Canada looks to Scandinavia for goaltending help

Carey Price makes a save against Sweden at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. (Nathan Denette/CP)

To be the best you have to train like the best.

And if you’re charged with overseeing the future of Canadian goaltending that means looking elsewhere for inspiration. The destination in this case is Scandinavia, where six Hockey Canada representatives are about to wrap up a tour of some of the top goalie programs in the world.

The trip is only one part of a much broader development plan, but it is also an acknowledgement that others are currently setting the industry standard.

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Faced with a declining number of elite Canadian-born goaltenders, Hockey Canada is being honest with itself. Paul Carson, the organization’s vice-president of hockey development, concedes that “we took our eye off the ball for a little bit.”

“To me, that means while we were busy working on ‘A’ we sort of let ‘B’ slip,” Carson explained to Sportsnet this week. “Were we developing current resources for goaltending specialists? Were we developing opportunities and experiences for young goaltenders to find their way into these high-performance camps?

“Our system itself has relied heavily on the goaltending instructional industry to provide goaltenders with support, but don’t we as a national sport organization also have a responsibility to provide that so that it’s a more cost-effective, more accessible and much more current instructional plan than what we had in the past few years?”

The times are changing.

Hockey Canada is now in its second year of revamping the way goaltenders are groomed. An advisory group was created to guide the efforts and there’s been a push to establish a curriculum to help out coaches at the lower levels of minor hockey.

What this is really all about is resources and that’s where the Finns and Swedes come in.

Both country’s hockey federations have seen great success after placing a heavy focus on goaltender development. Finland was the first to do it, starting in the mid-1990’s, when it trained huge numbers of specialized coaches that were divided into regions.

It was no coincidence that Sweden created a similar model after goaltending was identified as the country’s weakest area of development during a symposium in 2002.

In some ways, that is similar to where Canada finds itself now.

Hence the decision to send advisory group members Rick Wamsley, Fred Brathwaite and Corey Hirsch overseas along with Corey McNabb, who works for Carson at Hockey Canada; Joe Birch, the Canadian Hockey League’s senior director of hockey development; and Colin Zulianello, a high school teacher from Thunder Bay, Ont., who instructs goalies and brings a grassroots perspective.

They spent five days in Sweden last week with Thomas Magnusson, the federation’s top goaltending coach, and will wrap up a similar tutorial in Finland with Hannu Nykvist on Friday.

Corey Hirsch on Twitter: “Spent the day on the ice in Finland with mini goalies. @HockeyCanada”

In both cases, the hosts arranged a program for the Canadians that included visits with clubs and other top goaltending minds in their countries. The sharing of information and ideas has been free-flowing.

“(It’s) been very valuable not only to view what they do, but how they do it, and the structure they have developed to run their goaltending development,” McNabb wrote in an email from Helsinki.

The exchange of ideas between rival federations isn’t completely unprecedented — Canada and Finland have done annual coaching exchanges in the past — but this kind of tour is unique. It has covered a range of experiences.

“What we had them do is get out and see youngsters on the ice receive goaltending instruction at the grassroots level, the development level, the high-performance level,” said Carson, who helped organize the trip. “As well, they took their equipment. They’re on the ice, they’re working in an integrated manner in some of those sessions.

“We also wanted to make sure that we certainly weren’t there to just take, take, take. We had the opportunity to offer up some information about what we’re doing with goaltending development.”

Lessons learned will be put into action almost immediately. Hockey Canada has an instructional seminar with branch representatives from across the country planned for next month and the six men who went to Sweden and Finland will report on what they observed.

There should be plenty to share.

“It’s been like a university in goaltending,” Hirsch, a former NHL goalie and goalie coach, tweeted of the trip. “Great goaltending minds together. Amazing experience.”

It could prove to be a valuable one for Team Canada down the line, too.

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