When it comes to finding a pro-level goalie coach that can take your game to the highest level possible, I often tell parents and players to find the ones that truly understand patience.
Patience is a delightful term in today’s world of goaltending because it crosses so many boundaries. There are not only different types of patience needed on the ice, but off the ice as well, proving to every goalie that it’s an idea to be embraced, and a skill to be honed, from a very early age.
At the same time, a goalie coach must also display patience when developing their pupils, otherwise they might give up on potential that is later harvested by other coaches and other teams.
With pro goalie coach Jon Elkin, I quickly came to learn that he not only understands the many shades of patience, but he has mastered them all first-hand as a goaltender, a goalie coach, and a mentor. He did this through the training and development of many pro, junior, and youth goaltenders, including his prized pupil, Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith.
Smith just so happens to be playing the best hockey of his entire life right now, so I figured it was a perfect time to get to know Elkin on a more personal and professional level.
Therefore I’m proud to publish this in-depth phone interview with Elkin, which took place a few weeks ago. As I do with every goalie coach I interview, I had him explain his coaching philosophy in detail, and that led us down the path of patience, and Smith’s rise to NHL stardom.
JE: “Goaltending is very complex, but I try and simplify it. I want to simplify a goalie’s approach, and that leads to consistency, so that’s the ultimate goal. Goaltending has so many little intricacies, but in a general sense, I like to keep it simple. I also stress attitude. The right attitude can help one overcome weaknesses. A good, hard-working, positive mental attitude is one of the most important things. And then I also pay attention to one’s mental state: being in a nice relaxed state of mind; dealing with setbacks and mistakes, and accepting them as learning experiences and then moving on. That’s my general philosophy. From a technical standpoint, I emphasize being center and square in the net, being nice and big in the stance, being patient, and then reacting.”
JG: What are some of the most common flaws you see from teenagers that are pushing to play juniors?
JE: “You see one of two things. Many goalies are coached strictly on technique instead of playing the position, so they end up butterflying a lot. They work hard to get into position, but then they butterfly and just hope stuff hits them -they’re not athletic or creative. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you see goalies that run around a lot and are over-aggressive. It’s normally either quieting a guy down, or getting a guy to be more athletic in the net. Those are usually the two major issues I see.”
JG: So in a general sense, trying to find that perfect balance seems to be your ultimate goal?
JE: “I try and make sure that they move well on their feet, read the play well, get into position, then be patient and react. That’s the gist of it. Some guys are just too tight and too technical and down all the time. Or other guys just run around all over the place. So I try to bring them back into a situation where there’s more balance.”
JG: What’s the biggest difference between coaching a junior and a professional goalie?
JE: “The biggest difference is NHL goalies can adapt to what you tell them very quickly. At the lower minor leagues and junior levels, it normally takes a lot more work. They’re not as in control of their bodies and their minds. But once you get to the NHL, you’ve passed a lot of tests, so you pretty well have control of the way you move, you pretty well have control of your thoughts, and you’re fairly mentally tough. The junior and minor leagues are the proving grounds – the development stages. Development of junior goalies generally takes a lot more time and effort than it takes at the NHL level.”
JG: How do you go about developing a kid that is really early in his development?
JE: “The most important thing is foot movement; learning how to move around in one’s crease at that age. Being in control, having good edges, being in control of their body, maintaining good stance and balance when moving around, I think that’s the most important thing at a young age, as well as reacting to shots. One must learn how to react to shots to different parts of the net. You want to keep things very simple and very basic at that age, and that’s why the most emphasis is placed on the feet. Ultimately, it’s moving quickly, but under control, and of course having fun!”
JG: What makes the Jon Elkin Goalie Camp experience so effective for a youth goaltender?
JE: “When one attends our camp, it’s a professional atmosphere right off the bat. Everything is organized, and we expect that the student is there to learn and to give 100-percent. So when you attend one of our camps, you’re going to be educated and you will be in an environment that is very well organized, very well structured, and geared to help you get better. We obviously have a good time, but there’s a very serious focus on getting better in all the various aspects of goaltending. It’s a no-nonsense type of program, and it has been very successful as a result of that. Going to a goalie camp is a fairly big investment, so when one makes that commitment, it’s not to just come and joke around and hang out. My students come because they really want to get better, and we facilitate that. We deliver a professional, well-structured, organized and pretty intense program. I think the key is to match the intensity to the student. Not everybody can train at a level that an NHL guy trains at, so I tailor it according to the student. We adjust the program accordingly, however the emphasis is always to get the most out of each student by challenging them as much as possible. Kids come away learning something, feeling good about themselves, they have clearly improved, and that’s the whole thing. In a nutshell, Jon Elkin’s Goalie Schools is a no-nonsense program.”
