There is, apparently, a new crisis in Canadian hockey. As with almost every summer, there’s a summit to bemoan something seemingly wrong with the game. This year’s hand-wringing at an Ontario Hockey League symposium, aptly named 'Protect the Net' is focused on the development – or, more specifically, the lack thereof – of Canadian goaltenders.
That has led to the Canadian Hockey League banning teams from selecting European goalies in their annual import draft starting in 2014. The import netminders – all 11 of them this year in the 60-team CHL – are stealing roster spots that could be going to Canadians.
Jordan Binnington is one of Canada’s best and brightest in net, having represented the nation at the 2013 world junior championship. He was recently named the Ontario Hockey League’s goaltender of the year.
“There’s nowhere near a crisis,” said the Owen Sound Attack netminder. “There are tons of great Canadian goalies out there. With the European goalies sometimes it adds a little bit more competition and maybe makes it harder for the Canadian goalies to develop more, but it's good competition.”
The fact that Canada came home without a medal at the world junior this year for the first time in 14 years has only seemed to fuel the fire around the net controversy. But instead of looking inward at the issues facing developing goaltenders in Canada, the finger is being pointed towards Europe.
“Eliminating 10 or 11 (roster) spots, that’s a drop in the bucket,” said Jim Bedard, the goaltending coach for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings for the past 16 seasons.
It might be hard for some to stomach, but international hockey federations are now beating Canada at what it believes is its own game.
“I think for sure over the last couple years that other countries have caught up to Canada in terms of determination and development,” said Binnington.
For many followers of junior hockey, the banning of import goalies is nothing more than a convenient scapegoat for deeper issues. It’s one thing to have talent, but it’s another to manage that talent properly. Development and the teaching of fundamentals happen long before a player is ready for the CHL. That happens in minor hockey.
And the cold hard fact is playing hockey in Canada has become an expensive undertaking. Many families can no longer afford the cost – ice time, travel fees, equipment, etc. – to keep their children playing. It’s even pricier if your child happens to be a goaltender. It can become financially crippling and many talented goalies are forced out by economics.
“That’s definitely a factor,” said Bedard, a former OHL goaltender who also runs summer camps to help young goalies. “I see kids who come to camp with a lot of potential but their equipment is very shabby. You can see that the parents have been stretched to the limit with the cost of the equipment. If you want everything custom and to keep up with everything, you’re looking at a $2,500 to $4,000 bill from head-to-toe.
"It’s a very expensive position.”
Former OHL netminder Miguel Beaudry is the goalie equipment buyer for Source for Sports in Sudbury, Ont. He said it can cost up to 30 per cent more to outfit a goaltender than a regular skater with gear for minor hockey. Even with suppliers now manufacturing cheaper equipment in China, the price of having a goaltender in the family is high.
“It’s a little bit cheaper than it used to be for goalies,” said Beaudry, who played for OHL teams in Sudbury and Mississauga and then went on to play in the Central Hockey League. “A conservative estimate without going too crazy for a little guy – nine or 10 – you could do the basics for around $1,500.
“It’s definitely more expensive than a regular player, absolutely.”
Some minor hockey associations help provide gear while many more have web pages for parents to buy, sell, or trade equipment which is helpful for keeping costs down when you’re dealing with growing children. The older the player gets, the more important it is to have better protection - and better equipment is more expensive.
Allan Joudoin’s son, Richard, decided to become a goaltender at age 7. Richard eventually went on to play Triple-A for the Upper Canada Cyclones in eastern Ontario, and then Tier II and Jr. B in Brockville, Ont., before deciding to only play recreationally. Allan, who works as a financial planner in Brockville, took a rough guess at what it cost him to put his son through minor hockey as a netminder over the course of his career.
“I’d say at least $20,000 to $25,000 and that’s just for equipment,” said Joudoin. “And as they get older the more expensive it is. It depends on where they are playing too, because Richard played Double-A and Triple-A all the way through, so he had to have the right gear to have the protection and the right gear to keep him as competitive as possible.”
There is also the high cost for goalie-specific training, since most minor hockey teams are without a designated goalie coach. Coaching clinics for goaltenders are a necessity that can run into the thousands for parents and that’s not even counting the time and mileage to get them there.
“I’d say on instruction alone that was at least $500 to $1,000 a year for a 10-year period,” said Jodouin, who would drive Richard an hour each way from Prescott, Ont., to Ottawa for coaching. “So we spent at least $10,00 to $15,000 on goalie instruction.”
And that’s not even counting registration fees, ice-time and related ancillaries such as traveling to out-of-town tournaments and spending weekends in hotels. So, the problem of development starts long before players ever make it to the CHL. One way in which European federations are combating the cost of developing their goalies is by providing regional development camps free of charge.
Bedard, who spends time in Sweden and Finland working at various goaltending camps, says both countries have done an excellent job fostering talent. Most of the NHL’s elite goaltenders like Henrik Lundqvist (Sweden), Tuukka Rask (Finland), Antti Niemi (Finland), Sergei Bobrovsky (Russia) and Pekka Rinne (Finland) were all developed at home.
In Sweden and Finland it’s not uncommon to have a head goalie coach with four or five instructors travel around the country to work with goalies, visiting every team at almost every level of hockey.
“They schedule all the kids in with practices and if they’re working with say 10-12 year olds’ teams, they’ll maybe have six (goalies) in one session,” said Bedard, who played 14 seasons in Finland with TPS in the SM-liiga. “But they’ll have all those goalies work with them on fundamentals and power skating. So that’s where they’re farther ahead of us. Here it’s strictly private enterprise all the time and parents are whisking kids off to private lessons.”
Even in the early 1990s, when Bedard was still playing in Finland, the regional coaching model was helping.
“This guy just showed up one day out of nowhere and said, ‘I’m your goalie coach for the next week','' said Bedard. “I said, ‘great’ and he helped me a lot. I still use some of the things he taught me. I’m all for kids getting as much help as they can.”
He doesn’t understand why the CHL would only single out European goaltenders as the problem, when there are pricier issues at hand. Bedard also believes that competition – playing against the best – can only make you better.
“When I was in Europe playing, I had to be better than anybody else they could have there,” said Bedard, who coached Detroit's goalies to Stanley Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2008. “You can’t be the same, you have to better and that goes for forwards and defencemen, too.”
His message for the CHL and anyone who thinks they can get by without including the best is simple.
“How about be better? Be better than them,” said Bedard of the perceived European threat. “In the NHL we can’t have import goalies eventually because we want to make sure that Timmy and Tommy and Bobby and Billy get a chance to play? If you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough. That’s the way it goes.”