Goaltending in the UK’s Elite League
You just never know where goaltending will take you. One day you’re playing in the Central League in Texas and the next thing you know, you’re in central England, more worried about how you’re going to drive on the “wrong” side of the road to get to the rink than about stopping pucks when you get there.
That’s the latest stop on goaltender Brett Jaeger’s journey as the 27-year-old moves his game to Europe this season to play for the EIHL Coventry Blaze.
Jaeger, a Manning, AB native, spent the last 3 seasons with the Texas Brahmas and was pivotal to the team winning the CHL championship two seasons ago. He’s also played in the ECHL and spent some time with the AHL Houston Aeros last season.
Now he’s leading the Elite League with a 2.48 GAA and 0.926 save percentage, two shutouts, and is currently backstopping the Blaze on an 11-game win streak.
But Jaeger really turned heads last Sunday when he made a diving glove save that coach Paul Thompson said was possibly one of the best saves he’d ever seen. Take a look after the jump!
Since I knew him from his time with the Aeros, I thought I’d check in and see what he had to say not only about that save but also about what it’s like to play in England and what the Elite League is all about. Here are some excerpts from our conversation last week.
That save caused quite a flurry of excitement. Can you tell us more about it?
I was caught out of position a little, challenging and the guy made a heck of a pass across the rink. Then the guy one-timed it and I just reacted and dove over head first. It was kind of in slow motion for me and after that I don’t really know what happened. I was just lucky to catch it.
One thing I do really remember is I was watching it all the way into my glove. I did a little roll at the end there. That’s from my head turning watching the puck right into the glove.
It’s fun to make those kinds of saves but you don’t wan to make them every night. It shows you a little bit out of position and you’d rather just slide over and take it in the chest. But sometimes it’s fun to come up with those.
How did you end up going to the UK?
Our coach Paul Thompson and Bernie (Mark Bernard, GM of the AHL Rockford Ice Hogs) are very good friends. And we had Joe Palmer (Rockford property) with us last year in Texas, so Wade Flaherty (Chicago Blackhawks Developmental Goaltending Coach) was down working with us a bunch.
I think word just got out with those guys and Paul talked to them about it and Bernie called me and told me how it works over here. And then Paul called me and we just figured it was the right time to come over.
You hear bad stories about guys going to different teams that fold and you’re out of a job and you never know what you’re getting yourself into over here. But this team’s been around for 10 years and won the championship a number of years (including last season) and is one of the best teams to play for over here. I figured why not.
Also, we also play for the Continental Cup, which is between the other championship teams in other European leagues, coming up here at the end of November. I figured that’s a good way to showcase myself to some different teams in different countries. You never know what can happen by word of mouth or the right person sees you.
Brett Jaeger – Photo courtesy of Mark Tredgold
You play on international-sized ice over there, right?
Over here some rinks are the international rinks and other rinks are a little bit smaller. I think only one team has more of a North American ice sheet and that’s in Cardiff.
It’s a lot bigger and there’s more ice for guys to make plays. As a goalie you can’t get caught too far out challenging, because guys will make that pass right around you. It’s been a little bit to get used to the angles. You hear about European goalies coming over to North America getting used to the NHL size. Well, same for us going over to Europe. We grew up playing in the smaller rinks and now you have to adjust your game to the bigger rinks.
You pretty much got off the plane and had to start playing. What was your first big impression?
We flew in, got in in the afternoon and the next day we had a practice. The day after that, we played Belfast in an exhibition game, which is one of the top teams in the league. So yeah, one practice and you jump into it.
The first thing I really noticed was, you have 10 or 11 imports on every team, so most guys on every team have played East Coast league or American League. Some guys have played some NHL. You know the guys that are imports are good players, but the British players really surprised me by how skilled they are. All of them can make plays and shoot the puck pretty well, so I think that was one of the biggest surprises is how good the British players are.
I was surprised by how high some of the GAAs were below the top 5 or so goalies in the league. What are your impressions of the goalies over there and are they mainly North Americans or are there some British goalies?
Everyone’s pretty much from North America, though Belfast has Stephen Murphy, and he’s actually a really good British goalie. He’s a smaller guy like me and just solid. Plays his angles good. Quick, he’s athletic.
There’s a lot of offense in this league and the guys that are having the tougher GAAs face a lot of 2-on-1s and breakaways. It’s a tough league to play in as a goalie. A lot of the scores are high, with 6-4 games, 7-5 games, so your stats take a little bit of a hit.
So maybe defenses aren’t as solid?
Well, a lot of teams run and gun. They like to play that style of game. There’s a lot of offense and even the d-men like to get involved, so that’s just how it works over here.
Sounds like an exciting style at least.
Yeah, there’s a lot of puck possession. The defense carry it out and there’ll be hinge plays and stuff like that. They come at you with 5 guys. So it’s a little bit different from back home where guys get over the blue line coming down the wing, they’ll shoot it and you’ve got 2 guys driving.
Over here, with a little bigger ice surface, the guy carrying the puck will fake a shot and pass it all the way across the ice for a one-timer. So the scenarios are just a bit different.
Your team has 10 wins (now 11) in a row. Sounds like the season is going well after a slow start.
Yeah, once you get the first couple of wins out of the way, then you don’t think about getting the wins, you just think about going out there and playing solid.
