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Battle ability, technique key for youth goaltenders

by Kevin Woodley
Contrary to popular opinion, acrobatic Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas is a big believer in the importance of proper technique between the pipes.

The goalie best known for standing on his head -- sometimes literally, it seems -- credits improved fundamentals for increased consistency during a long, winding path to NHL stardom.

Thomas, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and the reigning Stanley Cup champion and playoff MVP, sees the benefit in more efficient movements, and has worked hard to implement many of the basics of a butterfly style that didn't become popular until his first season as a pro. In the last five years he's added proper leg recovery to his repertoire when getting up and out of the butterfly, understanding now that the quickest way to move right is to lift his left leg first, and establish that skate edge to push -- and vice versa.


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All that said, there's a reason Thomas is known more for "battle-fly" than butterfly, and the Bruins' standup standout worries too many young goalies are becoming too reliant on and locked into technique, especially in North America.
"Technique can help you move more efficiently, but once you are in position if the shot is going away from your body you have to have the ability to move your legs or move your arms," Thomas said. "I've seen a lot of kids with great technique, but they turn into robots and it's like their arms are glued to their sides. You have to be able to move out of that technique mode when need be."

That "technique" mode is commonly called "blocking," when goalies drop to the butterfly and tuck the hands in tight so nothing gets through. It can be effective, especially at younger ages, when shooters can't yet pick available corners, but should be used more as a save selection -- one for in-tight plays and point-blank chances without enough time to react -- and not an all-encompassing style.

That's especially true for smaller goalies like the 5-foot-11 Thomas.

"I can't go on my knees and cover the top corners with my shoulders, so I have to be selective with when I am down on my knees and when I stand up, and I've had to learn over the years to read if a guy is shooting high or a guy is shooting low," he said. "Years of practice give you the percentages in your head, so when you don't know whether to stay down or go up you choose based on experience."

The problem is today's goalies often grow up with an emphasis on blocking, and because they often have early success with it, are never forced to develop that experience that serves Thomas so well. They lose the ability to read and react, while at the same time becoming predictable to a generation of shooters that's grown up knowing where those holes will be on drop-and-block goalies.

"They think too much, they just want to be perfect technically and they are so predictable now," Chicago goalie coach Stephane Waite said. "Every goalie plays the same thing, same style exactly, and they are so predictable for shooters."

It's because of a reliance on technique and the loss of natural reactions.

"You have to react and read plays and truly understand how the game unfolds," Dallas goalie coach Mike Valley said. "Be careful. Sometimes we get so deep into technique we forget the natural athleticism involved in the game. It's not always about going out there and thinking, it's about letting it happen. Technique is so important, but when it's time to play, let loose and just play the game."

Or, as Thomas suggests, channel your inner street hockey stopper.

"I've seen a lot of kids with great technique, but they turn into robots and it's like their arms are glued to their sides. You have to be able to move out of that technique mode when need be."
-- Bruins' goaltender Tim Thomas

"Some of the kids having trouble because they rely on technique too much could probably use some street hockey, because when you have to move on your feet and stuff you can't use the same technique so it will help you get out of it," Thomas said. "I think you need to learn the technique and you need to practice the technique, but when it comes game time you have to do whatever it takes. Even in practice. You do the goalie drills in practice and work on the technique, and then in the game you will use them when necessary. But then the rest of practice you don't want to just get scored on while practicing technique all the time. You need to find a way to stop it, and just play a little street hockey."

It's a battle level more coaches are looking for in the NHL.

"A big, big part is how (a goalie) competes, how he battles," Waite said. "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."

For parents the big battle is trying to choose among an ever-growing list of goalie schools this summer. Looking for instructors that don't lock goalies into blocking mode all the time is a good place to start. Waite said he's changed the way he coaches, and points to the athleticism and flexibility common among the current wave of Scandinavian goalies in the NHL. Just like the drop-and-block butterfly technique, active hands can be taught -- just look at Roberto Luongo this season.

"In Finland and in Sweden, there are so many things where you are just catching and being athletic," said Valley, who also played overseas and preaches a balanced approach at his Elite Goalies schools. "So it's not always about 'rotate this leg over, push, stop and drop.' Become an athlete, be an athlete. Look at guys in NHL: They are mostly good athletes. You can't just be so well taught technically, but not understand the rest of the game."

Not anymore at least.

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