It ain't easy being a goalie: The many challenges facing young Canadian netminders

Buzzing The Net
MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: Frank Maurer (C) of Germany race for the puck against Fred Brathwaite, goalie of Canada during the German Ice Hockey Cup 2010 first round game between Germany and Canada at the Olympiahalle on November 12, 2010 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

German Ice Hockey Cup 2010

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: Frank Maurer (C) of Germany race for the puck against Fred Brathwaite, goalie of Canada during the German Ice Hockey Cup 2010 first round game between Germany and Canada at the Olympiahalle on November 12, 2010 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Goaltending is, and will forever be, a hot-button hockey issue.

In Canada, recent heated topics of conversation have included banning European netminders from the CHL import draft, handwringing over a lack of depth prior to the 2014 Olympics and positional woes at the World Junior Championship since 2008.

Developing more puckstoppers in this country and then helping them succeed is a major priority, according to Hockey Canada goaltending consultant Fred Brathwaite.

That process starts with a more streamlined program.

“There are a lot of coaches out there. With Hockey Canada we’re trying to get a coaches’ certificate to coach,” said Brathwaite, a longtime pro goalie. “What’s happening is all across the world, there’s coaches out there and we’ve got to start teaching (young goalies) the basics before we start getting them into other things – teaching them how to skate and how to catch and learn more about the position instead of just learning styles.”

Brathwaite recognizes there are several challenges with getting a child to play in net.

Being a goaltender requires the right mental temperament given the stresses involved. Another major hurdle is the cost of equipment, which Brathwaite believes all minor hockey associations should lessen the burden by renting out gear to families. He was the beneficiary of such a program while growing up in Nepean, Ont.

The challenges don’t stop there. And they only get more pronounced as goaltenders get older and move up the ranks.

SIZING UP THE SITUATION

OHL goalie Justin Nichols is trying to beat the odds and make the NHL despite his 5-foot-9 stature. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
OHL goalie Justin Nichols is trying to beat the odds and make the NHL despite his 5-foot-9 stature. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Only five goaltenders shorter than six feet have appeared in an NHL game this season.

Only 5-foot-11 Jaroslav Halak has appeared in more than 10 games. Jhonas Enroth backs up Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. Anton Khudobin has been relegated to the minors. Richard Bachman and Juuse Saros have made one start each.

“I know some teams are going that way, but I think they’ve scared some kids away from being goaltenders,” Brathwaite said.

Brathwaite sees a problem with those having an inherent prejudice with a smaller goalie.

“Obviously, I’m biased because I’m 5-foot-7 and have been able to play,” said Brathwaite, who dressed in the AHL, NHL, IHL, Russia and Germany before finishing 19-year pro career in 2012.

“I was in a minor hockey rink the other day and I heard someone say, ‘Well, he’s not bad, but he’s a little too small.’ He was a peewee goalie.”

Oshawa Generals goaltender Justin Nichols is someone intent on breaking through as a shorter netminder.

Nichols is 5-foot-9 and 163 pounds, but helped the Guelph Storm win the OHL championship two years ago. He’s now an overage junior.

“I’m ready to break that stereotype and play pro hockey next year,” he said. “Everybody thinks you need to be 6-foot-3 or above to be a player in the NHL. There are always exceptions to the rule and I’d like to be one of them.”

Nichols grew up in St. Catharines, Ont., and idolized longtime Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek. It’s why he wears No. 39. Nichols then took a liking to Enroth, another former Sabre. He would cross the border to watch Enroth play live whenever he could.

Nichols said being a superb skater and being able to read the play well allows goalies like him and Enroth to be successful.

“I’ve found when I’m on the top of my game it’s a lot of plays on my feet that I’m able to anticipate and get ahead of the play that way,” he said.

THE GRADUAL CLIMB

Two-time World Junior Championship goalie Jake Paterson has had to be patient as he waits for NHL chance. (Reuters)
Two-time World Junior Championship goalie Jake Paterson has had to be patient as he waits for NHL chance. (Reuters)

While Nichols is aiming to reach the pro ranks, Jake Paterson is already there. It just took him longer than he wanted.

Paterson started playing in net on a whim when he was 10, stepping in to help his team whose regular goalie was attending a wedding. He loved the position and three years later was playing for the GTHL’s renowned AAA Toronto Marlboros.

