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Goalie coaches are single-minded in their tasks

by Keith Loria
If you take a gander at the NHL annals from about 25-30 years ago, you might notice that none of the teams had a full-time goalie coach at their disposal. But just as the sport has evolved over time, so has the need for the coaching position to keep an organization's goalies in top form.

"Look what coaching has done for every other part of the game, and a goalie is such an important position, you couldn't just ignore it," said Reggie Lemelin, currently in his 14th season as goalie coach for the Philadelphia Flyers.

The first full-time goalie coach in the NHL was goaltending guru Warren Strelow, who had served the position for the gold-medal winning 1980 U.S. hockey team and was brought in to the Washington Capitals in 1983 to help guide their youngsters behind the net. Before his death in 2007, the legendary coach also worked with the Devils and Sharks and helped mentor Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala early in their careers.

With two dozen seasons as a goalie coach -- 12 with Montreal and now in his 12th season with Anaheim -- Francois Allaire was another of the first full-time goalies on the NHL level and teaches a style that stresses sound positioning, getting down into the butterfly, and taking up as much net as possible.

Under his guidance, a 20-year-old Patrick Roy with the Canadiens and Jean-Sebastien Giguere with the Ducks were able to lead their respective teams to Stanley Cup championships.

"I was the first full-time guy in Montreal and I think because Patrick was such a great story, with him winning the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup, goalie coaches became a little more prevalent around the League at that time," Allaire said. "We do a lot of teaching and making sure our guys understand their roles and it doesn't matter if you are working with a veteran or a rookie, you have to make sure the wall is solid and the house is solid."

When Grant Fuhr was establishing his Hall-of-Fame career in Edmonton in the '80s, he counted on his partners in net to get him ready and offer advice.

"Goaltending coaches didn't exist back then, but luckily I always had great partners like Ronnie Low in the beginning, who was great to talk over the game with," Fuhr said. "I didn't have my first goalie coach until I went to Buffalo."

Fuhr, now the goalie coach of Phoenix, is providing sage advice to Ilya Bryzgalov and Mikael Tellqvist.

"You go to the rink, see the guys, make sure they are happy, and make sure things are technically sound and watch if there are any good habits or bad habits starting. You mostly try to make sure their frame of mind is right," Fuhr said. "Goaltending is a specialized area. Most of the rest of the coaches may not understand the position the same way. I can relate to them because I have been where they are and understand what they are faced with."

Getting a goalie prepared takes more than just suiting him up and shooting some pucks at him. The laundry list of a goaltending coach's responsibilities seems almost endless.

"We go over video every day, I make a report on the opponent's goalie so I watch their film and I prepare my practice going 30 minutes before with my goalies, and sometimes after practice we do more or watch video," said Allaire. "The responsibility is to give and teach the goaltender to play up to their level most of the time. For that, we have to provide advice and offer some quality information to the goalie to make sure he is getting close to his potential."

"We do a lot of teaching and making sure our guys understand their roles and it doesn't matter if you are working with a veteran or a rookie, you have to make sure the wall is solid and the house is solid."
-- Francois Allaire

The coach must also examine the opposing team and make notes about their hot players and shooting preferences. Most also make notes about the opposing goalie to help the other players on the team.

"On the road, you give your goalie an understanding of the surroundings, how the boards work, how the glass works, video and stats of the opposing players," said Jim Corsi, now in this 11th season with the Buffalo Sabres. "I have to coordinate with the coaching staff and give a general idea on how the opposition prepares itself in the offensive side of the game and power plays."

According to Stephane Waite, fifth-year goalie coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, observations during a game can be key to helping your goalie in between periods and for the future, offering a second set of eyes for how the game is shaping up.

"Sometimes after a period someone will ask me if I saw this hit or that pass, but I focus only on my goalie and I see nothing else around," Waite said. "I take a lot of notes so I am prepared for the next practice and we can talk about everything that happened in the game."

While working with the pro team's goalies is the main responsibility for today's goalie coaches, almost all of them also are in charge of all the goalies in the organization and they need to stay on top of what's going on.

"One of my duties is to work with our Portland team and we have various technical ways of following our goaltenders and draft picks playing in college," Corsi said. "We'll look at videos and watch tape. We stay in contact with them as best we can. It's not always easy because you can see how the player is playing in a game but you don't always know the emotional part, so you try to be hands on with all of them."

One of the secrets of the job is knowing how to handle the young guys and what to say to keep the veterans motivated.
"Here in Toronto, it's about developing a top goalie prospect now. NHL goalies don't fall from trees and so I work with the minor-league team and try to help us develop one." -- Maple Leafs goaltender coach, Corey Hirsch
In his first year as goalie coach for Toronto, 36-year-old former netminder Corey Hirsch is working with 41-year-old Curtis Joseph and 31-year-old Vesa Toskala. He also works with the entire organization and is teaching the up-and-coming goalies what they need to know to be successful.

"Your top priority is your No. 1 goalie and it goes down the chain from there," Hirsch said. "Here in Toronto, it's about developing a top goalie prospect now. NHL goalies don't fall from trees and so I work with the minor-league team and try to help us develop one.

"With someone like Cujo, who I have played against for a number of years, you're not really going to teach him anything new, but I work with him on maintenance," he continues. "You take what he has and work with it and try to keep him sharp."

Since many goalies take on the coaching position soon after they retire, they often deal with situations like this, where they are now in the position to teach former teammates, friends or those who have lasted in the League longer than they had.

Mike Dunham went right from playing to goalie coach for the New York Islanders in 2007. When Lemelin took his first coaching job with the St. Louis Blues in 1994, he had only been off the ice for a year.

"When I first started, I was young and the other goalies were more like my buddies so I would talk to them more as a friend," Lemlin said. "As the years went on, I learned the skills of what it was to coach and of teaching from observing.  I've learned how to develop young players and there's a lot of psychology in this. I spend a lot of time just talking about some of the pressures and how to come out of a funk and all that stuff. Not just the technical aspects."
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