just as noticeable on the ice when they are competing against each other as it is when they are off the ice. The mix of high-end talent and easygoing personalities would be difficult for any other camp to match. There is a reason why the goalies keep coming back every summer, and it isn’t only because of the success that seems to follow them afterwards.

“There’s a great group of guys here,” Appleby raved. “There isn’t one guy that you wouldn’t want to go hang out with after. We all get along great. You can be paired up with anyone on any day, and the competition within that group stays the same. I really like the competitive side of it.”

Point wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment.

“The group that we have just raises the intensity level. You see one of the other guys doing well, and you want to be better. You work your balls off to be better than the other guy, and he wants to do the same. It raises the intensity and the work ethic.”

For Point, the competition is personally significant. As a goaltender growing up in North Bay, Ontario, Ken Appleby was larger-than-life. Watching him achieve success in the OHL was inspiring. Getting to share the ice and compete against him is quite literally a dream come true.

“It’s incredible the amount of talent that Mike has brought in. There are maybe two guys at the camp that aren’t getting NHL looks. I’ve idolized Kenny for a while, so it’s great to have him around to see how he works. I get to see what needs to be done to get to his level. It really helps.”

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He may be meticulous on the ice when the camp is in session, but off-ice discussions and video sessions are equally as important to the development of a goaltender, according to Lawrence. Nobody else knows this better than Sandro Zurkirchen, the Swiss netminder that plays under Lawrence’s watch in Ambrì-Piotta. Zurkirchen took on a major role with the club this past season, starting 48 of the team’s 50 games. That would be an intense workload on any team, but especially on a team that allows a lion’s share of grade-A scoring chances.

It was a physically and mentally draining season, and giving up would have been the easy way out. That’s where, according to Zurkirchen, Lawrence’s experience of being a team goaltending coach was apparent. Their personal relationship flourished, and the results began to show on the ice.

“Mike has become a good friend of mine,” Zurkirchen explained. “We talk a lot, we get a lot of coffee together. During our time off, we go for dinner or for lunch. We talk about hockey, but not just hockey – we also talk about life. He’s a bit of a life coach as well. Our relationship is important to me.”

“Every season as a pro coach, coaching every day, you get better and better,” said Lawrence, reflecting on his time with Zurkirchen in Switzerland. “I’ve learned to always believe in the big picture. When you’re the goalie coach and things are going poorly, you will get heat from the owner, you will get heat from the general manager, you will get heat from the coach. You can’t overreact to that, though. That’s the worst thing you could do. If you think you see something in a goalie, see it through. At the end of the day, the results are based on 5, 6, 7 years of development.”

That immense focus on the developmental process was rewarded in year two of his relationship with Zurkirchen, as he was selected to represent Switzerland at the World Championships. It was the first time that he had represented his country in a senior men’s competition.

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During this past year’s Spengler Cup, Lawrence got a chance to represent his own country – being named to Guy Boucher’s staff as the goaltending/video coach for the tournament. Canada would win it all for the 13th time, which is second all time to only the host club, HC Davos.

The mentality of being a team’s goaltending coach during a season or tournament is quite different than the mentality that is needed for a summer camp. The specific drills that are selected for the camp are designed to work on a handful of different techniques and areas that each individual goaltender needs to improve. The level of detail that goalies are able to have each step of the way speeds up the learning process. The difference in each goaltender from day one to the final day was astounding.

“We don’t have a typical goalie school mentality,” Lawrence praised. “Our mentality is: This is our plan, these are our objectives, and this is what we’re sticking to. Lead into your season with that, and if you’re ahead, continue with that plan. I think that’s part of why we’re having success. We’re creating plans for these guys when they’re away from their teams.”

Even for more experienced goaltenders like O’Keefe, a camp like this has benefits. Working on that “plan” right before the season gives him a head start.

“It’s nice to come here to get ready for the season. I feel like I’m ready now. I’m not going to be using training camp to get ready. The basis of what Mike teaches is a great way to do it.”

Giving each individual goaltender a specific plan is crucial, especially at the end of the summer. Unprepared goalies will head into training camp and instantly feel like they are a step behind. With the plan in mind, the game tends to slow down.

Quick, efficient skating movements that keep the goaltender within the frame of the net will help the goaltender read the play much quicker, and will keep them from chasing after pucks. Many of the goaltenders at the camp had excellent size, but they all used it effectively because of the drills that were selected. There was no reaching, or oversliding – and that’s what stood out most by the end of camp.

“We know what we’re building, and we get excited about it,” Lawrence said, listing off each goaltender that has had immediate success after attending one of his camps. “We put a lot of work in with these guys all year. We stay in touch, and we look at video. We’re very involved.”

“I’m really excited about the group of goalies that were drafted to the NHL this year…but there’s more to come.”

2016 Development Camp

About The Author

Greg Balloch

Greg Balloch is a Vancouver-based writer, broadcaster, and goaltending coach. His career began in Hamilton, Ontario as the voice of the Junior 'A' Hamilton Red Wings, before moving to Vancouver to cover the Canucks for CISL 650. A lifelong goaltender, he has been teaching the position for over a decade. He is currently an instructor for Pro4 Sports, and is the goaltending consultant for the BCHL's Surrey Eagles.

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