Goaltending is a unique position within the hockey world. It is wildly misunderstood and poorly analyzed. The industry as a whole seems to pass the buck to “goalie people” when seeking information or guidance about pretty much anything regarding the position. This correlates to the way fans view the position, as well. Coming from the perspective of someone who plays, studies and analyzes the nuances of the discipline, this can be quite frustrating.
One of the most egregiously misunderstood aspects is the psychology associated with manning the crease. It is a complicated relationship you have with just about everyone on the ice; from the head coach to your teammates, referees and fans. From reading commentary -not only from this site, but from the larger media, in general- how a person feels about a goaltender’s role, value or behavior can vary greatly.
In Rangerland, this is often a discussion involving Henrik Lundqvist, and his many faults or virtues. This morning, I thought I would provide some context to that discussion. I want to give everyone a basic primer in goaltender psychology and the factors that influence the way a goaltender sees the game and its environment.
There are several factors that make this a difficult exercise. First, the perspective and understanding of this experience is innate to goaltenders. It is second nature, and very rarely does it have to be explained to those outside the position. Second, you have many disparate elements that functionally add up to the same thing. When things are going well, goaltenders are psychologically similar to every other athlete. It’s when things go wrong that the mindset becomes unique. Due to this, I apologize if the conclusions seem redundant, but bear with me. When this is over, I hope you all understand your goalie, whether on the ice or on TV, just a little bit more.
From the outset, a goaltender is burdened by the proverbial “you had one job” viewpoint on the role he or she plays in the game. Everything springs from that basic concept. A goaltender’s job is to stop the puck. Most people don’t care how or why, just that it gets done. This frames the most basic misunderstanding of a goalie’s psyche. Just because the job is conceptually simple, doesn’t mean that the skills or approach to that job is.
Goaltenders in hockey are fundamentally different than the rest of their teammates. If you were to explain what a skater of any position must be able to do during the course of a game, you could fill pages. Everything from scoring to defending to getting sticks in lanes and making quality passes. For a goaltender, what he or she has to do is stop the puck.
The benefits and consequences for skaters are typically fluid. You can look at a player’s time on the ice through a series of dozens of decisions and actions; some commendable and some not. However, the biggest difference is that when a goaltender makes a mistake, the consequences are absolute. Pointing this out is not to seek sympathy; this is why we signed up for the position, after all. It is to delineate the specific differences in how we approach our work versus a skater.
There is an inherent isolation to the position. The old adage of the “last line of defense”, if you will. You stand in that crease alone. The puck got past you. You don’t have the comradery and communication of sitting on the bench with your teammates between shifts. You naturally develop a mentality of self-accountability and your skills development tends to focus on the individual. In stark contrast to your teammates, who’s skill development focuses on interactions with other players on the ice (passing, systems, special teams, etc.).
This will typically manifest itself in the reaction to negative experiences, whether it is an individual goal allowed or a prolonged series of losses. The first thing to remember is that you are absolutely helpless when it comes to the positive side of the scoring ledger. You cannot score goals (save for the once-a-decade empty netter). The best you can do is distribute the puck to someone else to score a goal. You have no control at all over 50% of the game. This creates an anxiety and a frustration that is difficult for other skaters to understand.
A fact of the matter is that most goals in the NHL (and even at lower levels) are scored due to some type of mistake; whether it is the goaltender’s or a skater’(s). Skaters can make mistakes all game, as they have their teammates and their goaltender willing to try to mitigate the cost of that mistake. It’s a little different with goaltenders. If a goaltender makes a mistake, chances are that puck is ending up in the back of the net. The whole nature of the position is to minimize the number of mistakes you make over the duration of the game.
This isn’t to suggest that is the mindset of the individual goaltender, however. The in-game psychology is a constant alignment of mind/body connections that allow you to feel confident in your positioning, skating, puck tracking and general focus. It’s really no different than any other athlete in that regard. Alternatively, it is exceptionally rare in sports that you can do your job comprehensively and technically well, and still experience a negative outcome.
