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Prior commitment

by Mike Vogel / NHL.com

 

NHL.com's 2007-08 Capitals Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards| Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster


Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior is heading into his 11th season at his current position; he accepted his current post 10 years ago this summer. He has worked under three different head coaches during his tenure in Washington and has been with the Capitals longer than any other coach in the franchise’s history. Since he arrived on the scene a decade ago, Capitals goaltenders have posted three of the four lowest team goals-against averages in franchise history.

More importantly, Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig credits Prior for making him the goaltender he is today, a steady, dependable netminder on the verge of recording his 300th career win in the NHL.

Prior spends a lot of his time on the road, because his duties also include scouting goaltenders at the amateur level and mentoring Washington’s netminding prospects throughout the minor leagues. He drives to most of his North American destinations, and puts countless miles on his truck every year.

To those who don’t know him, Prior may seem like a quiet guy. And he is, to a point. But he is also one of those rare people who seems to know a little bit about everything, and who can converse intelligently on many subjects. What he really knows is goaltending, a subject to which he has devoted his entire adult life.

Much of Olaf Kolzig's success can be attributed to his work with Dave Prior, the Capitals' goaltending coach for the past ten seasons.

You won’t find a lot of “writing” in this piece, because Dave Prior (and Olie Kolzig) can talk about goaltending – and how and why Prior is where he is now better than we can – and how he has lasted so long in a job where turnover is so high.

Before he joined the Capitals in 1997-98, Prior was a goaltending coach for Dallas, Detroit, San Jose and Winnipeg. He also spent seven years scouting for the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau.

During the 1996 World Cup of Hockey tournament, Prior was mentoring goaltenders for the German National Team. That’s when he met Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig, a meeting that would lead to his next NHL job.

He wasn’t part of the staff but I built up a relationship with him when I went and played for Germany in the World Cup and the World Championships,”remembers Kolzig. ”I sent him a tape of the four-overtime [playoff] game [against Pittsburgh from Apr. 24, 1996]. At the time I thought it was the best I had ever played but he found a lot of flaws. And now that I look back at the tape, yeah. there were a lot of flaws. Had I kept playing that way I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

Prior’s own goaltending “career” was short-lived, but it’s what indirectly led him into coaching.

“I played university hockey,” he says. “I started in coaching when I was about 18 just through goaltending and hockey schools. When I was 25 – after working with a number of major junior teams and goaltenders in different places as a consultant – the NHL Central Scouting Bureau approached me and offered me a position as a scout with their group as a specialist in the goaltending field.”

That was in the early 1980s, just a few years after the Central Scouting Bureau started. Prior wasn’t looking to be a scout, but the job served as a springboard to a life in hockey.

“It wasn’t something I was looking to embark upon as a career in hockey,” says Prior. “I primarily was coaching goaltenders because I lacked coaching when I played. I realized through playing football that coaching can make a significant difference in an athlete’s performance. I got into it more just to help other goaltenders and help coaches with junior teams that approached me and it led to this scouting position. At the time I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try it and see what it’s like.’

“Initially I worked on an eight-month contract. I spent up until about the New Year just scouting different junior levels in Ontario and some of the college games that were not far off my territory and the Ontario Hockey League as well. Once you had a handle on that then we met and our scouts from Quebec and the west identified the top guys in their leagues and then I would travel then to the Western Hockey League and the Quebec League and do sort of a technical assessment of those goaltenders. We weren’t always in agreement – you never are – with the scouting staff. Everybody has their preference on the rankings. I was there to provide a little more of an opinion from a goaltender’s standpoint as well as back our list to the NHL teams in terms of why we arrived at this guy being slotted here and things like that, what we felt were his deficiencies and his strengths.”

As the years passed, Prior became more of a recognized expert on goaltenders and goaltending, though he’d likely not refer to himself as such.

“We pretty much spoke as a body in terms of putting out the list,” he says, speaking of the CSB. “But you would get approached by head scouts when you were out scouting and they would often seek your own individual opinion on people. I’ve had teams ask me why I didn’t like a certain guy and then they would end up drafting him. Every team arrives at their own rankings as well and is just trying to weigh different things into their own list in addition to what [Central Scouting] put out.

“I’ve also seen teams draft guys because you had recommended some other people to them in the past and they didn’t and he turned out to be a pretty good goaltender. It was just another opinion. As I continued in the job more and more, I began to get a lot more respect from certain scouting staffs and they wanted to know what you thought about individuals.

