When your ambition is to be tough to score on. Anna Helmer ruminates on great saves, painful goals and what it takes to be a great goalie
I have always been a goalie. I was a street hockey goalie at 8, a soccer goalie at 10, a field-hockey goalie at 18, and an ice-hockey goalie at 32. It was ever thus.
I can remember the first time I made a great save and felt obliged to do it again. I took my turn standing in net while my friends’ older brothers practiced slap shots. A now familiar feeling of eager anticipation came over me as a 12-year-old lined up to shoot point blank and in close. In the instant before he fired, my eyes settled and locked onto the tennis ball and my body seemed to soften in readiness so I would be able to dispatch limbs in necessary directions. What followed was a sensational, top-corner, full-extension baseball-glove save. I was hooked.
Naturally I also remember certain terrible goals. I especially remember the 1992 University National Championship game-winning goal in Halifax. The ball moved in slow motion past my fingers, the muscles and joints of which were the last in a body full of them stretched to the max in mid-air. It was a goal. It was a close game. We lost.
I blamed that goal for a lot of things, back then. I was dropped from the National Squad. I lost my starting position on the university team. The coaches took less interest in my development. My team-mates seemed to grow a little distant. I failed to credit any of that with the concurrent move into a party-first lifestyle complete with smoking, drinking and skipping classes. Eventually I got back on track but I never forgot that goal.
Nowadays I am still adding to the catalogue of great saves and painful goals. I am not as good at ice-hockey goalkeeping as I was at field-hockey, but it was never all about skill. It’s about focus and reaction time. Decision making and a reasoned elimination of possibilities. A willingness to get in the way. Leg strength. Essentially, it’s about consistently doing the following: never loosing sight of the puck, keeping the stick on the ice, not committing too early and working the angles.
Ahhhh. Consistency. It’s what I lose when I get too complicated, when I start thinking too much. In my opinion, coping with inconsistency is why goalies tend to have a reputation of being a little…odd. Goalies handle it in a bewildering variety of interesting ways and it can show up in outside life. I’m not being secretive, but I can’t tell you more about it and I can’t tell you why. Exactly my point.
Being a goalie has been a wonderful way to maintain individuality while being on a team: there is different equipment and sometimes even a distinct colour jersey. Generally, if one is willing to play the position a considerable amount of leeway is granted for the above-mentioned odd behavior. Also, goalies are rarely required to pay team fees. In return, I try to deliver the following: I will always keep trying to keep the puck out of the net, and I will not publicly and during the game throw tantrums when things break down.
I am not sure exactly how age is going to affect my goal-keeping, but it is increasingly a factor. Sometimes I let goals in and it feels like I just forgot to make the necessary, preventative moves. Or I thought I had but it no, I hadn’t. This is a little concerning. On the other hand, I am so much smarter now, which allows me to deal with slumps with a little more pragmatism and therefore end them earlier. Smart enough to know that it will be enough if I just make it hard to score.
Through it all, I have always wanted to be thought of as being “tough to score on”. I don’t even need to be the best goalie. I just don’t want it to be too easy for those young, strong, skilled and vastly more experienced ice-hockey players to put the puck in the net. They should have to work at it.
Anna Helmer blames her failure to be at the Olympics in February on her fear of success.