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Joe Knows Goalies: Q-and-A with Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna

By Jamie MacDonald, Special to Mass Hockey, 12/18/14, 11:00AM EST


Cory Schneider, a Marblehead, Mass. native, is settling in as the No. 1 goaltender for the New Jersey Devils (Credit: Getty Images)

Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna has been coaching goaltenders from youth hockey to the NHL for decades.

Joe Bertagna knows goaltenders. Bertagna, who holds the prominent position of Hockey East Commissioner, has been in the game, mostly around the crease, for decades. From youth hockey in Arlington to playing goal at Harvard to more than 40 years as a goalie coach, including with the Boston Bruins, Bertagna still gets between the pipes himself once a week.

Through the years, he figures he’s been on the ice with more than 10,000 goaltenders, and we recently caught up with him between trips to the rink to ask about the position and what it means to accept the challenge of playing it. We also asked him whether goaltenders are weird.

Mass Hockey: What makes a goaltender a goaltender?

Joe Bertagna: In the old days, and I mean this half-jokingly, it was by default. Today, better athletes choose the position. The uniqueness of the equipment, the ability to influence the game more than the other players, is either a plus or a minus to young kids. I think you have to like the challenge. A lot of kids don't want the pressure.

Mass Hockey: Do you have any advice for a goalie who wants to succeed at the next level – whether that’s advancing from 10U to 12U or high school to college?

Joe Bertagna: I tell kids, “You don't want to be good against just the bad players; you want to be good against the best players.” You have to be open to those changes in your game that allow you to be successful against the best players at the next level. And to remember there are a whole bunch of other kids out there aspiring to the same position you are … and they may be working harder than you.

Mass Hockey: What’s different about coaching a younger goalie?

Joe Bertagna: First, it's relating to their level – the vocabulary you use and keeping it fun. And there's a little bit of a challenge because of their size. Certain techniques might not be effective for a smaller kid. I see a lot of coaches teaching glove position where they have their glove next to their ear. If you're a 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year-old, having one hand up high and one hand low messes up your balance, and, at that age, you're still talking about getting the puck to that corner. The kids we're talking about aren't in [pro hockey]. They're trying to make the peewee team.

Mass Hockey: For, say, a 13- or 14-year-old, what are the key qualities to hone? Strength, reflexes, flexibility, compete level?

Joe Bertagna: I think it's crease movement. It’s getting from one spot to another, not only under control, but also with some precision. A lot of it comes down to your ability to navigate the crease. And then it’s the ability to compete – not just trying hard, but trying smart.

Mass Hockey: In other words, there are a lot of paths toward success as a goaltender.

Joe Bertagna: One [goalie I'm working with] isn't the prettiest goalie, not the most technical goalie. But I'd go to war with him because he’s so smart, he competes so well and finds a way to figure it out.

Mass Hockey: How important is an even keel or temperament?

Joe Bertagna: It’s very important. There are highs and lows in the season, and there are things that will be directly attributable to you and you have to have a short memory. Figuring out, physically, how to play the position is not the challenge. It's the emotional part and keeping all that in check. You can't let things rattle you, and you have to stay focused – how you stand, where you stand, how you move, hold your stick – on all those things that are important at the moment.

Mass Hockey: How do you help a young goalie manage those emotions? Even a young goalie knows the pressure of his position.

Joe Bertagna: Certain kids don't have the right makeup to be goalies. If they feel so much and they're emotional, they're going to make it a harder position to play. Maybe more important are the adults who are around those kids. Try to shield them from unnecessary criticism. When I talk at USA Hockey clinics, I talk about building a positive culture for goalies – from providing equipment and coaching, to not being the butt of the jokes or taking too much blame. Create a nurturing environment and you'll find more kids who want to come out and play it.

Mass Hockey: What would you tell a player about being coachable, how to listen to coaching?

Joe Bertagna: It's a good question. When I meet a kid for the first time – a freshman or a sophomore – he might look at me and make a judgment that I'm old school and wonder if I'm going to accept the way he's going to play. I don’t want to start right off the bat making suggestions or coaching. I have a break-in period. I want to see what the kid does and does well. I have to establish a rapport with him that acknowledges what he does well and acknowledges the legitimacy of his style.

At the same time, I have to point out to him that there are things he needs to do to improve his game. And I've always done that, even at the NHL level.

Mass Hockey: What can goalies work on away from the rink?

Joe Bertagna: Their core strength, their legs, many of the same things other players work on. The power in your legs, the spring you need. There are certain things in leg strength, upper-leg strength, that allow you to move more explosively around the crease.

Mass Hockey: Finally, are goaltenders weird?

Joe Bertagna: It's a good stereotype, because we've all met one who fits the description. I don't think across the board they're any weirder than some of the other teammates I've had over the years. A lot of that is overplayed.

Why do you play goalie? Tell us on Twitter at @Mass_Hockey and send us your pics in the crease!