“To look back, I was surprisingly young – when I hadn’t played in the NHL – to be in that position. I look back and I was fortunate to have the opportunity and that’s what led to a coaching career, which again wasn’t really what I was looking to do at the time. But I’ve always loved hockey. My dream was to play in the NHL. When I was 10, the Leafs were my team. That’s when they won their last Stanley Cup. It greatly impacted me as a young man and that’s what I was going to do, nothing else. When I was about 18, I realized that dream wasn’t going to happen because I was short of the mark in talent level. I started looking to do some other things with my life and ended up back in hockey.”

The CSB gig led to stints as a goaltending coach in the NHL, and then his position with the German National Team led to a meeting with Kolzig and his current position with Washington.

“Olie and I had done some work together with the German national team.,” Prior recalls. “He had talked to me at the world championships and said that he thought they could use some help. Bill Ranford was here then. I had just completed a season where I had worked as a consultant with Dallas. I worked more often than we had originally planned and I also worked with the minor league team. I was fairly confident that they would make me an offer for another year and they did. They wanted to hire me to a full-time position with their team. I had also been working with German national team with all age groups.

“I promised Olie I would call [then Caps general manager] David Poile when I got back. Somewhere between the world championships and when I got back, David was no longer in that position as general manager. So I didn’t place any call. When George McPhee was hired, I did know George. I had actually played some with him at Guelph in juniors. I called him and told him I wasn’t really looking for a job but that I had promised Olie that I would call David. [George] told me that if anything changed I should let him know. Dallas went forward and wanted to hire me and increase my position, so they had an exclusive on my rights. But the fact that they didn’t re-sign Andy Moog or Arturs Irbe – the two goaltenders I had coached that previous season – I didn’t feel the same sort of bond to the organization. I would have to start over."

Ed Belfour was brought in and I think a lot of Ed Belfour. I don’t know him but I really have a lot of respect for his ability and his competitiveness and always liked him as a goaltender. I was leaning toward resigning with them. But I told Olie that I thought he was underachieving in terms of his potential. I had coached him in the World Cup and in the world championships. I felt he was frustrated with his own accomplishments. The organization – from what I understand – approached Billy Ranford to see if he was receptive to hiring a goalie coach, and he was. So Ron [Wilson] called me and then George and I talked again and I decided to choose this job over the Dallas position.”

"I think the most important thing is that Dave keeps me emotionally balanced. I guess that's how to put it."
-- Olaf Kolzig

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“I was pretty aggressive before Dave got here,” says Kolzig. “He’s really tried to make me play within myself and not play overly aggressive. I mean, I have the size where I can afford to stay back in my net a little further. But if I did get caught out in the crease I wasn’t quick enough to battle my way back. So I’m kind of halfway – top of the crease – where I’m out far enough that the shooter has to beat me with a pretty good shot off the crossbar or something if I’m on top of my game. And at the same time I’m within reach of battling or fighting my way back into the net if I get deked or something like that.

“I think the most important thing is that Dave keeps me emotionally balanced. I guess that’s how to put it. A lot’s been written about how I was younger in my career. I was pretty volatile and I let bad goals affect me. Dave really has made me mellow out. Even though I’m still pretty temperamental I’m not nearly as volatile. I don’t let bad plays or bad goals affect me any more but I still keep that emotional edge. Dave has really helped me balance that. He’s got a great demeanor. He doesn’t get too high when we’re winning and he doesn’t get too low when we’re losing. If we’re losing he just looks at what I could do better, we go out and work at it and that’s it. There’s more to life than goaltending and I’ve tried to take his philosophy a little bit and make myself more at peace with myself. I realize it’s only a game and it’s not the end of the world whenever I let in a goal.”

Prior videotapes goaltenders in action and breaks down their performances later on his laptop. Everywhere he goes, his camera and his laptop are in tow. After all his years in the game and on the job, even Prior confesses there are limits to what he can do to help a goaltender.

“I’d like to believe you can correct anything if you have enough time,” he says. “But very often in this position, if you are not winning someone else is getting a chance to take your job. So for me in selecting goaltenders, it’s trying to get as close to what I think will be the finished product as possible whether you are drafting or trading or signing a free agent.