That’s all you can really do as a goalie is give your team a chance to win and not think. Once you start thinking and over-analyzing stuff is when you get yourself into trouble.
I like to focus on three things: Puck focus, quick hands/quick feet, good positioning. Those are my three little reminders I focus on every night and not worry about, ‘we need to win, we need to do this.’
Jaeger flashes the leather – Photo courtesy of Mark Tredgold
How does the league compare to North American leagues?
It’s tough to say. It’s a little bit different here. There’s a lot of talent. A lot of guys have played in the American League and some older guys who have played in countries like Austria and Germany. Some pretty good resumes.
I would say it’s above the East Coast league, just because the older guys can make the plays they make. In the East Coast league or Central League, you’ve got some young guys out there who will come right down the wall and you can come out at them and be 3 or 4 feet above your crease and take one in the stomach and get no rebound.
Whereas here, you might be able to get away with that once and then they’ll pump fake you and go around you and put it in or they’ll make a good pass on you.
Your playing partner is 19-year-old British-native Tom Murdy. How is he to work with and are you finding yourself in a mentor role with him being so young?
He’s a great guy, always asking questions. We’ll stay out after practice and do some goalie stuff and work on some skating. He’s been great to work with. He’s eager to learn. He’s a young guy. He moves really well. He’s not the biggest guy, kinda like me, but he plays a positional game and he’s pretty smooth in there.
He’s going to be a good goalie in the future. They’re trying to develop some British goalies and I think he’s going to be one of the top guys coming up in the next 2-3 years. So yeah, it’s kind of like having a little mentorship, but it’s pretty cool to work with a guy like that who wants to learn and improve, so I’ll do anything I can to help him out.
I know you’re a fan of Finnish goalies in terms of their style as well as their preparation, which involves lots of stretching. Do you do any yoga? And what else do you do to prepare?
I have done yoga in the past. In summers I’ll do it once or twice a week to get that flexibility going and the deep breathing, too. I think that helps the body relax, and when the body’s relaxed your muscles relax and you can move quicker and react better. Fatigue doesn’t set in when you’re breathing properly.
A lot of guys get all jacked up before the game and they forget to breathe, which is a major thing. When you’re breathing, everything functions properly, your mental state’s just a lot better, and you can react to the play and the puck better.
The stretching too, I do 10 minutes of dynamic warm-up and 25-30 minutes of stretching before a game. It just relaxes the body and prepares it to go out and play and let things flow.
We play every weekend, and I play pretty much every game, so during the season I just do some bike stuff, some lactic acid flushes, stuff like that after games and practices. And I stretch every day, just 15-20 minutes before practices, just targeting the hips and the groins and hamstrings and all that.
But in the summers I do a lot of agility stuff. Quickness, ladders, legs a couple of times a week, sprints and stuff like that. It’s a combination of stuff I do in the summer (with the guidance of goalie coach Pasco Valana of Elite Goalies), but I always remember to stretch do all that stuff. I really got big on that 3 or 4 years ago. I’ve been pretty fortunate not to have any bad injuries.
How are the fans over there?
It’s funny here, the people that come to the games here are completely nuts about it. We went to Glasgow the other night and there was probably 70 of our fans in the stands that made the 6 hour trip up there and drove back the next day where we had a game at home.
So the people that like the game over here are fanatical about it. I think we get 3000 fans a night and Belfast, they can get 5000 fans. They’ve got their chants going and different songs come on and they’ve got some hand action, and then another song comes on and they’re clapping and swaying away there.
So, it’s pretty cool. It’s a great atmosphere. Fans back in North America, if a fight breaks out or we score a goal, they’ll stand up and hoot and holler but these guys will be doing their chants and stuff while we might be on the power play in their end and they can sense a goal. Stuff like that. It’s a little bit different but it’s a great atmosphere to play in.
They know the game pretty well, too. It’s kind of a mix between the North American style game and a very European game. Guys hit in this league, and there’ll be fights. Whereas other leagues in Europe, you go after a guy and hit him, you might get a penalty for hitting him too hard. But here they’ll let you play the game and hit guys and fight and all that.
Moving from North America to the English Midlands must involve some culture shock. How’s that adaptation going?
They do drive on the other side of the road. I think was more nervous about driving than I was playing for a while there. I drove from the rink to home and back to the rink and that’s it for the first little bit. Going to the grocery store the one day was more nerve-racking than playing in a game. It takes a while to get used to it.
My wife has driven a bit but not a lot and we’re trying to get her used to that, but playing in Texas the last 3 years, the area had a lot of restaurants, anything you wanted. Mexican, Italian, steaks. Here you have to hunt around. The one time I’ve had Mexican here was in London and it’s a huge city and you can get whatever you want there.
It took a while to get used to everything. You know, the money. They’ve got the 50 cent coin, the 25 cents, the cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, and then they’ve got the 2 cent coin. I can’t explain why they have a 2 cent coin. I still don’t know the coins very well.
For the first week there, the jet lag was pretty bad. But now I think we’ve settled in, we’ve had some family over visiting, some friends and stuff and we’ve shown them around a bit. So we’re enjoying it so far.
Thanks for your time, Brett, and good luck to you and the Blaze the rest of the way!