What it Takes to be a D1 Goalie

What does it take to be a successful goaltender in Men’s Division 1 College Hockey?  More than you’d think. I interviewed five goalies from five different Division 1 conferences to find out.

At universities where hockey is particularly popular, there can be a great deal of pressure on the team to perform.  The player who shoulders the bulk of that burden, however, is invariably the goaltender.  Games sell out days in advance.  Arenas are packed solid every night.  With fans chanting their name, taunting ‘Sieve, sieve, sieve!’ and ‘It’s all YOUR FAULT!’ after every goal, the crease can be a difficult place to call home.

The goalie must be able to block out the handmade signs, the personalized group cheers – complete with choreography – vilifying his ability/looks/ancestry, the booming school bands, the constant barking of directions from well-meaning fans (‘Hey!  HEY!  You should GET that puck!’), the game announcer, the glare of the Jumbotron, camera flashes around the arena and even jibes on the ice from opposing players assigned to distract him – all of this and more, before he ever stops a puck.

What sets apart an elite goaltender from an average one?  Certainly innate talent is a factor, but what else?

Commitment, sure.  Solid technique and physical stamina, of course.  But a successful goalie requires a unique sensibility; a combination of warrior and behaviorist, coupled with the ability to remain a solid tower of strength for his team while never taking himself too seriously.

He has to be able to read the smallest nuance on the ice while blocking out distractions from everywhere else.  He must watch the play develop, discern probabilities, remember tendencies of individual players (this one usually shoots toward the corners, that one has a dangerous slap shot, etc.) and always be ready for a dozen different scenarios to unfold.  He must also be in top physical shape, with an endurance level that surpasses every other player on the team.

He does not get to sit on the bench every two minutes and rest with his teammates. He has to stand in the crease for nearly every minute of every game, alone, with chaos raining down on him, and see nothing but the game.  Hear nothing but his teammates.  Follow nothing but the puck. And never lose focus.

You may watch a game and notice that the goaltender does not appear to be working very hard; the saves he is making are not that spectacular, in fact the job looks pretty easy. Compared to the other players who have to skate up and down the ice at top speed with a puck, how hard can it be to stand in front of a net and stop a few shots?

The easier that save appears, the better the goalie.  Sure, awesome full-split glove saves are great, but can the goalie stop shot after shot easily, consistently, like it is no big deal?  To do that, the goalie needs to place himself in the exactly right spot and position to stop the puck every time. This means he is able to anticipate the play and beat the shot before it even leaves the shooter’s stick, by ensuring that the puck will hit him squarely on his body, in the area of his choice. Try mastering that.

It takes an incredible amount of work, talent, endurance and guts to be able to make goaltending look easy.

Playing in hostile environments while facing the finest college players in the country demands a great deal of fortitude.  At the end of the game, the majority of the fans and press only remember one thing; the pucks that went in the net did so because ‘the goalie let them in’. That assessment is neither correct nor fair, but that is often just the way it is.

Still, these goaltenders succeed.  How?  What does it take to do what they do?

To find out, I interviewed five Division 1 goalies from five different conferences. Each one is currently or has been a starting goaltender and has a year or more of D1 experience, playing in some of the most inhospitable arenas against the best players college hockey has to offer.

If you know Division 1 hockey, you know how difficult it is for any hockey player to earn a spot on a team, let alone a goaltender.  Thousands of young men from all over the world train for years for the chance to try, to be seen by a scout, to put themselves on the radar of a recruiter. Competition is fierce, as coaches have the luxury of choosing from a large pool of extraordinarily talented players.  Aside from a great education, D1 hockey will often mean a future career in pro hockey, with some even jumping directly into the NHL.  For many, many young men, a spot on a D1 team is the collegiate Holy Grail.

To put it in perspective:  How many players is a coach allowed to have on his roster?  23. How many goalies?  Three. Out of those three, how many are considered to be the ‘starting goaltender’?

One.

That’s how good these guys are.

That is not even taking into account the fact that several D1 schools habitually only offer goaltending scholarships every other year, if at all.

Off the ice, the five goalies I interviewed are vastly different from each other, with personalities ranging from thoughtfully shy to boisterous and goofy.

They have each traveled very different paths to get where they are today, including through the USHL, the EJHL, the NAHL and the US National Team. Although they are all obviously athletes, physically they differ quite a bit as well. Their backgrounds share very few similarities, and their interests and tastes are all over the map.  They each have their own individual style in net, built on thousands of hours perfecting a technique that plays to their strengths.

What do they all have in common?  Success.

