Among the players on the ice, the goaltender stands out as a unique presence. Not only does he wear different equipment, play the entire game and often has peculiar mannerisms, but as the last line of defense, a goaltender can find himself singled out for both praise and blame.
This misfortune is perhaps most apparent when it comes to a goalie strapping on the pads to play for Canada. Hockey is a countrywide fever and in international competition, Canada is not just expected to do well, they're expected to win.
When it comes to the Christmas-time tradition of the World Junior Championships, Canadians are an especially impatient bunch. Despite winning two silvers and a bronze medal over the past three years, the thirst for gold has hardly been sated and so questions have been raised. At the forefront of these concerns is the future of theCanadian goaltender.
Ron Tugnutt is well aware of those questions. Hired on as the full-time goaltending coach for Canada's National Men's Teams last summer, Tugnutt has been consulting with Hockey Canada since 2009. When it comes to how goaltenders are developed in Canada, the former NHL netminder doesn’t mince words.
"I think it's something that's been talked about quite a bit lately. I've been pretty outspoken with it," says Tugnutt.
Tugnutt points to situations in the Canadian Hockey League in particular, going on to say: "From a development standpoint, our three junior leagues aren't doing as much of the developing as I would like to see. There are goalies from other countries that are good, but from a development standpoint, I would like to see more of our guys getting chances. It's all about getting a chance and I would like to see more of that."
Every summer, the CHL holds an Import Draft, allowing teams across the three leagues to add players from Europe to their rosters. It is a controversial practice that according to some allows teams with deeper pockets to attract more high profile players and gain a competitive advantage. Without a doubt, the Import Draft allows clubs to inject additional skill directly into the line-up without requiring as much patience or development but it also undeniably raises the talent level across the leagues as a whole.
For the European players coming over, the move to the CHL allows them to play in North America, increasing their chances of attracting the eyes of an NHL team or, after they have been drafted, to acclimatize to the different ice surface, style of play and culture before making the jump to pro hockey.
Tugnutt's point of contention is with goaltenders specifically, given that junior teams, like NHL squads, normally only carry two goaltenders on their roster and that there is only a limited number of games in the season for netminders to get experience in.
"For example, if there's a young goaltender that is going to make his junior team that year and that team goes and drafts a goalie who was just selected in the second round of the National Hockey League, that young guy never gets a chance to compete for a job, as it has already been spoken for by the Euro goalie who is coming in. That's the hard part for me. I just wish they would be a little more willing to develop these guys."
Eight European goaltenders were selected in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, including four who have already been drafted into the NHL and another one who has yet to be eligible to be selected. Although Import players are not always guaranteed to report to their respective CHL teams, 12 European goaltenders laced up for CHL clubs last season.
When spread across the entire CHL, these totals may seem small, but Tugnutt argues that they are still having an impact when it comes to his work with Hockey Canada.
"What it does is that it gives me less goalies to choose from," says Tugnutt, "When you have less guys, it's hard."
"We still have an abundance of great goaltenders, young Canadian goaltenders," Tugnutt is quick to point out but he also tempers that remark by noting, "Maybe the next Marty Brodeur, the next Patrick Roy is that guy that could have had that chance and never got it."
When it comes to the preparedness of young Canadian goaltenders to compete for jobs and advance their careers, Tugnutt has further concerns about the way young netminders are being coached.
"I'd like to see them a little more open-minded where they are willing to try something else and maybe a combination of different goalie coaches rather then being so intent on one particular style. You have to be a little more open-minded."
In particular, Tugnutt feels the main goaltending style being taught to up and coming puck stoppers is lagging behind the current realities of the position.
"For me, I think it makes the goalies a little too robotic. I think the goalie style has gone back to more athleticism, once they started shrinking the gear, goalies had to be quicker, had to be more athletic, had to start using their hands more. We went through a phase in hockey, where I called it 'the blocker'. Goalies would just make themselves big, be square to the shooter and give up a ton of rebounds. Now it's gone back to direct pucks into the corner, catch pucks, use your hands to control pucks. It's gone back to that, which I'm excited about, because I think that's the way the position should be played."
Despite all these concerns, Tugnutt remains optimistic for the future and highlights the upcoming years as being particularly bright.
"I'm very excited about the next couple of years, the '94s and the '95s. I think that there is great potential there. The good news is that there are goalies with the '94s and the '95s that are going to be starters and they're going to play a lot next year. That to me is the most exciting part, because we know that they're going to develop."
Whether that development of talent results in Team Canada gold remains to be seen.