JG: Do you have any insights on how goalies should train their vision?
JE: “The most important thing is to track pucks in practice. Track every single puck from the stick to the body, and then follow the rebound with your eyes. Get dialed in on that puck. That’s the most important thing in terms of training one’s eyes. You get into that habit of tracking every puck, and the game is that much easier. A big part of it is mental. Being in a state where you’re relaxed and totally focused on tracking pucks. That’s absolutely essential, because when you’re relaxed, your vision is that much better, and your ability to react to the shot or the play is better. That’s absolutely crucial to emphasize; to be relaxed.”
JG: One term that I use often when scouting goaltenders is Patience. I love this term, because it means so many different things. There’s the technical term, and there’s the mental and the metaphysical terms, too. What does Patience mean to you in terms of training goalies?
JE: “I love that word, and I talk about it all the time. Patience is a virtue in life, but for a goalie it’s a necessity. Patience reacting to the shot comes with experience. If you’re dropping before shots, you’re in real trouble, so that always has to be emphasized. But that comes with time and experience. I also emphasize being patient in the development process. And it’s usually not the kids that are the issue; it’s everyone else around the kids such as the parents who have to learn to be more patient. For a lot of goalies, if they just continue to work hard on their game, good things will happen. So I really like to emphasize that to people (parents, coaches, etc.) who live or die with every shot and game. You have to be patient with development.”
“There’s a piece I wrote on Mike Smith on my website, and his story is just incredible when you read it. There are so many other stories like his, too. Goalies that were considered a long shot and still made it. You have to be patient with their development. As long as their attitude is right, and they put in the time and effort, good things are going to happen. So definitely, patience is a key word in many perspectives: Being patient when the player is about to shoot or pass and staying on your feet until the last possible moment. And be patient in your approach to goalie development.”
JG: I read that article you wrote on Smith. I was familiar with his story, but didn’t know you had trained him since he was 12. You must be extremely proud of his development, especially considering how patient you guys had to be. Could you talk about the potential you saw in him, and maybe how patience played a role in his overall development?
JE: “The thing about Mike is that he’s an athlete. I could see that from the beginning; he was always big, strong, and in great shape. And he was able to grasp the movement aspect of goaltending, his edge work was terrific, and he was moving around the crease very strong and very quick. But honestly, he had trouble stopping the puck [laughing]. Some guys look great but they can’t stop the puck, so he was one of those guys, but I just saw so much potential due to his size and his attitude. He’s such a mentally tough guy, such a determined and confident guy, that with that attitude, eventually the actual making of saves would come. He would get himself into position, so it was just a matter of making the saves. But because of his attitude, I knew eventually he’d be able to overcome that, learn to track pucks better, react better, and plug some holes. It was a long process, but in the end, he overcame it.
He had the foundation — you have to have some sort of foundation. First of all you have to have the mental foundation. Second of all, you have to have some sort of physical ability. Everybody has their shortcomings. Some guys are weak glove side, other guys have trouble controlling rebounds, or other guys have trouble dealing with traffic, high shots, five-hole…whatever it is, everybody has their issues. There’s no such thing as a complete goalie, so everyone has to develop something. I just saw a lot in Mike — the desire, the physical ability to overcome his shortcomings — so we just stuck with it. He really wanted it. Obviously you push your students as a coach, but it has to be reciprocated, and it was with Mike. We kept going, and in the end, there wasn’t any panic. Even in minor hockey and Tier II and OHL, he was a backup, and other guys were ahead of him. And when he got drafted behind a bunch of guys, there still was never any sense of panic.
I think too much talent gets derailed because people won’t stick to a sound game plan because they get distracted by too many other things. If you’re a parent or a coach or an agent, the emphasis should always be on getting better, and realize that all the other stuff is noise. If you’re getting better every day, eventually you are going to do good things. Mike, to his credit, blocked all the noise out, and stuck to a plan, got better every day, and now where he is today is all about pure hard work. He earned every inch, everything he’s got, and I have a lot of respect for that.”
A special thanks to Elkin for taking the time to chat with The Goalie Guild, and for his great insights on Smith and patience. Be sure to check out his website at www.elkingoaltending.com and if you sign up for one of his camps, be sure to let him know The Goalie Guild sent you!