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Coaching the Coaches: Naming and Relieving your Starter

Coaching the Coaches: Naming and Relieving your Starter

This is part nine in a series of articles from guest author Ryan Honick, President GDI USA. Coaching the Coaches looks not at developing goaltending coaches, instead it looks to provide some support for the many coaches who have little or no experience dealing with the men and women they rely on the most – their goalies. Ryan regularly visits with coaches at all levels to share his insights, a taste of which you will get from this series.

This issue is disgustingly mismanaged at all levels of play! I can hear my fellow goalie coaching screaming for this lesson to be learned by you head coaches. We secretly hope that your misguided philosophy on this keeps you up at night wondering if you made the right call for the last game or even that you lose sleep pondering for the next day’s game. If this were only an easy decision to make…

Naming Your Starter

This is the first question I am often asked when working with a coach. “When do I need to tell my goalie that he or she is starting? A Lot of over-analysis can be made here, but when the goalie is asked the same question, a single response is common. 24 hours in advance is the typical answer. I agree with this, as it provides the goalie with adequate preparatory time and also doesn’t give them too much room to dwell and over think the situation, commonly thought of as “Psyching themselves out”. While others want to know as early as possible, I have yet to hear from a goalie that preferred to be kept in the dark. Working with goalies all over the country, I often get a chance to see one of them play. What’s strange is that when I inquire as to if they are starting…they NEVER seem to know. Naming your starting goalie is an important step to success come game day. Imagine not naming the starting quarterback and starting pitcher ahead of time; the team misses a chance to rally behind its leader. [We did discuss the role of the goalie in part 2 of our series. Have you bought in?]

As a goalie coach, I personally do not want (or expect) the decision to fall on my shoulders as to who will start a game for my teams. I like to weigh-in on the decision and give any goalie feedback when possible. I work with the Green Bay Gamblers Coach Pat Mikesch and recently asked him his take on the conundrum. “In the USHL, picking a starting goalie is something that changes from game to game based off of many different things. For example, time between previous and upcoming games, the goalie’s results against opponents, and most importantly how the last game had gone for the goalie and team. I like to name the goalie as soon as I can leading up to game day, but I want practice competition to be part of the evaluation as well.”

Perhaps for a Mite, squirt, and peewee, a rotation is truly best. How can we develop ability at these young ages? By letting them play! I hope it’s not about wins until playoff time. USA Hockey’s ADM recommends no goaltenders at Mite (Atom), and all players try the position through PeeWee. Giving aspiring goalies a chance to skate out and learn the other side of the game can only help them as well. Beware of the die-hards that resist as we are probably better off just keeping them happy. If it’s in their blood, it isn’t going to change.

We all scrutinize the NHL coach’s decisions. For instance in this past 2015 playoff, why keep Corey Crawford in the net when a seemingly hotter Scott Darling is ready and able? The answer is a Stanley Cup. As coaches, we all play favorites, we have a sense of confidence and positivity in what we know; and a sense of doubt or negativity about what we do not. Veteran goalies earn longer leashes (Broduer anyone?) and rookies sometimes do not receive their chances. When a proven sits and an unknown plays, every opportunity to go back to the certainty (the sure thing) will be taken. Stick to what you know, don’t take risks. This can certainly pay off, like it did for Coach Q. But just as equally, what would have happened to the 2006 Hurricanes had they not shifted to an impressive young Cam Ward, or a largely unknown (to the fans) Patrick Roy in 1986? What is common in all cases however, is the communication between the coaching staff and the players. Sometimes surprises arise, but knowledge is power, give these goaltenders time to digest the situation, no matter the circumstances.

At the now common showcase events where 4-5 games must be played in 3-4 days, it is obviously impossible to give ample notice and I recommend letting them know ahead of the event that they have scheduled starts and that there are other games where the decision will be made as early as possible, once the staff has had time to consider the alternatives and/or get a sense for who gives the team the best chance to win.

If a goalie thinks he is the starter and becomes complacent, he will not likely respond well to the change in rotation once made. If a goalie thinks he is the backup, he will not likely respond to the sudden change either. I also feel it is fair to inform both goalies separately of your plans at all times, rather than just notifying the starting goalie that’s going. The backup should never hear second hand that he is riding the bench. Don’t keep players guessing, keep them competing!

Our Mental Conditioning Coach Ted Monnich adds this insight. “A goaltender cannot control a coach’s decision to play him, or to replace him in a game. What a goalie can control is his attitude and his work ethic. A goaltender with a positive, mature, and improvement-driven attitude often excels due to his effort and enhanced work ethic. As such, the intrinsically motivated goalie tends to succeed. His efforts and resulting success do not control the coach’s decisions, however, they can influence them.”

Do you stick to your method, or do you play mind games? I have witnessed a great travesty in youth hockey when two goalies take to the game warmup without knowing which one of them will be playing 3-5 minutes later. I’m told this is to see which one looks sharper, or to keep them both on their toes. STOP THIS IMMEDIATELY! This is nothing short of absurd. I blame these coaches for being indecisive children that are afraid to make a bad call. Grow up and name your starting goalie ahead of time, deal with the possible repercussions like any other coaching decision you might make through the course of the game. Why are we adding stress to a young person’s life? The position itself carries weight and pressure, why are we adding to it? Alleviate it, keep them positive, keep these young goalies feeling confident, calm, focused, not wondering when the next chance to play will come. As I said, there is an immediate and very large let down when a goalie learns that he is not playing. It is an embarrassment. It is a disappointment. Get that out of the way a day ahead of time. Let them deal with the reality of it and arrive at the rink as part of the team, knowing and understanding the situation, accepting it, and embracing their role for the game. That job could quickly turn into playing in relief. When a goalie sits on the bench sulking and hating you for not playing, hoping that their parents will talk to you after the game so that you will understand their displeasure, do you think that they are a capable backup goalie? Are they prepared to play for you? Are they the biggest cheerleader on the bench, banging their blocker glove on the boards with every good play? …Never! They learn to hate the position for all of its challenges. Being a backup is part of becoming a starter, and goalies must learn to manage this role and learn from it as opportunity to grow.

