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Unmasked: Canada playing catch up in goal

by Kevin Woodley

There may not be the crisis declared by some observers after Canada stretched its gold-medal drought to five years at the IIHF World Junior Championship with a non-podium finish in 2014. But as the country prepares to host the 2015 tournament after two years without any medal, there is little question Canada has lagged behind in the goaltender arms race.

The fact Hockey Canada has spent two years building a national goaltending development model, which will include the country's first goalie-coach certification program, is as strong an admission as possible.

Sweden instituted a similar national plan a decade ago and its formation is credited for its rise up the international goaltending ranks, just as Finland improved its goaltending with the introduction of their groundbreaking program almost 20 years earlier.

So it's not surprising Hockey Canada recently sent a six-person advisory group to those countries to learn more about their goaltending programs.

"This is stuff that should have been done 10 years ago but better late than never," said Corey Hirsch, a former NHL goalie and goalie coach who is now consulting for Hockey Canada and was on the trip to Scandinavia. "We recognized it and we're doing something about it."

The results can be seen at all levels, including the makeup of the goaltending fraternity in the NHL. During the past 15 seasons, the number of Canadian goalies to appear in at least one NHL game has decreased from 62 in 1998-99 to 39 last season.

Sweden and Finland have filled that void. Last year, 22 goalies from those two countries played in at least one game; 15 seasons ago it was one goalie.

Goalies who played at least one game

Country 1998-99 2003-04 2013-14
Canada 62 54 39
United States 12 13 18
Sweden 1 3 13
Finland 0 7 9

Some of the changing numbers in the NHL may be the result of increased opportunity and awareness about European goalies in a League often slow to try new things but quick to copy those who have success doing so.

But Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the New York Rangers, said the numbers are more telling back in his native Sweden, where he grew up watching that country's top professional league fill goaltending spots with imports.

Between 2001 and 2008, almost half of the starting jobs in the Swedish Hockey League were filled by import goaltenders, according to statistics provided by Thomas Magnusson, Sweden's head of goaltending development. Swedish goalies accounted for 54 percent of the No. 1 positions in that time. Since 2008, however, 78 percent of the starting goalies are Swedish. Last season, 12 of the 13 top jobs in the league were filled by Swedes.

"I watched when I was back home (during the 2012-13 season) and I was really impressed by how high the standard was compared to when I played there," Lundqvist said. "When I played 11-12 years ago it was me and a couple of other guys and a lot of imports. Now you have young Swedish goalies playing really well, so I think we're seeing the results. There's a lot more younger goalies now."

In Canada, the impetus for change comes from a lack of goalie depth which, in part, has manifested itself at the World Juniors, a tournament which is very important to Hockey Canada.

"Absolutely," said Hirsch, who is working as a TV analyst for Sportsnet. "Since Carey Price (in 2007) and Steve Mason (in 2008) we've had good goalies, but with the number of registered goalies in Canada we should have five or six Carey Prices and a battle because they are all so good. We're not getting that. We're getting one or two and hoping they are going to be good at the World Juniors."

Hirsch stressed that's not a knock on the two Canada goalies at the 2015 tournament, Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) and Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens). It's more about the lack of depth behind those two goalies in a country that had 518,009 registered minor hockey players in 2014, more than 10 times Sweden (41,521) or Finland (39,263).

"For us to be searching high and low for a Carey Price, it shouldn't be that way," Hirsch said. "We should have five or six to choose from."

The problem is not a lack of quality goalie coaches in Canada, Hirsch said. The concern is access to that coaching.

Much of the goaltending development in Finland and Sweden is carried out through their equivalent of minor-hockey programs. In Canada, much of the goaltending development takes place privately. Though some Canadian minor-hockey organizations hire private coaches to work with larger groups during the season, a lot of position-specific development is limited to summer camps, which is ironically when Europeans focus on developing goalies as athletes off the ice.

"We're not behind teaching goaltending," Hirsch said. "We just don't have enough knowledgeable coaches available to all these kids."

Canada's certification program is designed to ensure more qualified coaching is available to more goalies outside of the private industry, even if it's volunteers teaching basics to pre-teens.

The Swedes and Finns gather annually for goaltending conferences, sharing ideas to constantly improve and evolve their development models. Consensus among top coaches is shared with regional coaches, who take those messages back to their hometowns to teach it to grass-roots coaches, ensuring a consistent message is preached from the pro team right down to novices learning the position.

That's easier to implement in a smaller country, but Canada's plans are similar, and they are not alone in their quest.

Russia started its own program after the MHL, a junior affiliate of the Kontinental Hockey League, purchased and translated the Swedish hockey program. Germany has worked with Sweden to start its own goalie plan.

Don't be surprised if the United States builds one soon.

"I feel the [Warren Strelow Goalie Mentor] Program has experienced tremendous success, but we are informally and unofficially looking at ways to further advance and expand the program," Kevin Reiter, goaltending coach for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, wrote in an email. "I feel more can be done to structure goalie development in the U.S. Currently, our Strelow Mentor staff is researching different ideas and potential solutions to certain obstacles USA Hockey faces regarding goalie development. Last summer we had Justin Goldman spend time in Sweden and Finland with their top goaltending coaches to get a better understanding of their approach. He came back with great insight and a plethora of ideas that we are currently researching to see what is feasible."

The goal of expanding beyond current high-performance camps would be to ensure more quality coaching is available to more players without adding costs to a position that is traditionally the sport's most expensive.

Having more coaching available during the season should also slow the need for too many goalie camps in the summer, which can limit opportunities to develop physical literacy by playing other sports.

"We have goalie coaching on an almost daily basis here and that's within the program, nothing you pay extra for," Magnusson said. "So there's no need to focus on goaltending for three or four weeks in the summer privately because they had it all year."

Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne is one of the NHL's best at making glove saves. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI)

The concept of physical literacy manifests itself in things like Pekka Rinne's amazing glove, which he credits to the focus on catching pucks in the Finnish goalie program and playing a Finnish version of baseball growing up.

"Our kids don't play baseball anymore, they don't play catching sports, they don't play football, all these other sports that are going to develop other skills that will help you become a better goalie," Hirsch said. "You wouldn't believe the goalies that I had, even up in the NHL, that simply couldn't catch the puck. It was crazy."

For all the focus on young goalies, part of the problem at the World Junior Championship may stem from the primary feeder systems, the Canadian Hockey League and the NCAA, where goalie coaches are rarely full-time.

Most CHL teams only have a part-time goalie coach who is with the team one or maybe two weeks a month. With many earning as little as $10,000 a season, some good goaltending coaches pass on CHL jobs because they lose money compared to private lessons. The CHL ban on European goalies may have increased opportunities for North Americans, but the amount of coaching support for those goalies lags behind.

So as Canada's goalies prepare for the World Junior Championship they often do so with considerably less in-season goalie coaching than their peers from Finland and Sweden.

"Most on the junior level from age 16 to 19 have goalie coaching for six ice sessions a week," Magnusson said. "Probably two-to-three daytime of individual skill training with goalie coaches and at least half of the night sessions will also have a goalie coach there for practice."

Some may see that as overkill. But if the numbers and international results aren't enough to show the programs are working, Canada's belated push to arrive at something similar should be ample evidence.

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