Paterson was a two-time Canadian world junior after being selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2012 NHL draft. He acted as the third-stringer in 2013 before getting playing time in 2014.

Most NHL teams generally don’t think twice about graduating a goaltender to the pros with that type of track record when he turns 20. But the Wings organization was stocked with netminders Jimmy Howard, Jonas Gustavsson, Petr Mrazek and 2008 first-rounder Tom McCollum.

Paterson was sent back to junior for an overage season, while former Marlies teammates like Connor Brown, Matt Finn, Scott Laughton and Adam Pelech said goodbye to the CHL.

He’s now playing his first pro campaign with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.

“That was a little tough,” said Paterson, who split last season between OHL’s Saginaw and Kitchener. “You have other guys your age moving on to pro. I saw it coming from the summer, just because the way the numbers worked out.”

This is the slow, steady climb to which goaltenders are subjected if they want to make the NHL. It’s extremely rare to go from junior to the NHL with little time in the minors like Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price managed to do. Usually it requires a handful of seasons mastering the craft.

Plus, when an NHL team has an established star like Price between the pipes, it’s incredibly hard to supplant him.

Although skaters often make the jump to the NHL much quicker, Brathwaite doesn’t see a problem with getting a little seasoning in the minors.

“In junior you probably have three or four guys that can shoot pretty good. When you go up to the AHL, you probably have half the team that shoots well,” he said. “It takes time to get used to the pace of the game, the shots, the size of everybody and the day-to-day grind of being a pro hockey player.”

Paterson takes the glass-half-full approach. He looks at Garret Sparks, who was playing in the ECHL last season. An injury to James Reimer thrust Sparks into action this season and he became the first Toronto Maple Leafs goalie to record a shutout in his NHL debut.

“There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just the way it is for a goalie,” Paterson said. “You’ve just got to pay your dues and wait for your chance.”

A NUMBER'S GAME

Jake Morrissey has been with six junior teams this season as he chases the dream. (Getty)
Jake Morrissey has been with six junior teams this season as he chases the dream. (Getty)

Paterson has had to deal with the challenge of trying to buck the numbers. It’s something Vancouver Giants’ Jake Morrissey knows all too well.

Only his plight is a little more daunting.

“I’m probably the best candidate you can find in that situation,” he said, chuckling.

Morrissey grew up taking shots from his older brother, two-time Canadian world junior participant and Winnipeg Jets prospect Josh.

Morrissey has technically been part of six junior organizations this season – four in the WHL and two in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The 18-year-old’s journey began when he was released by the Kelowna Rockets. He was picked up on waivers by the Tri-City Americans and within hours dealt to the Saskatoon Blades. The Blades reassigned him to the AJHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders and he eventually went to the Drayton Valley Thunder, before being recalled by the Blades. When the Blades made a deal to acquire another goaltender, Morrissey was moved to his current team.

“It never gets easier to keep packing up your stuff and loading up the car and taking the eight-hour drive – or whatever it may be across provinces – to find a place and once again have to start from square one,” Morrissey said.

“You have to show your new coaches and new teammates what kind of person and player you are. It begins to wear on you when you feel like, ‘I’m not wanted here or I’m not wanted there.’ Whether that’s the case or not, it definitely factors into your play.”

Morrissey’s problem since last season has been constantly getting caught in a three-goalie system.

Things were moving along just fine for Morrissey early in the season. As a rookie, he backed up Jackson Whistle on a powerhouse Kelowna team that would go on to win the WHL title.

But then he sustained a hand injury in an October practice. The Rockets needed to replace him and summoned journeyman goaltender Michael Herringer from Jr. A. Herringer played well enough that Morrissey was only used nine more times the rest of the year despite posting a 1.98 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

“When you’re in that situation there’s just this level of uncertainty,” Morrissey said. “You never really know what’s going to happen day to day.”

Three-goaltender systems are less than ideal, a “toxic environment,” as Morrissey calls them.

Something had to give and he was released by the Rockets in September. But he also landed in the same environment in Saskatoon and in Sherwood Park.

“When you’ve been passed around like that,” Morrissey said, “little mistakes or things that don’t go your way feel a lot bigger than they are.

“If you’re in a start for a team when you’ve only been there for a couple of weeks and it’s maybe not your night ... it’s definitely going to seem like a bigger deal to not only you but to the coaching staff than if the established starter came out and had a rough outing. They don’t have that trust in you yet."

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