Hockey may be the ultimate team sport. Yet in no sport does one individual play as crucial a role in his team's success as an NHL goaltender.
Goaltenders have their own coaches and their own rituals. Some are placid, some talkative; others are feisty or combative -- sometimes even with their own teammates. A goaltender can steal a game for an outmanned team. But when a goaltender fails, everyone in the building knows it.
"The goalie is an individual position in a team sport," New York Islanders goaltender coach Mike Dunham told NHL.com. "They're out there to stop the puck and that's it, so they're off on their own island."
At least goaltenders have a little help these days. For decades, goalies were left to fend for themselves; over the last two decades, teams have added goalie coaches. Dunham, an NHL goaltender from 1996-2007, has seen the role of the goaltender coach expand.
"When I first came into the League (with the Devils in 1996), I witnessed the evolution of the goalie coaches," Dunham said. "When I came in, teams had a couple of goalie coaches and I was lucky to be in New Jersey with Jacques Caron. Not every team had a goalie coach back then. Now you look and every team has one and I think it's very important."
The rules have changed as the game has evolved, so today's game is a lot quicker -- making it imperative that goaltenders be ready for the ever-increasing speed of the game in the NHL. They have to be ready to go side-to-side and go down and get back up in an instant -- a far cry from the days of the standup, play-the-angles style that dominated the NHL until well into the 1980s.
Hence the rise of the goalie coach.
"In years past, goalies were overlooked and just put in the net and told to stop pucks," Dunham said. "Now it's become a position where you need certain individual coaching."
Goalie coaches have drawn comparison to quarterback coaches in football because they handle a small, specialized group of players -- in the NHL, that's usually just the two goaltenders carried by most teams. With such a close relationship, success boils down to a matter of trust between player and coach.
"There has to be trust," Dunham said. "Trust in the goalie to trust his goalie coach. The goalie coach has to understand what the goalie is going through during the ups and the downs of a season. The goalie has to feel that the goalie coach understands where he is coming from and what he is trying to do."
Francois Allaire, regarded as one of the best goalie coaches in the world, couldn't agree more about the importance of trust in the goalie-coach relationship.
"Trust is important, just like in every relationship," he told NHL.com. "The goalie has to trust the system you bring in practice and he has to trust it's going to work in the game."
Allaire, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs, always has high expectations for his team. But he has even higher expectations for the goalies because of the relationship they develop throughout the season.
"I'm always expecting my goalies to play well, so every time we start training camp (in September), it's a brand new adventure and a brand new season," he said. "I'm going to try to push my guys as much as I can to make sure there is a good relationship between my two goalies and make sure the two guys understand their jobs and the importance they have on this team."
A good relationship, Allaire says, is important for both sides.
"It's an advantage if you have a good relationship with the goalies," Allaire said. "There is a better chance to get them working for you."