It’s often called the most technical position in sports.
That fact, along with the desire to step in front of frozen slabs of rubber being fired upwards of 100 miles per hour, makes those who make their living stopping pucks a rare breed who’ve had to stick to it to standout on the last line of defence.
“Ever since I started hockey I always wanted to be a goalie, but my parents didn’t want to spend all that money, it’s an expensive position,” said Okotoks Jr. A Oilers 1999-born netminder Ashton Abel. “They wanted me to be a better skater so they wouldn’t let me right away.
“I used to get my parents to shoot on me with mini-sticks in the kitchen when I was young and that’s kind of where it all started.”
After playing as a forward in Fort McMurray, Abel made the switch to goalie in Atom and hasn’t looked back since.
“Growing up in Fort McMurray we didn’t always have a solid team so I used to get a lot shots back in those days and I think that helped my development, getting peppered with shots,” he said.
The unflappable netminder certainly has the right demeanor for the role.
“I’ve always been a more mellow guy,” he said. “I think that helps you out in the net, just staying calm, not getting too high or too low emotions when you’re playing.
“It’s probably the biggest part of goaltending, getting focused for games and dialing yourself in mentally, not getting in your head after letting in a bad goal or something like that, just being able to shake those things off.”
For Abel, Carey Price has been the guy to aspire towards. For a second-year shot-stopper on the Okotoks Jr. B Bisons inspiration came on a more local level.
“It was actually when my brother (Zach) was playing,” said Bisons goalie Matt Baba. “The Bisons goalie back then Tyler Hughes was a big inspiration for me. He kind of got me into the goaltending business. That was a pretty good start for me, watching him play, watching my brother play.
“That was a pretty successful team, Bisons first and only provincial.”
Baba was already a masked warrior at that point —but watching the athletic shot-stopper on the herd was the impetus to take the position seriously going forward.
“He came out to a few of my Bantam practices, that’s the age group I was in when I really got into it,” Baba said. “He was good — he was a good role model for me to look up to.”
On top of motivation in the form of on-ice success in front of his eyes, Baba was also drawn to the distinctive individuality each netminder possesses — from the butterfly goalie to the old-school stand-up style.
“I just like being different, it’s very unique,” he said. “A lot of the players are going to have their own style, but in the end they have the same goal.
“Goalie, you’ve got your own set of goals you’ve got to achieve and I just try my best to do that.”
His partner in the Bisons crease also got a later start in the position after not exactly enjoying playing out.
Devin Reagan also followed in the footsteps of his father who minded the net for the Wainwright Bisons back in the day.
“My dad was a goalie and my older brother (Brady) shooting on me in the barn all the time so I thought I may as well,” Reagan said. “I just went to goalie clinics and just stuck with it.”
Persistence paid off for the 6-foot-4 netminder who grew up idolizing former Vancouver Canuck and Florida Panther Roberto Luongo.
“He’s a leader, he had the captaincy and he was a good goalie,” Reagan said. “He’s a big guy and doesn’t have to move very much.”
After a couple strong seasons with the Westaskiwin Icemen, Reagan joined the Bisons and in parts of three seasons has been the backbone of the squad with a career save percentage of .924 through his first 72 games.
“The spotlight and being in the game the whole time and having pressure on your shoulders. I’ve always liked that pressure,” he said. “You have to be better mentally than physically because if you know you can stop a shot you can stop a shot.
“Even if you’re in the best shape in the world if you don’t think you can stop it you probably won’t stop it.”
Reagan said keeping the same mindset all game, regardless of the score or situation has been the best advice he’s received about the position.
It’s often a battle in between the ears for the netminders who get nary a break during the game to rest.
“It’s definitely mental, as a goalie you play 75 per cent of the game in your head, even more,” Baba said. “As long as you can manage that.
“Just stay calm — in the end it’s still a game, you’ve got to have fun with it. The second you’re not having fun is when the success starts to drain out the floor.”
Training the mind is just as important as training the body to instinctually stop the puck and there are many tricks industry experts use to handle that challenge.
For Oilers second-year goaltender Brady Parker it can be as simple as learning to break the game up into segments.
“If you’re overwhelmed just take it in chunks – whether it be a period or a minute,” Parker said. “A lot of guys say just focus on the next shot, that’s a big one, just breathing through it and staying in the moment is another big one.
“At this level everyone can play, everyone can stop pucks so the difference maker is definitely attitude and being able to let stuff go.”
Decompressing after games and practices and getting away from it all is also a pretty good idea. And there are many ways to take the edge off.
“It’s different for everyone, but just find something you like to do outside that can take your mind,” Parker said. “Whether it be golf in the summers, or some guys like music, I like yoga. It helps me on the ice and also it’s a nice a mental break trying to calm your thoughts down.”
Parker charted his own course after playing the position to start out with in Arizona before moving back to the Stampede City.
“I started when I was 11 or 12, so definitely later and I think that benefited my skating and my quickness in the net,” said Parker, who started as a defenceman.
“For one year I kind of did both and once I chose goalie I was all in.
“Right when I started I loved the compete, you’re playing the whole 60 minutes and I liked the feeling of making big saves as opposed to being a d-man and being steady and making passes.”
Teaching the position has come a long ways as Okotoks Oilers goalie and video coach Derek Purfield can personally attest.
“When I played Midget AAA and Junior I never had a goalie coach,” said Purfield, who played junior in the BCHL and KIJHL. “The coach always told me to stop the puck and figure it out. So eventually after I quit I thought ‘you know, I want to try to help these kids’ and had a passion for it.
“I wanted to give back, and I still do, because I never had one.”
On a typical week, Purfield and the Oilers goaltenders go through extensive video sessions looking at past performances. The coach also goes through advanced scouting on future opponents to pick up on not only tendencies of the players but opposition goaltenders as well.
“Typically on Tuesday before the video Abel and Brady will meet with myself and we’ll go through the weekend and just talk about it and set some goals for this (coming) week,” Purfield said. “Some stuff that we’ve seen in video that we can clean up a bit.”
Many NHL teams now have three goalie coaches with the recognition of how important the position is to team success. Other evolutions to the position include the importance of puck handling.
“Watch both of our goalies and Riley Morris a couple years ago,” Purfield said. “When you have that puck-handling goalie it takes a lot off pressure off the D.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the position takes a great deal of dedication.
“You’ve definitely got to love it, you’ve got to love showing up to the rink every day and if you love it you’re going to get better,” Parker said. “You’re going to compete, you’re going to want to make every save and just having that passion for the position is probably the best advice I could give.”
Purfield echoed the sentiment, noting the difficult road goalies have in advancing given just how finite the spots on a team are in between the pipes.
“The biggest thing is work hard at it because there’s only two,” he said. “It’s the work ethic, it’s taking pride in the position, and it’s being a student of the game. At the end of the day as you grow up, there’s only limited spots so every time you get on the ice as a goalie you’ve got to take advantage of it.
“Your mentality should be first on and last off, you’ve got to put the work in. It’s ultimately working at it every day, it’s a day in, day out thing.”