Editor’s Note: InGoal Magazine contributor Elias Rassi talked to John Gibson for an in-depth feature after winning the 2013 World Junior Championships, but due to a publishing conflict it never ran. With Gibson back in the spotlight after posting an impressive shutout in his playoff debut Saturday, it’s a perfect time to finally share that background on a rising star once cut from his high school team:
Anyone who was surprised by how well 20-year-old rookie John Gibson played while pitching a 28-save shutout in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut on Saturday night simply hasn’t seen the impressive young goaltender play enough.
Just as anyone shocked that Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau would turn to the first-year pro for Game 4 against ahead of veteran Jonas Hiller after fellow rookie Frederik Andersen was injured in Game 3 against the Los Angeles Kings wasn’t paying close enough attention to Anaheim’s goaltending rotation late in the regular season. As Boudreau said before giving Gibson his first NHL start against the Vancouver Canucks on April 7 despite being in a tight race to win the Pacific Division, it’s not like Anaheim was turning to an unknown.
“It’s not like you are calling up a backup from the American Hockey League,” Boudreau said. “We have all the confidence in the world because he is a stud goalie. He can play. So we have no hesitation. I don’t think the stage will bother him at all.“
Gibson ho-hummed his way through an 18-save shutout in his NHL debut against the Canucks, and two nights later Boudreau tabbed him for a showdown with the San Jose Sharks with the Pacific Division – and not having to play the Kings in the first round – on the line. Gibson responded with 36 saves in a 5-2 win, and Boudreau knew right away a playoff start was possible.
“Quite frankly, the San Jose game to me, which was for first place in the division and really important, he came in as cool as a cucumber. We thought at that point that we could start him,” Boudreau said after Gibson’s 2-0 win Saturday made him the youngest goalie in NHL history to record a shutout in his playoff debut. “The confidence I have in this young man is great. I knew he was going to do a good job.”
Former USA Hockey National Team Development Program goaltending coach Joe Exter knows exactly how Boudreau felt.
It’s the same feeling the United States coaching staff had at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships.
“We knew we had the best goalie in the world,” Exter said. “We saw the development take place over the course of four years. We knew.”
By the end of the tournament, Exter and the US coaches had been proven right. Gibson backstopped the Americans to a gold medal, while being named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, first-team all-star, and best goaltender after posting the lowest goals-against average (1.36) and best save percentage (.955). Gibson, who was picked 39th by Anaheim in the 2011 NHL Draft, then helped the senior US National Team win bronze against experienced pros and NHL stars at the 2013 World Championships, finishing with a .951 save percentage.
Not bad for a goaltender once cut from his high school hockey team in his native Pittsburgh.
InGoal caught up with Gibson after the World Junior gold to talk about his roots in goal, and how he evolved into a projected NHL star.
“I started skating at a very young age, around three of four and I became a defenseman when I started playing organized hockey,” Gibson recalled. “During one of the first games, I started helping the goalie by actually making saves. My parents then said, ‘why don’t you just play goalie?’ So I jumped in the rotation and stuck with it ever since.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Gibson cheered for his hometown Penguins and perennial all-star Mario Lemieux. But his favourite goaltender was Ed Belfour for the same reason why most goalies loved Ed Belfour: The mask.
“I really liked his mask, but also the way he played the game,” said Gibson. “He was a fun goalie to watch.”
During his minor hockey days, Gibson did not play at the highest levels. He played AA when most of his peers played AAA.
In fact, he was cut from his high school hockey team at Baldwin.
“I used it as motivation. I think it’s important not to get too caught up about what level you’re playing and just stick to your game,” he said. “If you just focus on getting better every day and working hard, don’t worry about what you can’t control, things will take care of themselves.”
Gibson did just that. He attended various goaltending schools – namely Rick Heinz Goalie School and Shane Clifford Goalie School – and began to work on what would become his style.
“I learned early on that my strengths were my size, athleticism and ability to play the puck,” said Gibson. “All of my goalie coaches helped me develop a style that I was comfortable with. I think it’s important to feel comfortable in the net and not try to force anything to happen.”
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, Gibson clearly has the size that would make any scout or coaching staff beam at the thought of him turning pucks aside for their team. However, when he was first scouted at a tournament in Detroit in 2009 by Kitchener Rangers scout Ed Roberts, a 15-year old Gibson was still “very, very raw.”
But as Roberts noted at the time, while Gibson was not the most technical goalie, he used his size effectively and found ways to stop the puck.
Watching Gibson play for the Rangers in Ontario Hockey League and at the World Juniors, you could see how he utilizes his strengths to turn in highlight reel saves. What most people see as raw technique is actually a style Gibson adheres to with confidence for one simple fact.
“My job is to stop the puck. At the end of the day, that’s what I have to do so that the team has a chance to win the game,” Gibson said.
Stop the puck. That’s it. There is nothing more or less to it than that. It is one of the most simple and honest ways to approach goaltending. but to get to this point, Gibson endured countless hours of repetition after repetition building on the most basic, fundamental skills related to goaltending. From there, as a goaltender gets older and begins to play at a higher level of hockey where the speed inevitably gets quicker, they are able to rely on their fundamentals in their crease work and ability to make saves.
