Part 1: Mitch Korn, Antti Niemi and medicine ball on ice
As the Washington Capitals continue to celebrate their first ever Stanley Cup Championship, it seemed like a good time to reflect back on some of the advice that two key components of that victory, Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn and starting goaltender Braden Holtby, have shared with InGoal Magazine over the years. Think of it as a chance to refresh content some of you may not have seen already, while at the same time celebrating a couple of great goaltending minds who have graciously shared their time and insights into the position with us multiple times over the past eight-plus years.
We’ll start with Korn, and the story behind using medicine balls to help stabilize his goaltenders movements, a tool he used a lot with Holtby after joining the Capitals in 2014. Korn broke down the history and evolution of using medicine balls on the ice in the September 2014 magazine edition:
Long-time NHL goaltending coach Mitch Korn simply calls it “The Goalie Stabilizer.”
To most it’s just a medicine ball. But listen to Korn, who left the Nashville Predators after the 2013-14 season to join the Washington Capitals, and it’s immediately clear how powerful it can be when integrated into a goaltender’s on-ice workouts and movement patterns.
“It develops power. It develops quickness. It develops body control. It develops core strength. It develops arm discipline, which brings stick discipline,” Korn said. “It helps a goalie with balance, agility, power, quickness – it does all of those things.”
So how do you use a medicine ball to become a better goalie?
Simply put, you drop the gloves and hold the medicine ball against your chest while doing pretty much everything you would normally do as a goaltender on the ice.
For Korn, who implemented medicine ball training at the Predators 2013 training camp to help Carter Hutton improve his power, speed and tighten up his game, it started with simple skating drills while holding a medicine ball. But as he saw the benefits, the drills quickly evolved to include everything else – even stopping pucks.
“It was not just skating patterns,” Korn said. “We stopped shots with it, we did wraparounds with it, butterfly and rebound saves, 5-hole saves, down-up-down-up, shuffles – we did everything but high shots. We played goalie holding this ball. And it produced power and quickness while stabilizing both the core and upper body movement. It really is amazing how it can tighten up every aspect of your game.”
The genesis of this discovery was a desire to increase speed and power while at same time reducing extra arm movement. We’ve all seen goaltenders, including established NHL stars, with a tendency to let their arms flail away from their body, especially when making lateral pushes from the knees. For most it’s a balancing instinct, and some see it as a momentum build, but few would argue it is a good thing.
“If you lift your right leg to push with power to your left side, your arms swing to the leg that is lifted because you are loading with your arms – and you shouldn’t be,” Korn said. “You should be loading with your legs and your arms should be leading the way instead of going opposite to the direction in which you want to travel.”
Korn wanted to build speed and strength while also limiting that arm movement.
“I’ve got to increase power, quickness, tightness, but how can I do all this and restrict the arms? Can I put them in a straightjacket?” he said, “What can I do to restrict the arms?”
Korn remembered hearing about San Jose Sharks No.1 Antti Niemi holding weight plates in front of him during skating drills as a way of rebuilding his strength after arthroscopic knee surgery, a drill he credited for being a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013. As he headed into the playoffs that year, Niemi credited his great season to feeling stronger in his legs and core, and linked it to working with an old Finnish coach during the lockout. The focus included holding a weight plate out in front of him during movement drills.
“I did it with same coach like 10 years [earlier] and he always talked about it but I never did it again,” said Niemi, who used 20 to 30-pound plates. “It’s more for your core, but also for legs. Weight vests are too easy. With a plate if you go down sliding and your balance is not good enough, you are going to fall. So it’s better with a plate. It makes everything easier. You are on time, you get up faster, you can push better.”
A weight plate was awkward on the ice, however, and after years of watching Predators players use a medicine ball in the gym, Korn decided to try it on the ice. Hutton said back then that it helped.
“It helps a lot,” Hutton said during the 2013-14 season. “We talk about staying tight and compact, so as soon as you come forward or I get too spread out, I lose all my power. It has really helped me stay tight and being able to make those secondary movements. In terms of my core, I just feel so much faster, so much more compact. The first couple of days doing it was exhausting, but now I can just bang them off.”
For Hutton, the benefits were twofold: more strength and more compact movements
“I remember my first day on the ice with Mitch it was like, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ But it’s been really helpful,” Hutton said. “I feel like before sometimes this has been my Achilles heel, being a little too loose. Because I have that ability to make athletic saves but if I get too spread out I am making myself smaller in the crease and showing holes, whereas staying tight and compact has really helped my game.”
Korn incorporated the medicine ball into his summer camps, erasing fears about it being too difficult for younger kids. The goalies started by holding it during movement skating drills at center ice, doing t-pushes, forward and backward c-cuts, shuffles and changes of direction while holding the ball to prevent them from flailing their arms as they moved. They progressed to down movements on the third day.
“Saving, scrambling, power pushes, knee walks,” Korn said. “We took the medicine ball and incorporated different kinds of power pushes, butterflies and half butterflies.”
Recovery movements without being able to use their arms was the hardest thing, said Korn, adding they used six, eight and 10-pound medicine balls for the kids, whereas Hutton was using 18- and 25-pound balls in the NHL. If you worry about too much weight, holding a basketball would work in principle.
“Even a little nine year old can hold an eight pounder and it wasn’t hard but we didn’t push the stamina aspect,” Korn said, noting he runs multiple stations so most goalies worked with the ball for five to 10 minutes. “It was more to introduce it to them.”
As for alternative tools, Korn knows some goalies that use a weight vest during their on-ice movement sessions to build strength and power, but points out that does not prevent their arms from “flying away” on big lateral pushes. Similarly, while holding the medicine ball further out in front of you will be harder and perhaps force goalies to really activate their core during these movements, it also allows them to sway their arms. For all those reasons, Korn has his goalies hold it against their chest, but it’s best with their hands on either side of the ball rather than wrapped around the ball in a hug.
It was a great way to train a goalie to be tighter, and he used it with Holtby after arriving in Washington.
“The hands become a steering mechanism rather than a balancing mechanism, which has always been the ideal, but harder to train,” Korn said. “We always stress the importance of disciplined arms. We all talk about that and they tried to do it, but there was no way to make it happen. This makes it happen.”
~ Look for more from Korn and Holtby throughout the week.