TORONTO – Steve Briere’s dreams come with blueprints.
Before making the prestigious, prodigious leap to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Briere’s goaltending journey took him right through the guts of middle America hockey, with a British detour.
Among so many others, he’s been employed either as player or coach by the Memphis Riverkings, Mississippi Sea Wolves, Fife Flyers, Amarillo Gorillas, Basingstoke Bison, Huntsville Havoc, Fargo Force, Omaha Lancers and Topeka Roadrunners. (Aside: Aren’t minor-minor-league hockey team names poetry?)
Were Briere to stitch a patch of each of his pre-Leafs clubs on a jacket, there would be no room for the buttons.
“Everything I have in life is because of goaltending — and I’m a midget,” says the 41-year-old Briere.
All five feet, eight inches of the Frederik Andersen whisperer is standing confidently on a Humber College dais between of a PowerPoint presentation and a crowded, humid auditorium at the eighth annual TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference sweaty with hockey men who paid $450 in a weekend effort to become better teachers, putting in July overtime in hopes they too can mould raw talent into winners.
“I’m a short, fat, bald guy from Winnipeg. I got a master’s degree, a beautiful wife. I’ve been around the world, all from being a goalie,” Briere asserts. “Facing adversity from a young age, that pressure — it’s the greatest gift anybody could’ve ever given me.”
He taps the post again: “It’s the greatest gift in the world.”
Those that can’t do, teach. Or so they say. You could make alphabet soup out of Briere’s own goaltending career, which features stat lines from the USHL, NCAA, CHL, AHL, ECHL, IHL, BNL, EIHL and SPHL. But many of his GAAs begin with a 3 (there’s even a 5 in there) and too many of his save percentages start with two snowmen. Busting his butt to stop pucks in states and countries that can’t boast an NHL franchise was an education but not a profitable one.
“When you’re making $500 a week, $366 after taxes, living in Biloxi, Mississippi, there’s not a lot of money left at the end of the week,” Briere explains.
So, he spun his Biloxi Blues into Biloxi green. When he wasn’t manning the crease, Briere was developing and growing his own business, Canadian Professional Goalie Schools. Earning peanuts playing for Basingstoke in the U.K.’s EIHL, he’d use the eight-hour game-day bus rides from Scotland to London to launch an Internet company that he flipped for $40,000 — the exact sum he and his wife needed for a down payment on a home. The business acumen he picked up from the goalie schools was transferrable to a host of other realms. (“I ran a biotech company,” Briere says. “I don’t know s— about biotech.”)
Sensing his playing days were numbered, Briere earned a master’s degree in entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama and began teaching management courses on the side.
Given an opportunity to coach junior goaltenders, the forward-thinking Briere developed what he calls “The Goalie Business Plan,” applying the same pillars of a successful start-up to creating a successful puck-stopper.
All his pupils would have to do is follow Briere’s meticulous training program — right there in black and white — and he wouldn’t even need to be on the ice with them.
Briere’s first student, Jeff Teglia, didn’t know how to butterfly when Briere got him. When he was finished, in 2010, Teglia went 30-10-5 for the Omaha Lancers, was crowned the USHL’s goalie of the year and earned a full ride to the University of Massachusetts. Briere, coaching a 12.5-hour drive away from Huntsville, would check in weekly with Teglia to make sure he was following the plan, but only visited Teglia in Omaha twice all season.
Briere’s plan worked. More students in more cities would mean more money. He can now count Edmonton starter Cam Talbot and Bruins prospect Zane McIntyre among his graduates.
“I had six goalies and all six got drafted to the NHL. That was the last time I coached junior hockey,” says Briere, who landed the Leafs gig in July 2015.
“My dream is to be the best goalie coach in the world.”
The best teachers are lifelong students. Briere mentored under 27-year NHL guru Mitch Korn. He spent his own money to travel the globe and learn why Finland and Sweden had become better at training goalies than Canada.
“The No. 1 thing they do [in Finland] is praise goaltenders,” Briere says.
He zipped over to San Diego and observed Navy SEAL training to understand the mentality of performers under the utmost pressure — and steal it. The stereotype of military commanders berating their charges into excellence is a myth perpetuated by cinema. On the contrary, Briere discovered.
“They were the most positive people I’ve ever met. Everything was, ‘Great job. You did an amazing job,’” Briere says. “If you have a goalie who feels good about himself, he’s going to play well.
“A confident goalie is better than a good goalie any day of the week.”
We know, for instance, Briere will put together a highlight reel of Andersen’s best saves to pump up the Toronto starter before a critical game instead of running through video of his mistakes.
Andersen posted career highs in wins (38) and shutouts (five) under Briere this past season and is expected to carry another heavy workload in 2018-19.
If 90 per cent of elite goaltending is mental, why, Briere wonders, do goalies only work on the psychological aspect of the game once their performance flies off the rails?
“The problem with that, it’s too late,” Briere says. “You try to talk to a goalie when he’s struggling: He doesn’t hear half of what you’re saying.”
The “single best thing I’ve done,” Briere says, is conduct a personality assessment of his goalie before they begin work. Find out what makes him tick, how he responds to criticism. Does he prefer direct orders or does he need detailed explanation?
Some broad strokes of Briere’s goalie plan:
• The goalie should be first on the ice at practice every day: “I want them to show their teammates without saying a word that they are the leaders of the team.”
• Practice should be purposeful and intense. Hard work releases endorphins in the brain (think: runner’s high), which makes the goalie feel good about himself.
• Communication is key. Consistent, reliable cues should be established between the goalie and the players for how he handles the puck: Rim it! Pass it! Leave it!
• Goals should be short term and set daily (rebound control, one-on-one contests with a forward). A long-term goal of, say, reaching a .920 save percentage will only pay off at the end of the year. Good-feeling serotonin is created from goal-reaching.
• Spend time working on vision and tracking through eye exercises: “If you can’t see the puck, you can’t stop the puck.”
• Proper diet is integral to peak performance and mood. Last summer, Andersen spoke at length about how the Leafs changed his habits so he was eating the right portions and foods at the right times of day.
• Head coaches should make the goalie feel part of the team, not a side project.
Interesting that in his address to this room crammed of coaches, Briere never once mentions Andersen or even the Maple Leafs. For his dream goes beyond training a Stanley Cup winner, to shifting the culture around goaltending in Canada.
He shakes his head at parents who argue that their child is too big to be a goalie, or too good of a skater, or that the equipment is too expensive. He chastises minor-league coaches who shuttle the goalie to go in the corner and practice “with that dad over there.” The entrepreneur aiming to be the world’s greatest goalie coach feels Canada is falling behind.
“The biggest thing is encouraging kids to be a goalie,” Briere sells. “Not: ‘You’re weird. You’re messed up.’ That’s old stuff, man. That’s back when they had no helmets.”