“As far as habits, you can have a good goaltender from a young age, because at a young age you can employ different techniques and they work, because the shooters aren’t that good. It gets reinforced and then it becomes a habit that is pretty well ingrained in the goaltender’s repertoire of moves and reactions. As he gets to higher levels, it starts to cost him a goal maybe in juniors, every three games. Maybe if he gets to the American League it may cost him a goal every other game. In the NHL it may cost him a goal every game. As a coach, my experience is that it doesn’t seem possible to erase those habits. What we spend our time on, if there is an aspect of a goaltender’s game that isn’t desirable or that is costing us, then we have to spend a lot of time building a new habit and a better habit that will displace the old one. You think you have it licked, and the old habit creeps in under pressure sometimes, or 50 games later it shows up sometimes. The goaltender is as frustrated as anyone over it. It’s almost like a split personality; this thing comes out of nowhere and he’s like, ‘Why’d I do that?’

By way of an example, Prior can point directly to prize pupil Kolzig. The duo worked on replacing one of Kolzig’s bad habits soon after Prior started with the Capitals.

“One of the things that was certainly costing him in terms of his success as a goaltender was a desire to chase his rebounds, “ says Prior of Kolzig, “and I don’t mean to skate after them. He’d often make saves and the puck was bouncing off him in a direction away from him and he was always trying to pull it in with his stick and reach to cover it up. He often got himself in a vulnerable position and if the defensemen weren’t able to tie up the guy or if they missed their assignment, somebody was picking up the puck and depositing it in the net behind him or passing it off and bang, it was in. He was chasing his rebounds. That made a huge difference in Olie’s success on rebound situations.

“What we tried to do was develop an ability to recognize: ‘Is this one that I can cover up, or do I start to prepare for the second shot?’ And it was preparing for the second shot that gave him a better chance at making the save and he started to have some success. There’s a rebound game that isn’t unique to our goaltenders but we sort of modified it for Olie when we got started that first year, and he has continued to do it. It’s an excellent discipline for him. It’s a competition between shooters and rebounders where we keep score, up to 10 and best out of three in games. It actually keeps that habit of chasing rebounds under control. He gets practice at realizing what is beyond him, and he becomes very urgent about his recovery. It’s that decision process. That’s a little different than just a technical move.

“A very common one is if a goaltender is starting to go down to one knee, or paddle down all the time. It’s more common with goaltenders out of junior. They’re having success on the ice and they get to this level and it starts to cause them problems if they’ve made their commitment before the player has actually made his. At this level, the guys will react to it. That’s one of the hardest for me to build in a new method. You are almost taking someone and trying to teach them a new skill at stopping the puck, and this is the last place you want to be working on it because they are facing the best shooters in the world. You are telling them to take one of the tools that they’ve had for their lifetime as a goaltender and put it on the shelf while you try to make them better with this one that they’ve never used. This isn’t the place to do it, and even at the [minor league] level it’s difficult. When I talk to our scouts, those are some of the things I will identify with a potential draft choice and just say, ‘Well, I’d sooner we stay away from this guy.’ Not because he is not a good goaltender, but I don’t know if he can overcome some of these things. So all things being equal, let’s consider this goaltender who is more structured in his game and easier to make some progress with.”

Prior is a treasure trove of information and useful advice on odd subjects like backhoes, construction, remodeling, hotels, cigars, red wine, routes to and from virtually any North American city where competitive hockey is played, and countless other topics.

“I think one of Sarge’s greatest attributes is his personality in terms of just telling what he thinks and believes, unbiased and untainted,” says former Caps goaltender Craig Billington, now director of player development for the Colorado Avalanche. “And I think that’s a great thing. Because I think a lot of times in life people don’t do that enough. Dave’s straight. He just tells it the way it is. I think that’s a great quality and something that is often overlooked.”

If you’ve read this far, you know exactly what Billington is talking about. Another thing that sets Prior apart is his passion. He loves the game and is devoted to it and to his pupils. He also has that same burning desire to win a Stanley Cup that Kolzig and his teammates possess. More than anything else, Prior is happy to have spent his adult life around the game he loves.

“I can’t think of anything that I’d sooner do,” he says. “The downside of this game for myself is just the travel. It can be as many as 200 days in a season. And not living in this area, I don’t have any home games. With training camp and preseason, if all goes as planned I will have about 40 days on the road. That’s a significant road trip. But that’s the only downside of the job. I really enjoy coaching young guys. You impact their lives, you live through their highs and lows and teach them to deal with them and how to respond to them and bring their game along. It’s a great job.”

NHL.com's 2007-08 Capitals Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards| Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster

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