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Relieving Your Starter

This hot topic really has a simple solution that we all know. There are 3 times to make an in-game change. After an injury, to wake the team up and provide a momentum swing, or the goalie deserves to be replaced. The later is the complicated one in that it is a matter of opinion. We’ll address that in a moment. An injury is obvious, but it’s worth note to tell your back-ups that they are always “One play away” from having to enter the game. The momentum swing angle is interesting, as it typically means that the team is down by a few and that the goalie has not been capable of keeping them in it. A cold goalie entering is certainly a gamble. As a former goalie myself, I never appreciated this reason given to me. I always felt like it was letting me off easy and a means of not hurting my feelings. As a coach, I still don’t buy this philosophy much. I believe letting the goalie overcome adversity and deal with the challenge of solidifying his play and allowing the team to claw back into the game has more value. How about we bench a skater for their lack of effort, rather than bench the goalie that apparently “couldn’t do anything about those goals”?

Now, the performance of the goalie can be cause for dismissal from any game. Have a plan, or policy, in place before the season begins so that the goalies have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, as well as what to expect. This should not be unrealistic goals, like allowing 1 or 2 goals and we pull our goaltender. Again, added pressure. In the end, the choice is the Head Coaches’ to make. Coaches make a lot of difficult decisions throughout the year and this is certainly no different. What is critical is that the goalie learns from the situation. Leave him be at the immediate time. Don’t just send the Assistant Coach in each time to soften the blow. The goalie will respect the Head’s effort more than anyone else’s. Look for an opportunity to discuss the decision with him, perhaps at a stoppage in play or at an intermission. Waiting until the goalie is half way out the door after the game can cause a lot of emotion to boil over. If parents have already weighed in, look out! Upon review with them, do your best to get the goalie accountable for his actions, but be sure to consider the team’s play that may have led to the change. Review the goal from the net outward. The goal went in backdoor high glove, for example. The goalie remembers the puck crossing the line and sees things from their own eyes. Be clear on what responsibilities the defense and forwards did not live up to. Was the goal solely the fault of the goaltender, or was their mutual blame to go around? The goalie is in a venerable state and what you say next may affect them dramatically. Listen to their side of the story and take all aspects into account. You are in charge and must hold true to your decision, so be sure it is justified. What goalie’s need to remember is that everyone has a poor performance now and then, and that they must learn from this opportunity and prepare for it again. Try not to become known as a goalie killer, as it may haunt your ability to land one down the road.

We’ll expand on the goaltender’s accountability both in games and in practices and hopefully get them to see things your way in our next issue.

 See the other articles in this series:

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Role of the Goalie
Part 3: Save Process and Positioning
Part 4: Five Ways Goals Go In
Part 5: Drills
Part 6: Battle Mindset
Part 7: The Transition System
Part 8: Communication/Buy-In/Style

Ryan Honick is a Professional Goaltending Consultant and is currently the Goaltending Coach for the USHL Green Bay Gamblers and USPHL Jersey Hitmen. Both of these team’s goalies won their respective Goaltender of the Year awards last season. He has previously coached in the ECHL for 6 seasons, along the way working with 4 goaltenders that have now played in the NHL. He consults regularly with College, USHL, NAHL, USPHL and Tier 1 teams within the United States. Ryan has also worked with the 2015, 2014, 2012, and 2010 ECHL Goaltender of the Year award winners, the 2014 USPHL-Elite Goaltender of the Year, and the 2011 EJHL Goaltender of the Year. Based in Washington DC, and Chicago, IL, GDI USA operates year-round and provides clients with a full gamut of programming. Contact Ryan directly for more information.

Ryan Honick
President GDI USA

C: (757) 641-9515
E: [email protected]

About The Author


  1. Richard St-Onge

    Great article! One thing I would add is that your back up should treat every game, even though he doesn’t get the start, as if he/she were preparing for it. Giving the starter all the space and limelight won’t help his psychy and taking some shots on the ice during warm up won’t suffice.

    Goalies need their own game plan and it should become routine. More than often, the goalies only have each other and themselves to fall back on for moral support as they are often misunderstood. We goalies don’t see the game the same way the players in front of us do, as the coaches might not either.

    No doubt it’s a hard task but it’s also part of the growing process, for goalie and coach.

  2. BeninLondon

    When relieving a younger goalie I also think it is important to know your goalie. By this I mean you should be able to notice when a goalie has mentally checked out. Personally in a situation like that I have always been a fan of the pull and replace. Get the goalie out of the game, get a chance to talk to them and settle them down and then put them right back in to finish their job. I am sure there are some that don’t agree fully but I would love to hear other points of view.

    • David Hutchison

      Your suggestion is an important difference from just “pull”….you send him back out to finish the job. I personally don’t have a problem with that. Much different than just (essentially) benching him for the rest of the game for not playing well – something we would not do for a position player.

  3. Ryan

    I would rather know like the day of the game and not 24 hours before. I would like to be able to sleep not knowing, instead of knowing I am starting and dwelling on it.