British Goalie Trying to Help Country’s Goaltending
James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail recently published a brilliant piece on the falling standards of Canadian goaltending. You can read the full article here (and I strongly recommend that you do), but in short Mirtle looks at how nations like Sweden and Finland changed their approach to the position, and why Canada is fallen behind as a result.
One particular part stuck out for me:
“The Finns invested in developing goalies after realizing they could be a great equalizer for a small country.”
A small nation, investing in goaltending? Great Britain is a small nation (in hockey terms), but the lack of investment in goaltending has been a bugbear for British puck stoppers for years now.
There are those who are trying to change attitudes, however. Hull Stingray’s and Team GB netminder Ben Bowns is one of them.
“It’s something I’ve been saying for a while that I’d like to do. However, I’ve never really known what steps to take or what I needed to do,” Bowns told me. But the former Sheffield junior is now hopeful that the road to change is, slowly, being built.
“I’m working on something with Tony Hall (Technical Director for the North & Course Administrator for the EIHA), we’ll hopefully get to run some seminars to teach coaches the basics of goaltending, and how to run effective sessions specific to goaltenders,” he said. “We’d also like to help them understand how they can involve goalies more in regular practices too.
“It’s well known that the British game is lacking top British goalies. The position is overlooked in the UK, especially at junior level. Obviously being a goalie myself, and knowing how difficult it is for a Brit goalie, is one of the main reasons why I wanted to do something about it.”
While the project is still in its early stages, I asked Bowns where he hoped this new endeavour might lead.
“It would be nice to end up with an actual goalie coaching level system, a bit like Sweden, but that is along way away,” he said. “It would have to be approved by the IIHF, and before that has to by approved by the Head of Coaching for the EIHA. So obviously there’s a lot of things that could stop it happening. It’s the reason why we’re taking small steps, to try and get there.”
As a junior, Bowns grew up under the Sheffield development system, which has produced a number of top players and goaltenders in recent years. It was a system that put him in good stead for the future.
“I can’t begin to explain how good the Sheffield junior system was back when I was there,” Bowns said. “We had great coaches, and the players were of a high calibre too. You got great coaching, and from my point of view I was also (facing) shots from the best in the country every practice. You were never held back, but also never rushed.
“We had help a lot more often than at other clubs. Matt Darlow helped coach goalies a lot throughout the years I was there and older goalies like Alex Mettam would coach younger goalies like myself, and run goalie sessions. Then you’d combine that with the inter-club competition and you’re on to a winning system.”
His time in Sheffield also helped Bowns develop mentally, as well as technically.
“We had unbelievable head coaches like Jon Rowbotham, Martin White and Craig Webster. They made sure everyone stayed level headed and disciplined. When your winning all the time it’s easy to get ahead of yourself as a kid, but they kept our feet planted.”
Sadly Bowns doesn’t feel the same standards of excellence have been maintained in the Steel City, with external factors playing their part.
“Unfortunately, in my eyes, the club has changed now,” he said. “It’s sad to see. It’s not just at Sheffield, but in every club; the parents are too involved with their children and their children’s teams. When we were young, most parents stayed out of it and let the kids get on with it. I never experienced having a coach who had a son or daughter in the team. Now, you see kids not getting in the A team so parents throw a paddy and transfer their child to the next club, where they think they’ll get in that A team.”
Bowns is not the first player to notice the changing trend in ‘parental involvement,’ a problem which seems to becoming increasingly prominent both here and abroad.
“In the long run, 95 per cent of the time this has a negative effect on the kids career,” the Stingrays stopper said.
It’s hard to disagree.
“I know, without a doubt, that I wouldn’t be where I am now without my parents, and I’ll never be able to repay them for that. But the difference between them and current parents is that they let me fight my own battles on the ice,” Bowns continued. “If I didn’t make a team they told me to do something about and prove people wrong. That’s how it should be, let the kids do their bit on the ice, work hard and they’ll improve faster than if they’re mollycoddled!”
The opportunities Bowns had at Sheffield are not reflected at all clubs, however. At present only a few clubs, such as Widnes and Peterborough, have dedicated goalie coaches, and so for many summer clinics are vital to their development.
I first met Bowns as a teenager during my own playing days. We both attended the Great British Goaltending Clinic in Guildford, then run by former Great Britain netminder Joe Watkins. Bowns was one of the brightest goaltending prospects in the UK at the time, and has since gone on to much greater things, but Watkin’s clinics, which are still going under the guidance of Joe’s brother and Telford Head Coach Tom, have also helped Bracknell netminder Alex Mettam and former Coventry stopper Thomas Murdy during their career.
I asked Bowns about the importance of these clinics in the current landscape, and how he’d like their role to develop in the future.
“The role of goaltending clinics in the UK is huge. That’s why I decided to set up my own for next summer – the Ben Bowns International Goalie Clinic. I’ve employed coaches that I know are not only great goalies, but great coaches too,” he said. “The biggest bugbear for me with the UK goalie schools is that a goalie, or their parents, have to pay a lot of hard earned money to attend, they turn up and the standard of shooting, in my eyes, is often not adequate; except for a few shooters who may play EPL or NIHL and have kindly offered to help out. That’s why at the BBIG Clinic we’ll be using shooters that I would want shooting at me during my goalie specific practice and drills.”
“We’ve already had four Elite League players agree to come down and act as shooters at the camp, which I’m extremely happy about.”
Bowns has learned from his time as both a pupil and a coach at similar camps, and hopes that they form an integral part of the development system in the future:
“There’s always things at goalie camps that you agree with and things you don’t agree with; but on a whole the camps that run in this country are very, very good,” he said. “In the end, I think it would be ideal if all the goaltending clinics could link up with each other, rather than trying to compete with each other. But that is for another day and is a lot easier said than done.”
One area that is difficult to overcome is the cost. Hockey is expensive at the best of times, but goaltending equipment carries an extra financial cost. It’s a problem even in established nations like Canada and can provide a barrier to young boys and girls who want to try their hand at goaltending.
“Sheffield used to have a set of goalie equipment that people could use to see if they like playing the position first before their parents invested thousands,” Bowns said, adding, “That should be possible at every club. But the funding isn’t always there for that kind of thing. It would have to be given to the club by past goalies when they’ve grown out of it.”
It’s certainly a tough issue to overcome, as are a number of the hurdles British netminders have to deal with during their careers, but with players like Bowns trying to improve attitudes towards goaltending the future feels a little brighter.