Joe Shawhan learned to coach from a goalie’s point of view

By Derek Berry
A wise broadcaster and probably a Vezina trophy winner once said, “a
goaltender sees the game differently.” In the case of Soo Indians head
coach Joe Shawhan, that is definitely true.

It’s no secret that Shawhan is a goalie by trade. The locals up in
Sault Ste. Marie know him well. Shawhan rose to stardom playing high
school hockey for Sault Ste. Marie High School, where he led his team to
the state finals one year, only to fall to Trenton High School. He
played goal under two exceptional coaches at Lake Superior State
University – Frank Anzalone and Jeff Jackson, both of whom would lead
the Lakers to NCAA championships.

And in between, Shawhan also played for an earlier version of what is
now the North American Hockey League’s Soo Indians, in the Northern
Ontario Hockey League, which churned out such stars as Denny Lambert and
Chris Simon.

But, why goaltending? What compelled Shawhan to want to play a position
that takes a special individual to play?

“When I started playing, the guys were older than me,” says Shawhan, now
in his sixth season as head coach of the Indians. “I like the position
and I never played another one again.”

Shawhan didn’t take the traditional route of playing travel hockey when
he was growing up. Instead, he learned more in high school and at the
college level. He certainly was not a naturally gifted goaltender, as
he says, but had to work harder.

When Shawhan arrived on the scene at Lake Superior, he immediately won a
starting job and helped the Lakers win a couple of games right off the
bat against a very good Western Michigan team in the early ’80’s.

“I made a good first impression and I started right away and played
pretty much the rest of my four years at Lake Superior,” said Shawhan.
Shawhan learned a lot from Anzelone and Jackson, who was an assistant
during the time Shawhan played.

“Anzelone was hard-nosed as a coach, very drill-oriented,” says
Shawhan. “If we lost we didn’t execute properly and that was the
attitude instilled in us,” he says. “We practiced very hard and we
studied the game more than the Michigan’s and Michigan State’s,” he

Shawhan says he isn’t into drilling his players and overworking them in
practice, but he remembers learning from Anzelone about a hockey
player’s physical aspects and he still believes in the philosophy.
“I’m very big into physical aspects of players, what makes them up, what
they’re made of and their nutritional habits, which is important for all
hockey players and athletes in general.”

After his playing career at LSSU, he had a tryout with the Calgary
Flames which didn’t pan out. Shawhan says he wasn’t totally surprised
that he didn’t make the team because he says he was “a marginal goalie”
who had to study the game more closely than other goalies.

He says he was coaxed back into coaching hockey at the bantam level and
what really thrilled him the most was winning a national title at that
level. He went to coach the Soo Indians AAA Midgets and was a part-time
assistant at Lake Superior.

Then the NAHL and the Soo Indians called and Shawhan was back.

Shawhan describes himself as a cross between Anzelone and Jackson in
coaching style. He likes aggressiveness on his teams and feels he and
other coaches in the league do a good job of developing players for the
collegiate level.

“We don’t always get the top players here because so many of the top
guys are from the Detroit area and they stay down there,” says Shawhan.
“We go for more stronger character kids, guys who aren’t going to be
rebellious types.”

That has shown through, considering some of the recent stars Shawhan has
developed, particularly in goal, with Ryan Miller of MSU, Bobby
Revermann, Nathan Wheeler and Cam Ellsworth, to name a few.

Miller says he really valued his stay with the Indians.

“It was a good, positive learning experience for me,” says Miller, in
his sophomore season at Michigan State and one of the top goaltenders in
the country. “Coach Shawhan taught us how to see the game a certain way
and helped me develop aspects of my game that are paying off now.”

Miller talked about how he sees the game from the net and much of that
he learned naturally, but a lot he also learned from Shawhan.

“Coach helped me work on timing, in terms of when to come out of the net
and helped me judge the speed of the game better, which was different
from the levels I played at before the NAHL,” says Miller. “It prepared
me very well for the speed in the CCHA.”

Shawhan wants players to see his vision of the game too, much of which
involves noticing more of the motion of the game and which way plays are
moving or anticipating where plays will move.

But, he also likes to bring in coaches with other styles as well, who’ve
played positions besides goal. This, he says, allows players to see the
game from many perspectives.

“I see more of the formation of a play, rather than one player. That’s
what a goalie does and I still do that even as a coach,” says Shawhan.
“If you focus on an individual as a goalie, you fail. You have to watch
for where the breakdowns are going to happen.”

Shawhan is very humble in talking about the goalies he’s helped develop
with the Soo, not believing he’s developed better goalies, but certainly
believing that he and his staff can understand goalies better than any
other team.

“We don’t do anything magical,” he says. “We help them pick up their
confidence levels and we see how they react to different things.”
Shawhan says he and the Indians coaching staff look to develop
consistency in goalies, helping them learn different aspects of the
game, maybe tweaking their games a bit.

Case in point – Shawhan helping Miller work on timing and speed.
His current goalie, Cam Elser, is leading the NAHL in wins and shutouts.
In the same vein as Jackson, a former goalie himself and other
netminders who have gotten behind the bench (Ron Low formerly of
Edmonton and Bob Daniels of Ferris State to name a few) Shawhan knows
the game from where he played the game.

Like an artist or painter, a goalie sees something the rest of us
don’t. Maybe that’s why they make good coaches, just like Joe Shawhan.