I have reflected on leadership in the past, motivated by words the legendary Glenn Hall once bestowed on me: “Jon, a goalie can lead from behind.” A chance meeting with my childhood idol, Ken Dryden, a short while ago, has given me new impetus to revisit the subject. The goalie is a true leader of a team. Often, as the goaltending goes so does the fortunes of a hockey squad.
Too frequently goaltenders emphasize the wrong evaluation criteria. Markers such as technical prowess and how one “felt” influence how a goalie scores his or her performance. Or perhaps he utilizes the degree of difficulty analysis when pucks find their way past him: “It was a breakaway – tough play.” This train of thought demonstrates an emphasis of self over team. Yes goaltending is a game within a game; one prepares almost exclusively outside a team’s system. A netminder’s job is distinct from that of his teammates, which is why goalies often feel as if they play alone. Nothing is further from reality. While maintaining a special focus outside that of the rest of the team, a goaltender must be cognizant that his role is intricately affixed to the psyche of the group. In the words of Mr. Dryden, “Good goaltending allows a team to spread its wings and fly.” Conversely, poor goaltending deflates a team like a nail in a car’s tire.
My conversation with the tall, lanky six time Stanley Cup champion who patrolled the Montreal Canadiens’ crease for eight seasons, lasted close to one hour. His perspective was unique, intelligent and sensible and covered a wide range of hockey related topics. However, just as Glenn Hall focused on leadership over a decade ago when I dined with him, so did Ken Dryden in our discussion. His comment, “Good goaltending allows a team to spread its wings and fly” reverberates in my head like Hall’s “Jon, a goalie can lead from behind.” Dryden went on to elaborate using a powerful metaphor: The relationship of a goaltender and his team is similar to that of a parent and his offspring. “As a parent, you want your children to feel independent, to feel they are making their own decisions; and you also want to make sure they are OK. You want them to know if there is a problem, you’re not far away. So they feel the freedom to do and to try, to learn and to get better. And at a distance, often out of sight, you watch.” But, the parent, or in this case the goalie, must provide a strong foundation to fall back on. A team that doesn’t trust its goalie will compensate by playing more tentatively as it cannot be convinced that the next save will be made. Conversely, if the players are confident in their goalie, they are free to fully focus on their own role, go on the attack more and “to spread their wings and fly”.
Beyond evaluating one’s game based on technique, scoring chances, save percentage or goals against average, the real factor should be: did you give your team a chance to win? Do you make key saves at key times? Or are you a 300 hitter who bats only 200 when the game is on the line? Leaders don’t point fingers – “my defence suck” – or make excuses – “those were all tough goals” – they find a way to get the job done. Goaltending statistics tell a useful tale, however, one’s team and astute hockey observers know the most important story – if the leadership is strong in goal or not.