I wanted to learn the varied ways these remarkably disparate personalities handle the exact same challenges.

What I discovered is two-fold; first, these are five of the nicest, most modest and down-to-earth young men you will ever meet.

Second, great goalie minds think alike.

With all their differences, there is an interesting thread of similarity regarding goaltending that runs through each of their interviews; a mindset and work ethic that has served as a foundation for success in their goaltending careers.

I spent a lot of time poring over their words, trying to decide what to edit, how to reconcile their insights into one article that best illustrates who they are, the depth of commitment required to get where they are, and what it is like to be there.

In the end I decided not to make any cuts.  Goalies in general are not written about nearly enough as it is, which is a shame because there is a lot going on under those masks!  Instead, I will be featuring each goalie individually, one a week, with their full responses to my ten questions.

My deepest gratitude to the following goalies for taking time out of their incredibly busy schedules to participate:

Cody Reichard, University of Miami (Ohio), CCHA

Joe Cannata, Merrimack College, HOCKEY EAST

Joe Calvi, Bentley University, ATLANTIC

Dan Clarke, Quinnipiac University, ECAC

Joe Howe, Colorado College, WCHA

Part 1:

Joe Calvi, Bentley University, ATLANTIC

Joe Calvi is a senior at Bentley University, majoring in Information Design and Corporate Communication.  In his freshman season, he set the Bentley record for saves in a single season at .936. He earned his first career shutout in just his third college hockey game against the Air Force Academy. Before arriving at Bentley he played for the New England Junior Huskies of the EJHL.  He has been awarded ATLANTIC Goalie of the Week six times thus far, as well as:

ATLANTIC Goalie of the Month

ATLANTIC Rookie of the Month

2007 All Rookie Team

2007 3rd Team All Star

All-Academic Team – 2007, 2008, 2009

Outside of hockey, Joe teaches Sunday school and is president of Campus RENEW.

1.  During the game, most of the attention from opposing fans is focused on YOU, and they do everything they can to get inside your head.  What do you do to keep that from happening?   How do you handle the pressure to play well?  How do you handle it off the ice?

Zoning out the fans is one of the keys to success at any elite level.  Both home and away, you cannot let the emotions of the fans infiltrate your focus.  Playing goalie means that you have to be able to control your thoughts.  You obviously hear them chanting, but it’s important that you do not let it affect your thinking.

(Hearing is not the same as listening, just ask my fiancé!)

The pressure is something that goes along with it.  Like pitchers in baseball or quarterbacks in football, your performance affects the outcome of the game more than any other position.  A bad goal often times can mean the difference between winning and losing.  Taking a night off is not an option.  This requires goalies to be more focused, more determined, and more competitive.  Dealing with this pressure is easy – just don’t think about it!

Nervousness is only an indication of adrenaline, which means your body is at a heightened level of performance.   Feeling nervous builds my confidence that I am ready to play well.  Most importantly, have fun with it! There won’t be many chances in life be in that situation, so enjoy the fans – good or bad.

2. Does being a high profile player ever have an effect on your daily life around campus?  Has there ever been a time when being so recognizable has been a hindrance?  Has there been an instance when it has been particularly helpful?

Getting noticed for your achievements always feels good.  It’s human nature to seek praise for doing good, but it shouldn’t be the only reason for playing.  Many players dream of the glory of playing at an elite level, but I do not think it’s the best way to go about it.  If you enjoy the praise too much, you will also take negative comments too seriously.  To keep yourself stable, it’s best to never get too high or too low.

3.  How do you handle what is said about you in the press and on message boards?  How do you stay focused when sometimes it seems there is an entire city that has an opinion on how you should play?

My parents have raised me to do the best that I can, and forget about the rest.  If I am having a tough time, I can always count on my family to pick me back up. What people write about me is their business, and I cannot change that.  If you can accept this fact, the rest falls into place.

4.  How do you manage to keep your grades up AND keep up with a demanding hockey schedule? How does it affect your life outside of school?

Good question!  Keeping good grades in college while playing college sports is harder than it seems.  Most professors do not cut you any slack for being an athlete, but some do and we are grateful for that.  Practicing two hours a day, traveling on road trips and then game days does not leave you with much free time.  Sometimes this equals up to 25 hours of commitment to the team, whereas most students are free.

The key is to stay diligent.  You cannot procrastinate or you’ll fall behind – it’s that simple.  Players stick together and choose classes with each other.  This helps with studying for tests as a group, and working together to get through busy times.  There isn’t much free time so most of us reserve Sundays as personal days to relax with our friends and family.  This helps us stay grounded and realize that there is more to life than just hockey.

