An Everest-Like Climb
The road to the top of the professional hockey world is a very long and bumpy one. It requires a lot of talent, hard work, dedication, perseverance, timing and luck. This article will discuss the Everest-like mountain climb up which all goaltenders must journey to get to the top.
Regardless of your fate in hockey, we all start and end in the same place. We all start in House League and everyone, including the Hall of Famers, if they continue playing, end in the Beer Leagues. What happens between these two ends of the spectrum is based on many variables. Some, you control yourself. Others, leave your ambitious dream to the fate, circumstances and decisions of other people. The diagram provided illustrates the long and difficult climb which any young goaltender must navigate to reach the top of the goaltending profession. Let us look at this journey in some detail.
Everything begins in minor hockey which can range in caliber depending on community size and player availability. Minor hockey is also the longest and arguably, the best part of the journey. It is here that your love of the game grows, many life lessons are learned and lasting friendships are forged. It is during these formative years that most of your skill development will and must happen. You must develop all the specific technical skills and attributes necessary to be successful as a goaltender (Ed. note: although, like Chris Osgood you never stop learning). It is not really important at what level you play to begin with since many excellent players come from smaller communities and towns. What is important is access to a lot of ice time and quality instruction; however, at some point if you are progressing well you may think about relocating to a ‘AAA’ centre to play against better competition and gain some exposure for yourself. The reality is that almost all goaltenders who go on to higher levels are initially seen in the ‘AAA’ stream.
During the formative years, training cannot be limited to technical development. Becoming an elite goaltender requires much more. Scouts and recruiters are searching far more frequently first for strong athletes with a great attitude. As the saying goes, “technique can be taught and improved, but attitude cannot.” You should also be developing general athletic skills such a agility, balance and improved coordination through a multi-sport approach. You actually will help your progress as a goaltender by participating in a wide variety of sports. You will encounter different auditory and kinesthetic stimuli that will develop your neuro-muscular systems. Time away from the arena is also part of any well planned 52-week periodized developmental program.
Being introduced to sports psychology is also beneficial to a goaltender’s progress and long-term survival. Unfortunately, this is an area ignored by many coaches. Why? They either do not understand the merits of time invested in this part of athletic growth or do not have any training or knowledge of the discipline. Confidence, focus, re-focus, and dealing with adversity are but some of the topics with which a goaltender must become well-versed.
A final area of importance is actually learning how to play the game! Technique is a wonderful thing but reading, reacting and anticipation are an entirely different set of attributes. There are mechanical drills for practicing techniques. There are tactical drills which will teach you (through failure and success) to look for off-puck options and to develop feel and anticipation. Finally, competition and experience will eventually lead the goaltender to see the game going on in front of him/her.
After many years of minor hockey, you arrive at your major junior draft year. This is a crossroads point for many players. Some lose interest in the game while others gain greater interest in things such as high school sports, earning money, partying with friends and of course the opposite gender. This is also the time when you will start, or will have already started, the transition from multisport athlete to a sport specialist. Due to anatomical, physiological and endocrine changes to your body typical of this age, you may now start to place a greater emphasis on off-ice training while continuing your on ice skill development. For those players who have worked diligently you hope that your name will be called on draft day. However, even if you are selected, it is important to understand that most goaltenders drafted by CHL (WHL/OHL/QMJHL) clubs will never play in these leagues.
For goalies going undrafted, DO NOT give up! THERE ARE PLENTY OF OTHER OPTIONS. The road remains a difficult one but part of becoming successful in hockey is the persistence to continue in the face of adversity. If you really want it, you will have to fight for it. Remember, some goaltenders start with great promise and fade with time (To this effect, I am reminded of an expression I learned from one of my surgical professors who said, “today’s promise is tomorrow’s disappointment!”). Other goaltenders may be overlooked or are under-rated at draft time. They nevertheless persist through the system, and continue to develop and grow. With success, they eventually go on to greater opportunities.
