The Decline of Canada's Goalies
Long the NHL’s dominant puck stoppers, Canadian goalies are now a minority for the first time. An international goalie race has heated up, and we’re not in the lead.
James Mirtle visited Stockholm to investigate how countries like Sweden have closed the goalie gap
The video is playing in a back room at the Ulriksdals Arena, just outside downtown Stockholm, where five goaltending coaches from the sports club Allmanna Idrottsklubben (AIK) are gathered around a small table. Watching intently, they try to pick out open space behind the goalie on the video, searching for holes that a one-inch-by-three-inch puck could squeeze through.
They don’t find much.
“This is what the puck sees,” explains Thomas Magnusson, Sweden’s head of goaltending development at the national level. “A lot of what we do is from the puck’s point of view.”
From the point of view of Canadian hockey officials, what the Swedes are doing is of intense interest.
Canadian goalies, long the dominant stoppers in the game, have slowly been disappearing from the NHL, losing jobs to their European and American counterparts. And with the 2014 Winter Olympics fast approaching, the country that produced such superstars as Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour now frets over who will mind its net in Sochi.
The larger concern is Canada’s goalie-developmental system is falling behind, a fear fanned over the summer, when the three major junior leagues made the controversial decision to ban import goaltenders. NHL teams now scout European netminders more heavily than ever, with some employing goalie experts in Stockholm or Helsinki to unearth hidden gems.
At the same time, the shift has spurred Hockey Canada to rethink how it develops goalies, with a close eye on the Europeans, including people such as Magnusson, who have rebuilt their country’s development system from the ground up.
“I joke around and call him the godfather of the goaltending world in Europe,” said Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley, a Canadian-Swedish dual citizen who uses some of Magnusson’s work. “He’s the one that really started to structure it, and that instruction level makes a big, big difference, especially at an early age.”
Few positions in professional sports have changed as dramatically as the NHL goalie. Everything from the equipment to technique has been reinvented every few years, as those in the game have refined the unique mental and physical training required to stop pucks night after night. Along the way, an international goalie arms race has quietly been unfolding.
First, the Finns invested in developing goalies after realizing they could be a great equalizer for a small country. Then, Sweden started borrowing from their neighbours and rivals, improving upon the Finnish system. Now, Russia wants in and plans to buy and implement Sweden’s system into its junior ranks.
And the movement has been working. Canadian goalies played only 37 per cent of the available minutes in the NHL last season, down from 50 per cent four years ago, and 65 per cent in 2000. It’s a sharp enough decline that, on average, Canadians have appeared in 55 fewer NHL games a season, the equivalent of losing one of the 30 starting goalie jobs every year.
The reason is simple: Overall, Canadian goalies haven’t been as good as their European and American peers. As a group, their save percentage has been below the league average in each of the last five NHL seasons. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13, the average Canadian goalie stopped 90.9 per cent of the shots they faced; non-Canadians stopped 91.4 per cent. In a position where every fraction of a percentage point matters over the length of a season, that’s a significant gap.
The last five Vézina Trophy winners as the NHL’s top goaltender have been American or European; no Canadians were even nominated the last two seasons. Goalies from this country have also had some high-profile flops in recent years, especially at the world junior tournament, where the top goalie award hasn’t gone to a Canadian since Steve Mason in 2008.
Many in the game now believe countries such as Sweden and Finland are simply doing it better, despite fewer resources and far fewer players. They’ve done it by recognizing that developing better goalies isn’t much different than how you would develop better surgeons, scientists or academics.
You teach them.
They have always played their own, solitary sport, a high-pressure game within the game that involves manning a net, patrolling a small patch of ice and squaring off against shooters, 1-on-1.
Their equipment is different. Their skillset is entirely different. And even their mental makeup, which has to be stronger than that of a scorer going through a slump or a defenceman who misses a check, is different, with only the hardiest – or craziest – surviving in the crease at the elite level for long.
Because they wear colourful masks and their teams rely so heavily on their saves, there is a mystique about goaltenders that makes them hard to define. Many times, their teammates, and even their coaches, don’t know precisely what they’re doing in the crease, only that they either stop the puck or they don’t.
“See the puck. Stop the puck. Be the puck,” an NHL head coach once joked when asked what he wanted from his goaltender that night.
There’s a separate language for a goalie, too: butterfly saves, a five-hole, a paddle, skate saves, challenges, shuffles, T-pushes, telescopes, poke-checks and two-pad stacks. And knowing their angles and the geometry of a rink are essentials.
The position has become so technical and specialized, in fact, every NHL team now has one or two coaches for its two or three goalies – an investment that has paid off with an era of record-high save percentages.
And just as teams and leagues have caught on to how vital their netminders are for success, countries have followed suit, diverting resources to improve the one player that can sometimes guarantee a win almost on their own.