5.  You spent a long time dreaming about being a D1 goalie, how does the reality compare to what you expected?

It’s awesome!  The fact that all of your hard work has culminated into that very moment is indescribable. When you look around a packed arena and see thousands of people who, for just those couple hours, only want to see you play a game of hockey – it’s surreal.

6.  What do you do after a bad game?  How do you mentally prepare for the next one?

I like to watch game tape of bad games, it helps me figure out what exactly I did wrong so I can learn from my mistakes.  I’ve been around hockey long enough to know when I make a mistake – watching the film helps me learn and build my confidence so that I can correct the problem.

Preparing for the next game means that you need to understand that your opponent most likely has game film of your ‘bad’ game.  This means they will probably try to exploit whatever weakness you had before.  Simply accepting that pressure is coming is good enough to move into the next game, as long as you’re ready to defend it.

For instance, if one night I give up bad rebounds and one or two result in a goal against, I can assume the next night the opposing team will be shooting low for rebounds.  If I know they will be shooting for rebounds, I know that I need to use my stick more to control rebounds to the corner.  I need to stay square to the shooter and angle pucks to the outside of the trouble zones. Problem solved!

7.  What does a typical day during hockey season entail?  Is there anything you wish you could change in that schedule, something you’d like to have more time for?

Class, practice, class, class, homework. Sleep. If you can sneak some food in there somewhere, all the better.  If I could change one thing about college hockey it would be not having games back-to-back every weekend.  It’s difficult to perform at top level two nights in a row, especially for goalies who are mentally and physically committed for the entire game. Unfortunately, given the nature of college hockey, this would never work.

8.  When you are a high profile athlete that is playing well, you get all kinds of offers all the time.  Some players end up partying too much, it affects their game and before they know it, they have ruined their chances for a pro career.  Why hasn’t that happened to you?   How do you keep from getting distracted?

I read a book called The 21 Laws of Leadership, where the first law is to ‘Start with the End in Mind’. If you know what/why/who you are playing for, it’s easy to stay the course.  Also, it’s key to stay grounded.  Realize that there is always someone else working harder than you.  If you really want it, you can achieve it.

9.  What sacrifices did you have to make to become a D1 goalie?  And now?   Is there one that you regret?  Something you wish you could have done differently, or an event you wish you hadn’t missed?  In the end, has it all been worth it?

Totally worth it!  Sacrifices have been moving away from my family and friends back home. My family has always encouraged me to pursue my dream and that has definitely helped keep me going.  My Mom and Dad have believed in me since day one and I could not have done it without their incredible support. They pushed me when I felt like giving up on myself, and I will never be able to thank them enough.

10.  What is the one bit of advice you wish someone had given you when you started college hockey?

In high school and/or junior hockey: Get good grades in high school, take AP classes, take college credits while playing junior hockey.  This makes the academic part of college so much easier, which in turn helps you devote more time to hockey and personal life.

When you get to college, take your time – it’s a long four years, so don’t kill yourself over one bad game or practice.  Focus on building a strong team and not worrying so much about you as an individual.  Enjoy the time and let life come at you.  Before you know it, you will be a college senior writing responses to interview questions as though you were a senior citizen!

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5 Responses to “What it Takes to be a D1 Goalie”

  1. Blaine
    January 13, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    Great stuff! It is good for goalies to hear and understand what others go through.

  2. Dad
    January 13, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    Can’t wait to readd the rest of the interviews. Good in-depth questions. Gave me a whole new perspective on the game, and the Goalies’ part and contribution to the team effort

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What it Takes to be a D1 Goalie (Part 2) | INSIDE HOCKEY - January 19, 2011

    [...] Part 1, we examined the extraordinary amount of talent, commitment and hard work required for a goaltender [...]

  2. What it Takes to be a D1 Goalie (Part 3) | INSIDE HOCKEY - January 25, 2011

    [...] In Part 1, we examined the extraordinary amount of talent, commitment and hard work required for a goaltender to reach elite level hockey, as well as the tenacity it takes to succeed in the role of a team’s number one goalie. For insight from the crease, we began with Joe Calvi, a senior and starting goalie for Bentley University. [...]

  3. What It Takes to be a D1 Goalie (Part 4) | INSIDE HOCKEY - February 2, 2011

    [...] In Part 1, we examined the extraordinary amount of talent, commitment and hard work required for a goaltender to reach elite level hockey, as well as the tenacity it takes to succeed in the role of a team’s number one goalie. For insight from the crease, we began with Joe Calvi, a senior and starting goalie for Bentley University. [...]