In Canada, opportunities exist from junior ‘A’ through junior ‘C’. The majority of these clubs allow anyone to try out for a fee. In many cases this is just a fund-raising opportunity for the clubs since they have pre-determined the majority of their roster including goaltenders prior to the commencement of training camp. All you can do is go out and try to get someone’s attention and sometimes a diamond in the rough is found.
In the United States there are equally viable junior options including the NAHL (North American Hockey League) and USHL (United States Hockey League). The USHL is the only US-based Tier I hockey league. The league is presently thriving and boasts an ever growing number of Division I scholarship recipients and NHL draftees, including goaltenders.
The NAHL is the largest US-based junior ‘A’ league. Its mandate is to showcase midget and junior-aged players for subsequent progression to collegiate and professional ranks. The league’s success includes goaltenders presently employed in the NHL, including one Hobey Baker award winner.
Two final options for undrafted players include both US and Canadian-based prep school programs or returning to minor hockey at the midget level.
Conversely, if you do get drafted by a major junior club–that’s great! However, just remember a few things:
- There are only two goalies on each team so there are not a lot of positions available with which to begin.
- You will usually only see a couple of under-aged goaltenders good enough to crack these lineups. This tells you that the CHL is generally a league for slightly older goalies. This is because the competitive level is higher and it is a serious business. You could potentially be facing players four to five years older than you. This can be very difficult especially if you have a poor team in front of you!! If you decide to go this route you should be prepared to work very hard in practice and sit on the bench most of your rookie season to pay your dues. However, major junior hockey is generally the quickest and most direct route to the professional ranks.
- If you play, you are now ineligible for the NCAA. The reason a player loses NCAA eligibility by playing major junior hockey is that this level is NOT considered amateur athletics.
Despite being drafted, the possibility also exists of playing junior ‘A’ or junior ‘B’ hockey for a club affiliated with the major junior team by whom you were drafted. This option has worked out for many goaltenders. It provides you with the opportunity to play against higher caliber players and should allow for continued development since you are actually playing (and not riding the pines!). If you have a choice then play Junior ‘A’ and not below. Why? The caliber of play, the attitudes and expectations are always higher at junior ‘A’ than at lower levels. Furthermore, Junior ‘A’ clubs usually have larger budgets which allow for specialist coaches and daily ice-time versus no coaching and only one or two practices per week for a junior ‘B’ or ‘C’ team.
As illustrated in the diagram, many players also move back and forth between these lower level junior leagues and the CHL.
Eventually you arrive at your NHL eligible draft date. You could be playing at any level of junior or collegiate hockey but most players drafted come from the CHL, NCAA or from Europe. Once again, things may or may not go your way. You are getting closer to the top of the mountain and the competition is stiffer. The majority of goaltenders who play major junior, junior ‘A’, NCAA Division I or CIAU hockey will never get drafted to the NHL. Each club only has so many draft picks and a lot of time and effort is invested in trying to make the correct decisions. Some teams also prefer not to develop goaltenders and would rather obtain them through trade or free agency signings. This may lower the number of goaltenders selected. As mentioned, you also have to contend with an ever growing pool of goaltending talent available overseas. Some of these goalies will even be playing junior hockey in Canada or the United States under European import rules.
If your name is not called at draft time the journey can still continue. Undrafted goaltenders are frequently offered invitations to rookie camps as free agents. If you signed as a free agent you will have to start in a minor-pro league and work your way through the system by beating other guys into which clubs may have invested more originally. If you were playing in the WHL, OHL or QMJHL and you remain undrafted another option exists. You could take your educational package and attend a Canadian university with a solid CIAU hockey program and further your development and future opportunities while getting an education. Otherwise, professional opportunities may be available overseas. However, it is important to note that a CHL educational package is rendered null and void if, at any point, you sign any type of professional contract!! Undrafted NCAA Division I graduates can also explore minor-pro or foreign options once their eligibility has expired.
It is equally important to note that the majority of goaltenders that are drafted to the National Hockey League initially return to the junior ranks and ultimately have to battle in minor professional leagues just like their competitors signed through free agency.