Inside, in an all-white boardroom lined with black-and-white photos of 20 Swedish hockey legends, SIHA head of development and national teams, Tommy Boustedt, delivers a passionate explanation of how one man – Thomas Magnusson – changed his country’s goaltending fortunes.
It’s a story about ingenuity, organization and artful planning, a process that began in 2002, when, with Swedish hockey at one of its lowest points, officials decided to do something. The country’s junior national teams, Boustedt said, “couldn’t even beat Germany or Belarus. … That was the main reason we started all this.”
“This” began with a summit where 150 of Sweden’s top hockey minds put together a 10-point plan to fix their development system. At the top of the list was the goaltending problem, one that had always existed in Sweden but that seemed to be getting worse.
Boustedt’s solution was to hire Magnusson, a long-time friend and one of the country’s first goalie coaches. He had helped Swedish league powerhouse Djurgardens win the Le Mat Trophy – Sweden’s version of the Stanley Cup – six times in his 20 years on the job.
Quiet and studious, Magnusson could pass for a university professor, with a soft voice, a shaved head and thick, black-rimmed glasses. Now 56, he is a hockey lifer.
A goalie in Sweden’s top junior league as a teenager, he moved on to coaching in his mid-20s, using a degree in sports science to craft a curriculum and earning a reputation as an educator and lecturer as much as a coach. He relies on video, computer software and unique graphics he creates from scratch to preach a distinctly Swedish approach that focuses on tactics and mental strength in the crease as much as technique.
Magnusson tackled Sweden’s goaltending as if it were an academic problem, not a sports one. His first focus was training as many goalie coaches as possible, following in Finland’s footsteps by flooding the country with experts in the position so even children at the lowest level would learn the basics of his system.
“A lot of good goalie coaches came out of that,” said Vancouver Canucks netminder Eddie Lack, who was 14 when the changes came in and was suddenly able to work with a dedicated coach three or four times a week. “I think we have three or four of the top goalie coaches in the world now because of that.”
Magnusson’s other most influential endeavour was creating Malvaktsparmen – or the goalie binder – his bible on the position that is used to train coaches and players alike. Written in Swedish, the book reads in part like an athlete’s self-help guide, with sections such as Tankande Malvakt – which translates loosely to “Thinking Goalie” – made up of tips on concentration, discipline, visualization and stress management.
“When you do well in a match, you should write down what you did before the game,” it says. “How was your preparation and was it the key to your success? Can you then recreate these preparations and regain the same feeling before every game?”
The binder also advises goalies to keep a list of “three points to describe yourself when you feel happy and alert” on their fridge or next to their mirror as a daily confidence-boosting exercise. There are explanations of how to use breathing exercises to quell nerves during stressful portions of games.
“If you want to be a goalie, you have to accept a certain degree of responsibility,” Magnusson said, explaining why mental strength is so important in the position. “You’ll face tough situations because you’ll let in goals and people will look at you and fixate on mistakes and you have to be prepared for that.”
“Lots of coaches are more, you know, tough guys,” said Boustedt, who compares the association’s growing goalie department to “a religious sect” because of how they preach their message. “But goalie coaches aren’t like that. They’re a bit different. And Thomas is definitely different.”
Now in its second edition, Malvaktsparmen is an overwhelming success, reaching goalie coaches and their pupils in the far corners of the country and attracting international attention. Russia has an agreement to purchase Magnusson’s work from SIHA to start using it in its top junior league early next year.
“To me, he’s the best goalie coach in the world,” Boustedt said. “The best thing I’ve done is to hire Thomas and give him resources to build up this program.” The article continues on the next page after this interactive video.
A goalie-by-goalie breakdown
No position in the NHL has ever undergone as rapid a demographic shift as this one in the last 20 years. For most of the league’s existence, Canadians dominated the nets. The arrival of Dominik Hasek from the Czech Republic in 1990, however, was a catalyst that changed that forever.
Below: A closer look at how this trend has evolved over time. Each circle represents one goalie.
This chart highlights just how prevailing Canada was in NHL creases, with all but three Americans – Tom Barrasso, Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck – making up the best goalies of the era. Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph were clearly the cream of the crop.
While Canadians still held down many of the top spots in the league by this point, Dominik Hasek became the first of a string of elite Europeans to excel in the NHL and others quickly followed. In the five years between 1996-97 and 2001-02, the number of goalies from Europe more than doubled.
When Miikka Kiprusoff was traded to Calgary in the fall of 2003, no Finnish goaltender had ever been an NHL star. He immediately changed that, leading the NHL in save percentage and earning a nomination for the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the league. He won the award the next season. By 2006-07, six Finns were starting regularly in the league.
