Some Thoughts on Pulling the Starting Goalie

June 21, 2013 − by admin − in Goaltending, Philosophy − No Comments

One of the most difficult situations you will encounter as a goalie occurs when the coach makes the decision to pull you from the game. When this happens, the goaltender is often filled with a sense of failure in having not lived up to his own personal expectations or those of the coach and team.

These are natural feelings and you might take some consolation in the knowledge that even the best goalies in the world have been pulled more than once. In fact, the higher you climb on the ladder of competitive hockey, the more demanding coaches become of their goaltenders. The fact that many coaches don’t understand the position very well doesn’t make things any easier.

After getting pulled, it is important to keep your emotions under control. Slamming the door or sulking on the bench won’t make things any better. On the way off the ice, give the incoming goalie a tap on the pads and when you get to the bench take some deep breaths.

In a few minutes, the anger will subside and you can then do the self-analysis that is required to make the most of the situation. The self-analysis should be the same as you would do after every game. Replay the goals you gave up and rate them as:

A) I simply should have had it.
B) I could have had it but it would have been a good save.
C) I didn’t have a chance.
D) Was there anything I could have done differently on any of the goals?

It is also important for you to understand that sometimes goalies are pulled for other reasons than poor play. Frequently coaches make this move because they have run out of options in their efforts to turn the game around. Unfortunately, the goalie becomes the scapegoat for the team’s indifferent play. I know this doesn’t always seem fair but life in hockey isn’t always fair and this in itself is an important lesson.

From the coaching standpoint, I think it is critical for the coach to give immediate reassurance to his goaltender by going down to the end of the bench and having a quick word with him. It could be something as simple as “keep your chin up… it’s just an off night… every goalie has them.” or “the team wasn’t playing for you… it’s not your fault.” I can tell you from personal experience, it will ease the goaltender’s sense of dejection and it will also keep the lines of communication open.

In terms of communication, it is surprising how many goaltenders get pulled from games without any understanding of why they were pulled. Their goal analysis didn’t reveal any goals that they should have had. To make matters worse, the coach didn’t offer any explanation to the goalie at the end of the game. Personally, I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the goaltender to approach the coach for answers. The coach should be the one to speak with the goalie after the game to offer his reasons for making the move and also offer his reassurance and bolster the goalie’s confidence.

Personally, I have very mixed feelings on whether or not coaches should pull their starting goalie during the regular season. I have spent almost fifty years in hockey as a goalie, goalie coach, goalie parent, high school coach and AAA coach with the York Simcoe Express … so I think it’s fair to say that I have had to look at this issue from almost every angle. I should begin by saying that I fully understand the myriad of reasons that coaches frequently use for pulling their starting goaltender. Each can be justified as being good for the team and also, in the long run, for the goalie involved. However, after over 30 years behind the bench as a Head Coach, I have only pulled my starting goalie once.

So why have I only removed my starting goaltender once in all those years behind the bench?

1. I think it’s important for the goalie to know that it’s his game no matter what. I don’t want my goalie looking over his shoulder for the hook after giving up a couple of bad goals. I have, on occasion, pulled the starting goalie for a couple of shifts to help him refocus. Naturally, there are pros and cons to this move.

2. It is important for me to know if my goalie can battle back from a bad start and finally find his game. This is an important piece of knowledge as the team moves into the playoffs.

3. The season should be used for giving every player the chance to develop. I don’t think pulling a goalie helps in the development of the goaltender. Playing time is essential and to deprive the goalie of playing time is counter- productive to the goalie and ultimately to the team.

4. It all depends on the importance one attaches to winning. As one moves into the playoffs where winning is of more importance, I would be more inclined to pull the goalie for the aforementioned traditional reasons. However, winning during the season is not nearly so important. I prefer to see these games as preparation for the playoffs. Therefore, my goalies should get as much playing time as possible.

So, when would I remove my starting goalie?

1. As always, it depends on the situation. I think it’s safe to say that I would remove the goalie if he needed to come out. I would ascertain this by his body language or by calling him to the bench for a quick chat, similar to those of the pitching coach going to the mound to talk to his pitcher. If I was convinced that it was in my goalies best interest to come out of the game then I would make that decision.

2. If it was a must win situation and my goalie got off to a bad start and had demonstrated throughout the season that he rarely turned it around as the game progressed, I would not hesitate to make that decision for the good of the team. I would define a must win situation as a playoff game or tournament final.

Finally, I think it’s important for the coach to sit down with his goalies and their parents at the beginning of the season to discuss his coaching philosophy. If everyone understands the expectations going into the season then it will make things much easier in the heat of competition.

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