Without a strong fundamental base in the most crucial areas such as foot work, puck tracking, understanding depth and positioning, a goaltender runs the risk of not being able to keep up.
Mike Ayers, another former USNTDP goaltending coach, recalled just how this process worked for Gibson.
“John started out playing at the top of the paint to make the most out of his size and athleticism,” said Ayers. “As he continued to develop the fundamental skills, he was able to make certain adjustments to how he managed depth control and not fall victim to being exposed.”
It wasn’t until Gibson joined the USNTD that he really began to develop the on- and off-ice skills required to be an elite level athlete. To understand things from a player’s perspective, you must first understand what the program does to recruit the best players.
“The selection process is grueling. What the coaches go through, what the players go through, it’s very tough,” said Exter, now an assistant coach at Ohio State. “The coaching and scouting staff almost literally scour every rink in the country looking for the best athletes. From there, we develop a training program suited specifically for these athletes and provide them with the necessary tools for success.”
Exter agreed with Gibson’s self-analysis about the strengths to his game, but said one thing sets Gibson apart from the rest.
“He’s got it up here,” Exter said, pointing to his head. “He’s got poise.”
Exter is quick to say the reason Gibson has been so successful is because he has a “very high hockey IQ.”
“They say that players need to have hockey IQ, but so do goalies. If you watch Gibby, he is very smart in the crease. He makes good decisions,” continued Exter. “The success USA Hockey has had over the past decade is testament that the process works. The U-17 and U-18 were the same team, which Gibson was part of, and these kids grew together. With Gibby, we saw his development grow over four years.”
Ayers, who now works as an assistant at Boston College, agreed.
“John has been a leader on and off the ice from Day One. His experience with USA Hockey as part of the U-17 and U-18 team, and last year at the world juniors, prepared him to deal with the expectations of this year’s tournament,” said Ayers.
It helped prepare Gibson for any stage, no matter how bright.
“I represented my country every day as part of the USNTD,” Gibson said. “Each day we put on the colours, the jersey, and we represented USA Hockey. … Nothing compares to the pressure at the World Juniors, but we were on a mission to win. After joining the USNTD at 16 years old, you learn how to deal with things happening off the ice a little differently. It was the first time that I was away from home. I had to learn to deal with off-ice things on my own, such as school and homework. The expectations were high once you joined the USNTD. But, without that, and without the training, we wouldn’t be here today. It was a great experience and the relationships built will last a lifetime.
“I learned how to play the game the right way there,” Gibson said.
Play the game the right way. The honest and simple way. Just stop the puck.
That “right way,” Exter said, is to develop a system together with the goalies, one that they are most confident in. After all, confidence breeds success. and in times of doubt a goalie has their own self-confidence to rely on to raise their game to the next level.
Minor tweaks were made as necessary, but nothing dramatic. After all, goaltending is a game of feel. It’s about making mistakes and then knowing how to properly react and adjust to those mistakes. The focus is heavy on the mental aspect, which helped Gibson develop such great poise.
“The truth is if a goalie believes in their ability, they can achieve great things. We also want to make sure that they do not fall victim to their biggest enemy: themselves,” cautioned Exter. “We often talk about having strong fundamentals. Well, that applies off the ice too. If you take an honest approach to being a good athlete, you work hard, you remain committed, you pay the price, you make the sacrifices, chances are that good things will happen.
“It’s the same off the ice: be polite, stay close with your family, work hard and have faith. There are two kinds of scars in hockey: emotional and physical. You can get over most physical scars. It’s the emotional ones that you have to really overcome if you want success at the next level.”The fundamentals Exter and Gibson refer to are a staple in the Warren Strelow Goaltending Mentor Program. Established by USA Hockey, the program laid the foundation for a consistent nationwide goaltending system to recruit, develop and produce elite-level goaltenders.
Named after one of North America’s greatest goaltending mentors, the goal of the Warren Strelow program is to develop raw athletic talent into fundamentally sound, multidimensional goaltenders. The program, which just happened to be running during Gibson’s playoff debut, is also designed to develop the goaltenders mentally to help each goaltender face all of the challenges the position presents.
“It’s a group of elite coaches and volunteers committed to USA Hockey’s mission to have the best goalies on the ice,” Ayers said
Ayers, a former collegiate and professional goaltender, is focussed on continuing to build on the strong foundation that has earned USA Hockey the recognition of offering a premier development program for goaltenders.
“It’s important as a coaching staff to evaluate every goaltender possible that is brought to our attention based on good principles,” said Ayers. “Without regional coaches, goaltending mentors, or volunteers who take the time away from their day-to-day responsibilities, whether it’s coaching their own teams or daily lives, the success that we have had over the past few years would not be possible.”
Ayers also noted there is a shared belief by the staff in the vision of what is required for goaltenders to reach their potential.
“Athleticism is key, but we also look for character, coachability and work ethic,” he said.
The Ducks appear to have all those things in Gibson, who has a simple answer when asked for advice to young goalies.
“Don’t be common. Don’t blend in. You can’t be average. Just play the game. Just stop the puck,” Gibson said.
By doing the latter in Anaheim, Gibson doesn’t have to worry about the former.
As standouts go, few are doing it better than the Ducks rookie.