These days, the best NHL goalies come from all over the world. But the influx of Swedes and Finns the last 10 years is what has really made Canadian goalies minorities for the first time ever. Only a select few of those remaining (like Roberto Luongo) have consistently posted elite numbers, which is why the last five Vezina winners have been European or American.
Around the time Canada’s dominance in goal reached its peak in the early 1990s, Finland began pumping resources into goaltending, taking the unprecedented step of training huge numbers of goalie coaches as a way of focusing on the position. As a country of only five million, competing in hockey internationally had always been difficult for the Finns until they hit on the idea that developing great goaltenders would have a bigger effect than great defencemen or forwards.
Goalies who came up through that system, such as Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, Antti Niemi, Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask, have made an impact in the NHL as starters. And the Finns put together a surprising hot streak at the world junior tournament, winning six medals in nine years, including the country’s second gold in 1998.
Finland’s rise came just as Sweden – a country historically recognized as a hockey power but almost never for its men in the crease – was struggling through an 11-year medal drought at the world juniors. Seeing their smaller rival push past them sparked Boustedt into action. A decade later, he boasts, the Swedes now “have the better goalies at younger ages.”
The numbers are starting to bear that out. While only five Swedish goalies appeared in an NHL game prior to 2001, over the last few years, a dozen have debuted in the league. Swedes played a little more than 11 per cent of the minutes in the NHL last season, a record high that is triple what it was seven seasons earlier.
In addition to New York Rangers superstar Henrik Lundqvist, such top prospects as Lack, Robin Lehner, Niklas Svedberg, Jacob Markstrom, Johan Gustafsson, Joacim Eriksson and Magnus Hellberg are poised to assume bigger roles in the coming years, potentially pushing more Canadians out of the NHL.
According to The Goalie Guild, which tracks netminder development, four of the top six prospects in the world are Swedes, and a fifth – Frederik Andersen, who has become an unlikely star for the Anaheim Ducks this season – is from neighbouring Denmark and spent time in the Swedish system.
(Canada has only two goalies in the top 12: Buffalo Sabres farm hand Matt Hackett and St. Louis Blues prospect Jake Allen.)
While the number of Canadian defencemen and forwards in the NHL has stayed stable at around 50 per cent for the last 15 years, that isn’t happening in goal. And even less-heralded European goaltenders such as Viktor Fasth, a 30-year-old Swedish rookie last season with the Ducks, are excelling in North America.
“Goalies that seem to be all right here, they get signed by NHL teams, go over there, and do really well,” said Claes Elefalk, an agent to several Swedish NHL stars such as Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Daniel Alfredsson. “It’s really interesting. Every summer now there’s four, five, six goalies signed by NHL teams.”
The secret, Magnusson says, is more special attention: For the majority of their sport’s existence, hockey’s men in masks served primarily as targets for their team’s shooters in practice. Because they play a completely different game than everyone else on the ice, the instruction goalies now receive is akin to the dramatic shift that tight defensive schemes like the trap brought to hockey decades ago.
Unlike skaters, the best goalies rely on a combination of positioning, reflexes, size and a strong mental makeup, and the technique they’re required to learn is becoming more and more complex. “You can’t leave any of the basic components out,” Magnusson said.
He believes that’s why Sweden’s focus on giving every goalie individual attention at a young age has begun to pay off at the elite level. Magnusson also has the benefit of working within a European sport club system, where youth hockey programs are run by professional teams that let even the youngest children access their expertise. AIK, for example, has all of its goalies between the ages of 6 and 16 train together on the ice every Monday at Ulriksdal.
“The older kids help the younger ones,” said Mikael Wernblom, a goalie coach with AIK’s top junior programs, “and they both get a better understanding of the game.”
Not only is this ice time much-less expensive than in Canada, the personalized instruction from people like Wernblom and some of AIK’s volunteer goalie coaches is included in players’ fees. Goalie equipment is oft-subsidized.
“I was just at my grandson’s practice – they’re seven- and eight-year-olds – and they all wanted to be the goalie,” Chicago Blackhawks scout Mats Hallin said. “Every week, they have to rotate and four kids get to try it.”
“We have so many kids wanting to be goalies we can’t handle them all,” Magnusson said.
One outspoken critic of the Canadian system is Steve McKichan, a former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie coach who runs high-level camps throughout Southern Ontario. He argues the financial burden associated with the position means it’s becoming dominated by the “kids of lawyers, doctors, accountants and hedge-fund guys.” As a result, it’s not always the best athletes who become Canada’s goalies.
“There’s great money in it, and I couldn’t handle the demand,” McKichan said of starting his Future Pro Goalie School in 1992. “And there’s a reason why there’s great money in it: People aren’t getting [training] where they’re supposed to be getting it – in their minor hockey organizations.”
