Under the Mask: Hockey Canada should look in the mirror regarding goalie woes

A four-year Ontario Hockey League veteran, goalie John Cullen recently finished his final year of junior with the Windsor Spitfires. He will be bringing his player's perspective to Buzzing The Net on a regular basis.

There is no doubt that Canada is one of the most proud hockey nations in the world. And with that level of pride comes the constant expectation of success.

There's a reason Hockey Canada's blueprint is called the "Program of Excellence." Gold medals at the under-18 and under-20 tournaments are very important to Hockey Canada, because success at the lower levels helps develop the players that can succeed on the Olympic stage. Perhaps because of bias, I believe that the goaltender is the most important position on any team going into these kinds of international tournaments.

Veteran goalie John Cullen
Veteran goalie John Cullen

I was lucky enough to play for Team USA at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, and being able to wear my country's jersey was an awesome experience — one that I will cherish forever. As many in Canada know, the world junior championship is the pinnacle for all junior aged players and it's every kid's dream to represent his country on the world stage.

Earlier this month, Ron Tugnutt, Hockey Canada's goalie consultant, said he thinks European goaltenders in the Canadian Hockey League are stealing jobs and robbing homegrown talent of valuable playing time.

"Too many junior teams are taking the easy way out by bringing in European goaltenders and not giving Canadian kids the chance to develop," said the former NHL goaltender.

Hockey Canada's head scout, Kevin Prendergast, believes having American and European goalies in the CHL is hurting the quality of the Canadian goaltenders the country is producing.

"Over the past 8-10 years the goaltending in Canada hasn't been at the elite level that it had been for the 20 years before that," Prendergast told The Pipeline Show. "From a goaltending standpoint, there are just not enough jobs for our (Canadian) kids to get better."

Prendergast is also quoted during the interview saying he doesn't think it's fair for American or European goalies who win starting jobs in CHL to represent their countries and beat Canada on the world stage.

Well, guess what? Hockey isn't fair.

Take it from someone who spent four years in the Ontario Hockey League and played behind two world junior medal-winning goaltenders — Canada's Mark Visentin and Team USA's Jack Campbell.

I love hockey, the lifestyle and everything else that comes with it, but when you get to a high enough level it becomes a business. There's a point where the game you fell in love with as a kid learning to skate on a pond can, at times, be cold and unfair.

I have seen kids at all ages put in the countless hours of hard work only to have their dreams cut short by a career-ending injury or an abusive parent; that is a reality. But when I hear Hockey Canada's brass calling for a limitation on European and American goalies I take it personally. If they had their way, I might not have had the chance to play in the OHL, which was, for me, the opportunity of a lifetime.

Young goaltenders in Canada have almost every advantage imaginable when it comes to development. Compared to the players in Europe or certain places in America, things like available ice time, good facilities, competitive leagues and tournaments, and knowledgeable coaching are far more accessible in Canada.

This year with the Windsor Spitfires, I had the opportunity to play with a young European goaltender named Jaroslav Pavelka. He was in the OHL playing as an import player away from his native Czech Republic. Pavelka (aka 'Pavy') and I developed a friendship as I helped teach him English and assimilate to the new culture. Playing with him opened my eyes to all the sacrifices these import players make, not only moving thousands of miles away from their families but away from the only way of life they have ever known.

Growing up in a culture where hockey is a way of life is a dream come true for many young players. It's the perfect breeding ground for talent to become successful and the competitive nature of Canadian minor hockey is an amazing thing.

If Hockey Canada is upset over their own development of goaltenders, why are they blaming the imports and Americans? Many of us have worked our whole lives, made countless sacrifices to move far from home for a chance to play in the best junior league in the world.

The message to young Canadian goaltenders is straightforward — work hard and utilize all of the resources available to you. Many players around the world do not have those same luxuries. If you don't make it to the NHL or CHL you don't blame imports or Americans, you look in the mirror. The same is true for Hockey Canada.

The poor play of Canadian goalies at the world juniors was one of the biggest factors for the end of the nation's five-year gold medal streak (2005-2009) and has been a factor in their recent bronze (2012) and silver finishes (2011).

That is not the CHL's fault. Having world class goaltenders come in from outside of Canada only makes CHL and its players better.

Team USA goalie Jack Campbell
Team USA goalie Jack Campbell

I played with fellow American goalie Jack Campbell over the past two years, and it was one of the most rewarding hockey experiences in my life. He is one of the nicest, hardest working people I have ever had the chance to meet. Being able to play alongside him not only made me a better goalie, but it made me a better person. Having a world-class athlete like Jack on our team was great because his work ethic and positive attitude rubbed off on all of us.

When Jack left Windsor for Sault Ste. Marie he joined up with a Hockey Canada goaltending prospect by the name of Matt Murray. Murray is a very talented goalie who has represented Canada internationally, winning bronze at the world U-18 and has earned an invite the Canada's world junior goaltending summer camp.

A goalie partner relationship is a tight bond because you share tips and tricks to help each other become better. Having a goalie partner like Jack — a Dallas Stars draft pick, three time IIHF gold medalist — even for a short time can only be beneficial.

As a goaltender, Jack Campbell has been in more pressure situations than anyone I know and those are the kinds of players you want on your team. The kinds of players who are committed, who strive to be better or work harder than the competition, regardless of their nationality.