After spending the past four seasons as the goaltending coach for the Buffalo Sabres organization, I thought I’d share some things that seem to separate the pros from the rest. Here’s what makes them so special.
While being an NHLer appears to be very glamorous (and at times it is), it is an enormous commitment, and a very demanding life. If you are like Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur or Trevor Kidd, among others, you play almost every game—and with just two goalies on most squads, you can’t miss practice.
A demanding schedule
The schedule is unbelievable. The players simply do not stop for eight months. There are no days off, no weekends, and certainly no vacations. The players are either traveling, or on the ice every day. On game days, they skate twice! Those who cannot handle it run out of gas, either physically or mentally.
Heck, the schedule is tough for me—and I do not have to face the rigors of actually playing!
Here’s a typical week:
On Tuesday, players begin arriving at 9 AM for treatment from the trainers (most everyone has some injury that needs attention). From 10:30-Noon there’s practice. At 3 PM, a flight to, say, Hartford (normally a charter). And of course there’s a midnight curfew.
On Wednesday, players begin arriving at the rink at 10 AM to prepare, watch (opposition) Hartford practice and receive treatments. At 11:30, we practice. At 1 PM, the team meal. From 4:30 on, the locker room is open for medical treatment, rubdowns, and equipment (sticks, etc.) preparation.
Puck drop is at 7:30, then a midnight flight back to Buffalo that gets in around 1:15.
Thursday starts with an 11 AM practice. Most players begin arriving at 9:30, however, for medical treatments, physical therapy, etc. Often, players make personal appearances in the early afternoon or evening—from hospitals to card signing, they are very active in the community.
Friday, players begin arriving at the rink early for treatments. Practice runs from 10:30-Noon. At 3 PM, the charter flight departs for Montreal, where the midnight curfew is in effect.
On Saturday, players begin arriving at the Montreal Forum around 10 AM. At 11:30, practice starts. The team meal is at 1:15. At 5 PM, the locker room opens, and at 8 o’clock it’s gametime versus the Canadiens.
Bed down after the game? Not quite.
The midnight flight to Buffalo arrives at 1:30 in the morning, and then the following day a morning media conference is required. Media interviews, often quite a distraction for the players, are also required before games. Is Sunday a day of rest? Well, no. But the 10:30 AM practice is optional. Those needing treatment take it as required. Those who were not in the line-up or who played very little the prior night hit the ice. Options are over at 11:45, when the team meeting is held. At 4 PM the locker room opens in preparation for a 7 o’clock home game against Boston.
Monday and Tuesday, it’s more of the same: 11 AM practice, medical treatments, strength training and rehabilitation that’s done before and after practice. Those who were not in the line-up or who played very little stay on the ice for “extra work,” and do extra off ice—in the weight room, etc.—too.
Wednesday, practice is early, 10 AM. The team meeting is at 11:45, and the game starts at 7:30.
And so it goes.
Between traveling to and from arenas, airports and their homes—along with taking the time to eat very nutritious, excellent meals (fuel in is fuel out!)—along with doing personal appearances, meeting with the media, working out with the strength coach, etc., there is very little time left for much of anything else.
Yet a home life has to fit in somewhere! Most players also have a wife and children.
A tolerance for pain is also a player’s prerequisite.
NHL goalies are tough. They have bruises everywhere, even with the best of equipment. They play hurt and with pain. They have to, if they want to keep their job. And yes, it is a job. If you can’t play, someone else will. While they are team oriented, players are always concerned about keeping their job—and about how they might do on their next contract.
Mental toughness is also required. It’s not easy “getting up” for every practice and all 84 games. The best goalies in the NHL do. They are able to keep that demanding schedule and “come to play” almost every night. And when things don’t go right, they are able to bounce back immediately. They have great confidence levels. They believe in themselves and back it up with their performance.
Naturally, a strong work ethic is vital to success.
There is no “floating.” Too many others want your job. While some do float, they often don’t excel over the long run. They come and they go. The best players are on the ice early, and stay on late.
In Buffalo, I can always count on Dominik Hasek to display those work habits. In the past, I have been most impressed with Bill Ranford’s work ethic, seeing him practice as many as four times on off days. Even on game days, he’s the last off the ice!
True big-leaguers take responsibility. It’s easy to blame the defense, or the centerman, etc., when a goal is scored, but the best NHLers take full responsibility for each goal. It’s their job, regardless of any mistakes in front of them, to stop the puck. They have fire—a great desire to make the difference and never be content to give up goals that should go in. They want to be amazing. The best don’t dwell on goals. They don’t let the goals upset them, but rather use them to get fired up and not give up another. They respond to coaching, and never have an excuse.
The amazing thing?
These NHL players may be the best at what they do now—thoroughbreds, with exceptional physical and mental skills and great athleticism. But don’t be scared! They started just like every other youngster, playing house league, travel team, getting up at 5 AM on a Saturday morning.
They started out like you.
The difference? They took advantage of their opportunities, improved their game by mastering all of the above.
Work hard, everyone, and you can too!!
Mitch Korn is the goaltender coach for the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL. In addition, he is an administrator at Miami University (Ohio) and directs the 8-week Summer Hockey School. Miami has Division I ice hockey in the CCHA.