Jim Bedard, the Detroit Red Wings goalie coach, said he sees kids “with masks that have $400 or $500 paint jobs, never mind the cost of the mask – it’s just amazing.”
But money isn’t the only barrier to success. With a much bigger geographic area to cover and vastly different minor hockey systems all across it, Canada has never had a universal system like Finland or Sweden, where coaches can be trained and assigned to clubs with oversight from the national association.
Hockey Canada also does not have a certification program for goalie coaches like the one pioneered by Magnusson in Sweden – something it plans to begin instituting next spring.
It’s considered long overdue.
“My personal belief is we should have done some of this earlier,” said Hockey Canada senior manager of player development Corey McNabb, who has made several trips to Finland in the last few years to learn more about its system. “There’s things that they’ve done, especially in Finland and Sweden, that we can take away and make our programs better. There’s not alarm bells going off. But there’s definitely some concerns.”
According to members of Canada’s goaltending community, the biggest factor behind the country’s waning talent in goal has been complacency. They argue Canada grew too accustomed to its success, too used to Quebec producing its talent in net and too set in its ways.
Canada was at the forefront of developing goalies throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, when Patrick Roy and his goalie coach with the Montreal Canadiens, François Allaire, transformed the position by developing the drop-to-your-knees butterfly technique that made stand-up netminders obsolete. Quebec then became the NHL’s goalie factory, and for the next 10 years, Canadian goalies played 80 per cent of all the minutes in the league.
Many now say a sort of national self-satisfaction set in, both at the development level and in the pro game. Not only was Allaire’s blocking style overwhelmingly adopted, it was adhered to even after it was surpassed by European approaches that focused more on reflexes and agility.
Part of what happened, former Calgary Flames goalie coach Jon Elkin says, is the game changed. As goalies perfected the butterfly style and completely sealed off the bottom of the net, goal scorers adjusted by learning how to shoot at sharper angles from in close, hammer one-timers up high and deflect pucks at the last moment.
For a goalie, simply being in the right position wasn’t enough any more.
“It’s not an athletic style,” said Elkin, who now runs one of the top goalie training programs in Toronto and is a consultant for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL. “It worked fantastic for then. But as the game has opened up and shooters have been forced to pick corners, that style is not effective any more. You need to react. And there’s a lag in development.
“That [style] has hung around too long in Canada. We haven’t adapted. What you’re seeing now is there was too much of that instruction and we’ve created robots. Unathletic goaltenders.”
Combatting this lack of athleticism is difficult for Hockey Canada.
One major undertaking has been assembling an advisory group involving several former NHL goalies and goalie coaches such as Sean Burke, David Marcoux, Rick Wamsley, Bill Ranford, Fred Brathwaite and Dwayne Roloson to try to begin the collaborative process that has been so successful in other countries.
Hockey Canada also believes newer initiatives – like the annual Program of Excellence goaltending camp in Calgary for the country’s top junior goalies – will begin to pay off.
“Four or five years ago, when we were winning gold medals in everything, the reality is our goaltending probably wasn’t as good as we thought it was,” McNabb said. “And right now, our goaltending isn’t as bad as people think it is. I think we’re going to see another rise.
“But probably in reality, it’s going to take about five years for this current generation of goalies who are about 12 years old to develop before we really start to see big differences.”
Those on the ground floor of goalie development like Elkin and McKichan agree the main way to improve the level of Canadian goaltending is to simply make goalies and their coaches much more of a priority. That means finding ways to provide equipment to children, getting a broader group of athletes playing goal, educating a lot more goalie coaches and having more goalie-specific ice time available.
“You’ve got to be helped out some way or another to get into the position,” said Carolina Hurricanes netminder Justin Peters, whose hometown of Blyth, Ont., had a unique goalie equipment-sharing program that allowed him to try the position when he was young. “That should be in the budget of the team or in minor hockey somehow to try and help.”
McKichan is passionate on the subject.
“This is our sport. This is our religion. But the most integral part of a team’s success gets the least amount of instruction,” he said. “It’s called purposeful ignorance. … We need to supply time to train them, so that a kid that doesn’t have any money can play and learn. The next Eddie Belfour may be a kid in Mount Brydges, Ont., whose dad works at a factory, but we may never know.”
Working together and coming up with a common curriculum, he argues, was the first step for Sweden in building its goalie factory, and it will work elsewhere.
“There are some great thinkers in goaltending in Canada,” Magnusson said. “What I would suggest is they co-operate. We have a community here where all the goalie coaches work together in one way or another. We’re competing in elite hockey, we compete to run our goalie schools, but in developing the sport, we co-operate.
“I think we’ve done something good and we’re proud of it,” he added. “If others want to know what we’re doing – like the Russians do, and some Canadian coaches – it shows we’ve done something right.”
Lead photo by Johnathan Hayward/CP