Please look at the diagram and see some of the journeys other goaltenders have taken:
- Ray Emery started out in Junior ‘C’ hockey and eventually reached the OHL’s Sault St. Marie Greyhounds. He was drafted in the 4th round by the Ottawa Senators. He has played in the AHL,NHL and KHL.
- Thomas McCollom was playing Junior ‘B’ hockey in Buffalo. He had some success and went on to play major junior hockey in the OHL . He then played for the US National junior team and was drafted in the 1st round by the Detroit Red Wings. He continues his battle in the ECHL and AHL.
- Many great goaltenders including Grant Fuhr (1st round), Patrick Roy (3rd round) and Martin Brodeur (1st round) played elite minor hockey, were drafted to major junior clubs and then by NHL clubs. Their stories are well documented.
- Curtis Joseph was not drafted to the OHL. He played junior ‘A’ hockey in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Thereafter, he attended Notre Dame College (Prep School) in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. He received a scholarship to Wisconsin University (NCAA Division I) and after being bypassed in the NHL draft signed with the St. Louis Blues as a free agent.
- Mike Ouzas, a former OHL goaltender of the year, was not drafted to the NHL. He took his CHL educational package and attended the University of New Brunswick and won a CIAU national men’s hockey championship. He was given a free agent contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs and continues to battle in the AHL and ECHL.
- Jonas Hiller was a star in the Swiss Elite league and signed with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent. He is presently their starting goaltender.
- Jaroslav Halak, a Slovakian national was drafted in the 9th round by the Montreal Canadiens. He played in the ECHL, AHL and eventually made it to the NHL.
- Carey Price (1st round) had a successful major junior career prior to being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. He won a Calder Cup championship in the AHL prior to arriving in the NHL.
- Marty Turco (5th round) and Ed Belfour (free agent) both played NCAA Division I hockey prior to becoming NHL goaltenders.
- Philip Grubauer, a German national, completed his major junior career in the OHL as an import. He won the 2010 Memorial Cup as a member of the Windsor Spitfires. He was drafted by the Washington Capitals (4th round) .
- Ty Conklin and Dan Ellis played in the USHL prior to moving on to collegiate and then professional careers.
- Several goaltenders including Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings) and Hobey Baker award winner Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) developed in the NAHL prior to moving up the goaltending ranks. They are currently the starting goaltenders for their respective clubs.
Everything at the junior level and beyond is about winning and your opportunities, or the lack thereof, are all performance-based. At the truly elite level, goaltenders have a combination of size, great mobility, excellent technique and are highly competitive in nature. The difference between making it over the “Hillary Step” (Everest reference) and reaching the summit of the profession is very difficult. Like Mount Everest with its quickly changing weather, the window of opportunity is often also a narrow one in goaltending. It is a difficult life of two-way contracts, one week contracts, one game contracts, and opportunities that rightly or wrongly can seem more than a little unfair. You may earn no more than $300 per week and you can be replaced in a second’s notice without explanation. You may travel from small town to small town on a bus and get nothing for dinner except a couple of slices of pizza or a sub sandwich. You live out of a suitcase and may leave loved ones behind making family life difficult at best. You hope for an injury to provide you with an opportunity to advance but an injury may just as well end it for you. As you can see by the diagram, and personal stories provided, there are many way to goaltending’s summit. The odds of making it to the top of the profession are slim. While fortunately the journey is not life-threatening but it is nevertheless an exhausting Everest-like climb.
In conclusion, I am reminded of the personal story of Rick Knickle. Mr. Knickle played 17 seasons of minor-professional hockey for 18 different clubs in 5 different leagues. In February of 1993 his persistence was rewarded when he was called up by the LA Kings to replace an injured Kelly Hrudey. He won his first NHL start versus the Tampa Bay Lightening , ultimately playing only 14 NHL games in total. He was quoted as saying, “After all these years in the minors, playing in every little town and all those bus rides, it was all worth it.”
NB: I wish to thank my friend Mitch Korn of the Nashville Predators for making valuable suggestions subsequent to the initial draft of this article!
Everest photo thanks to