Fewer Canadian goalies: Are Europeans better athletes?
With a sling over his shoulder holding his right arm securely against his chest, Stephane Waite is a perfect cautionary tale for goalie coaches everywhere.
Shooting 200 to 300 pucks a day for almost 30 years can lead to the operating table: Waite had one rotator cuff repaired and still needs to fix the other side.
“It’s so hard not to be out there shooting,” Waite said after putting Blackhawks backup Corey Crawford through some game-day drills from a distance players bench before Saturday’s 7-1 romp over the Canucks.
Waite had the operation about a month ago and still faces five more months of rehab, but hopes to at least be back on the ice within a month. The Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltending coach for seven seasons after two-plus decades in the minors and junior hockey, Waite knows better than most the importance of having good shooters in goalie drills, which is why he burned out his shoulders firing pucks at his stoppers (more goalie coach tips on that in the sidebar below).
Waite also had a pretty good feel for goaltending trends, both in the NHL and at lower levels, where he still gets on the ice youngsters at both International Goalie Camps in the USA, and at self-named schools in his native Quebec.
So when Waite took time to discuss the numbers from last week’s InGoal Magazine feature on the decline of Canadian – and rise of Scandinavian – goaltenders in the NHL over the last decade, it was very telling to hear some of his opinions.
Mostly, it was interesting to hear Waite’s take on the recent rise of Swedish and Finnish goalies, whose numbers have jumped from just one of each in 1999-2000, to 13 already this season. In the same time, the number of Canadian goalies fell from a whopping 71 per cent down to 44 per cent.
“First of all the Swedish guys and most Finnish guys, they are better athletes than us,” said Waite. “They work more on agility and flexibility more than us. I think in North America for the last 10 years we are focused too much on just technique and we forgot you’ve got to be flexible and a better athlete.”
Perhaps the best example in the flexibility department is one of the leaders of the current Finnish goaltending revolution, Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff, who stretches for three hours on a game day – 45 minutes before and after the morning skate, and another 45 minutes before and after the game itself.
Waite also points to Antti Niemi, who backstopped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup with an incredibly wide butterfly and numerous explosive pad saves before being dismissed over salary cap concerns this summer and signing in San Jose.
“My guy last year Antti was a great athlete for a big guy,” Waite said. “Finnish and Swedish guys are such unbelievable athletes and they can make a lot of saves because they are so flexible. They are better athletes and then they got the technique and the size too and that’s what makes them so good right now.”
Waite wants matters in his own hands
It may have resulted in shoulder surgery, but there is a very good reason Chicago goalie coach Stephane Waite prefers to take his own shots while putting his goalies through the paces. Within those reasons are good lessons for other goalies, and anyone charged with running drills for them:
“I love to shoot myself and do my own drills because I know exactly where to shoot and when to shoot. That’s very, very important because most of the time players just want to score and don’t think about the purpose of the drill.”
One of the other big mistakes Waite sees from others is rushing shots between each repetition, which doesn’t leave the goalie enough time to reset.
“I have to remind my coaching staff take your time, it’s not a race. We want to do it well and focus so take your time. Even the shooting drills before practice I ask our coaches to take your time, just let the goalie get set and make a recovery because if not too many bad habits start if they are rushing.”
For goalies that feel rushed, often by line drills that aren’t designed for them, Waite says it’s ok to take a mental break on some shots to reset.
“When everything is going too fast just tell the goalies make sure don’t take bad habits and if you gotta leave one shot go in, don’t worry about that,” Waite said, “Just make sure you are ready for the next one. I don’t want him to stop every, every puck. That can make a lot of bad habits.”
So can rushing into the battle drills Waite is now emphasizing more. He prefers to save those for later in practice, which can also add a fitness element.
“When you start practice you don’t want those kinds of drills, you just want to make sure no bad habits, everything is square, he’s set, not to deep, patient, compact, good rebound control, that is all very important. But at the end of practice we do battle drills where it’s just stop the puck, no matter how.”
As Waite points out, the quality of teaching has also improved greatly overseas, with Finland leading the way two decades ago with programs to ensure position-specific coaching from the first-division pro leagues to eight-year-old first timers. Sweden has followed suit, but only in the last five years, so many of the goaltenders coming over now grew up having to rely on natural instinct and reactions before getting more modern technical and tactical coaching later.
Waite sees something to InGoal’s theory, developed after recent interviews with Eddie Lack and Henrik Karlsson, that there is a benefit to Swedish goalies not being inundated with technical schooling at too young an age. Instead of being taught to block at an age when shooters just aren’t good enough to exploit the corners they may have left open, they had to learn how to battle and react and use their hands first, another important trend Waite sees in the NHL.
“Right now a big, huge part for goalies is the battle,” Waite said. “The best goalies in the NHL now are not just good technical goalies anymore. A big, big part is how he competes, how he battles and sometimes that’s even bigger than your technique, so that’s very different for the last five, six years. Six years ago it was all big goalies, square, butterfly, set, they were the best. Now that’s not enough. You’ve got to battle, that’s the big part.”
Waite points to Boston’s Tim Thomas as an example, and also to his new goalie in Chicago, Marty Turco, which isn’t something he would have done before.
“I wasn’t a big fan of Marty Turco before, but I’ve learned a lot of stuff from him and he learns some stuff from me and we got a god mix right now,” he said.
Don’t get Waite wrong. He still preaches the importance of good technique, even to Turco, who has already improved how he moves back to his net, rotating with plays that go wide now rather than backing straight in, which used to leave him off the angle and vulnerable to sharp-angle shots. And technique is still the focus in work with young goalies. It remains a cornerstone of consistency. But Waite has also seen the importance of competing increase over the last five or six seasons in the NHL, and is now incorporating more battle drills.
“You need more than just a good technical goalie,” he said. “You need to compete and that’s maybe even more important now because every young goalie is coming into the league and they are big, technically very, very good. So what makes them better than the other ones? It’s how they compete and battle. Sometimes I love to tell my goalies ‘just be unpredictable, do something that is gonna surprise the shooter, whatever it is.’ It doesn’t have to be pretty.”
Even, as Thomas has proven this year, it doesn’t always look technically sound.
“I’ve changed a lot the way I coach the last four years,” Waite said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. I don’t care about that any more. I need a better reactor, even if it’s not very cute. If you battle, it’s important.”
Waite says he stresses a lot more reactivity in his drills now, trying to get back some of the active hands that have been lost in too much blocking.
“I think the last five years a lot of goalies from Canada, they think too much,” he said. “They just want to be perfectly technically and they think they are going to be all right. They are just thinking too much on everything. And they are so predictable now, that’s the biggest problem we got. Every goalie plays the same thing, same style exactly and they are so predictable for shooters.”
Which may help explain why fewer and fewer are making it to the NHL these days.