That more than anything else, is the true burden of the goaltender. You can play a situation perfectly and you’re still looking up at that red light. If you have never put the pads on, I cannot explain to you the level of “oh, come on!” frustration that can create. There are times when you want to absolutely unload on the players on your team after a goal. Lazy backchecking, blown coverage, mis-communications, bad turnovers…I could go on all day. All of these things materially sabotage your ability to do your job well.
Different goaltenders handle this emotional component in different ways. Some externalize it violently (see Hextall, Ron). Some internalize it. Most are somewhere in the middle. Obviously, you need to be accountable for your own mistakes and sometimes you just tip your cap to the shooter when they truly earn it. There are times, though, regrettably, that your frustration vents out at teammates. Every goaltender is guilty of this.
Anger and frustration are also not necessarily compartmentalized. When you observe a goaltender appearing angry/frustrated/exasperated, etc., it is not clear where that emotion is directed. It could just as easily be directed at himself, or a combination of feeling like you could have played the scenario better, but still irritated at being put into it by the players on the ice. It’s very rarely as simple as “the left defenseman screwed up, so I am mad at him” or “my team is hanging me out to dry”.
I know what some of you are thinking: “you shouldn’t let the other team see that you are angry/they are in your head/you can be thrown off your game”, etc., etc. Sorry, but that is just not going to happen. Your failure to stop the puck in that instance has a significant effect on the outcome of the game. You are going to react to that failure. Some guys are better at hiding it than others, but it is an inevitable outcome. It is a very difficult thing to believe that you are giving everything you have in a situation and someone else’s laziness or poor decision-making cost you that effort.
Dave mentioned in his post the other day that he believed Hank should be the next captain of the re-building Rangers. Surprisingly, I’m going to break with Dave on this one. I honestly do not believe goalies should be captains. Goalies can be leaders, and damn good ones, but the basic function you provide to your team is not one that is relatable enough to the rest of the group to serve in that role. When you look back in the history of great goaltenders, there are an incredibly small amount that seemed to outwardly create that supportive environment for their teammates to rally around. Most of the greats were borderline obsessive personalities that were prone to intense outbursts and emotional responses. Great goalies hate to lose, hate to be scored on and hate to see their teammates contribute to that failure. They are competitors, but their perspective does not align with the rest of the team nearly often enough to be the guiding hand.
Goaltenders are complicated people. We believe with every fiber of our being that having a disk of frozen rubber shot at us at 80+ mph is the most fun thing we can do with our free time. We see the game differently. We are fortunate in that we get a 360 degree look at how plays develop and breakdowns in flow and coverage. However, it is a blessing and a curse. The absolutism of the position can distance you from your teammates. Now, this is not to paint goaltenders as bad teammates or people always looking to throw the blame on others. Goaltenders are always the hardest on themselves. For 90% of the game, you give all you have back there for the other five guys on the ice. It’s just that getting scored on triggers a complicated set of emotions.
This is part of the difference in how fans see things, as well. Some people see a guy on an island doing everything he can despite the actions of those around him. Others see a selfish loner who would rather blame others when he is ultimately accountable. The truth is somewhere in the middle and it can be very difficult to understand unless you really care about understanding.
For those of you who skate yourselves, I always encourage people to take a practice or a scrimmage or grab some buddies and rent a sheet. Throw the pads on and try to understand the position a little more. Next time you watch Hank look visibly dejected and throw a little shade at a snow-angel’ing defenseman, understand that is a complex response and he is only reacting that way because of how intensely he cares and wants to win. People mistake this reaction for playing only for yourself or your own glory. This is simply not the case. To excel in this position, keeping the puck out of the net has to be the most important thing. Whether it’s your fault or your teammates’, the fact that the puck went in should make you that angry. Otherwise, you should be looking for another goaltender.