Over the course of a season, a junior goaltender learns through experience and guidance how to eliminate the numerous distractions that potentially can damage their development.
These distractions come in many forms, and some are more stressful than others. For goalies, stress is a performance killer, so it takes great self-awareness to realize when distractions are taking place, and great discipline to eliminate them as quickly as possible.
For Jon Gillies, a standout with the Indianapolis Ice of the United States Hockey League, one of the toughest distractions he has faced is taking place right at this very moment.
Gillies had committed to play at Northeastern University next season, but things changed when starter Chris Rawlings unexpectedly opted to return for his senior season. A few days later, a mutual "decommitment" agreement between Gillies and Huskies coach Jim Madigan was made to allow Gillies the ability to pursue other options.
Since then, rumors regarding Gillies' future have been swirling. He could opt for another NCAA program. A native of Concord, N.H., the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- coached by Hall of Famer Patrick Roy -- hold his Canadian Hockey League rights. Selected in the ninth round (No. 190) of the 2011 QMJHL draft, Roy certainly would welcome the lanky and limber 6-foot-5, 210-pound goalie with open arms.
Making the situation worst was the fact that it came up right before the start of the USHL playoffs. It's hard to worry about the future when he knows his focus has to be on the present.
In fact, Gillies knows that all of his mental strength must be focused on playing in the moment.
"That's basically what mental toughness means to me right now," Gillies said, "having the mental drive to keep everything else on the back-burner and the focus on winning, because that's what is important right now. I'm focused on finishing my season strong and playing my best hockey in the playoffs, not worrying about the future."
He's done a strong job so far of doing just that. He allowed just six goals on 94 shots in leading the Ice to a three-game first-round sweep of the defending league-champion Dubuque Fighting Saints and a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.
Born with solid athleticism for his size, even during his days at Salisbury Prep in Connecticut, Gillies always has been able to move naturally and react effortlessly. His combination of size and athleticism has played a major role in NHL Central Scouting ranking him fourth in its mid-term ranking of the top North American goalies eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft.
In 49 games this season, Gillies went 29-11-10 with a 2.80 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and three shutouts, helping Indiana to a second-place finish in the USHL Eastern Conference. He leads the league in games played, wins and saves (1,373) and is second in minutes played (2,761:26), proving he's capable of being a durable and consistent prospect.
In three playoff games, he posted a 2.00 GAA and .940 save percentage.
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Because of his hefty workload, Gillies has keyed in on his lower-body strength, especially his quadriceps. This has gone a long way in helping him rely on more than just his athleticism to stop pucks.
"I've always had good feet, so now I'm working on my explosiveness," Gillies said. "This mainly comes from working hard in the weight room, but it translates on the ice as well. Explosiveness is so important, so I'm really trying to ramp that up as much as I can to make sure I'm ready for the playoffs, and whatever kind of situation I land in next year."
Recognizing that off-ice distractions can be combated by a stronger work ethic is one thing, but having a mentor to help alleviate the stress of an unknown future is quite another. Fortunately, Gillies has been able to lean on his goalie coach, Jamie Morris, for that support.
Morris has been instrumental in developing Gillies over the past few years, and in order to keep his pupil focused on the task at hand, their strong friendship has paid off. Morris is a local firefighter, which has gone a long way in improving the mental strength Gillies is striving to display.
"He has been responsible for 95 percent of my development over the past few years," Gillies said of Morris. "From the second I set foot here, not only did he work me really hard, but he just believed in me. We talk every day, and we maintain a real close relationship. You have to give credit where credit is due, and the relationship we have formed has been unbelievable. I can't thank him enough."
For every junior goaltender, adversity comes in many different forms, so staying focused on a daily basis is an absolute necessity. At the same time, the more adversity a goalie faces during their junior years, the more likely they are to mature and develop into a more consistent performer at an earlier age.
For Gillies, 18, he already displays a conscious and genuine understanding of what it means to be mentally tough.
"It's a model that separates the good goalies from the great ones through consistency," he said. "You never get too high and never get too low, and that allows you to put forth the same effort every night."
If Gillies can continue to personify his own understanding of mental toughness and consistency, he'll be fine no matter where he plays, or what distractions he faces.