Learning to play the puck at a young age is vital to a goalie’s development, says Steve Thompson, manager of goaltending for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“The biggest thing for me is making sure youth hockey goalies are allowed to play the puck,” said Thompson. “Some coaches encourage them to stay in their net, so they can win more hockey games, the idea being their goalies won’t be turning over the puck behind the net. But we have to encourage them to get out of their net.”
Here are some tips for goaltenders and their coaches on how to play the puck:
It all starts with practice, but for Thompson, who played for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, it’s not just about passing pucks back and forth with other goalies. It’s about simulating situations goaltenders will see in games.
“Do drills with pressure. Drills that depend on them making a pass for a breakout. Simulate the stress you’d have in games with a forechecker on them when it matters whether or not you make a good pass. Learn to make reads within that pressure.”
Work on shooting and stickhandling just like a skater would. Thompson talked about Joey Daccord, the former Arizona State goaltender now in the Ottawa Senators system, who is known for his puckhandling skills, not unlike South St. Paul native Alex Stalock.
“(Daccord) used to go down to his basement and shoot pucks against the wall but with regular gloves and a regular stick. It’s about getting the reps. We’ve seen that as long as goalies are shooting with the same hand that they shoot when they’re in the net, that greatly improves their puckhandling ability.”
"The biggest thing for me is making sure youth hockey goalies are allowed to play the puck."
A goaltender’s stick with its big paddle can be cumbersome, especially for very young players. Thompson recommends goalies at the 8U level to use a regular skater’s stick, even during games.
“You don’t need the paddle at that age. The paddle hinders skating, and using a forward stick is a more fun experience and helps develop puckhandling.”
As goaltenders get older, they should pay more attention to team breakouts and defensive structure.
“Know where the wingers will be; learn all the things the defensemen are learning. You need to have awareness. A huge element is the ability to look and read the play when you go back and get the puck. Don’t look down at the puck. Understand time and space. Then get out there and do it. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You’re not going to learn without making mistakes.”
When it comes time to play the puck, a big key to avoiding turnovers and making the right decisions is communication with teammates. This should be done in practice, so it will be done in games.
“Talk to each other as much as you can. Make sure, as a coach, you can hear the goalies. If you can hear them, your defensemen can hear them.”