Goalie Coach // A life in hockey in his own words
I’m originally from Florida, but as a kid I moved 8 times. We played street hockey in Pennsylvania. We played roller, and then I got into ice when I got to New York. I didn’t really have expectations other than to have fun. Hockey was the first athletic thing I’d ever done in my life. I began when I was 12, which was late, most people would say. After finally being able to save enough for equipment, I went to a couple youth clinics at the original Skyrink, on the 16th floor of an office building, and the director put me right in the adult clinic, at 12. And I got my ass kicked pretty hard, because the gear was terrible. The director saw my potential, and wanted to give me training. At 13, he had me playing on the D-1 men’s teams. He was very into “zen” and focus, and being calm. He conditioned my mind, and my body at the same time, and then just let me go. I played on 4 different men’s teams as well as two youth leagues and a travel team. So I was playing all the time. I was also the rink’s emergency backup so if they needed me they could be like, “Mike there’s an 8:30 game,” and I’d say “Jimmy it’s 8:40,” and he’d say “Yup get your ass down here!” And I would go, and some nights I’d play three games in a row. And of course, just playing against men who were exponentially better made it so easy to play against kids my own age.
When I was 14, he gave me an opportunity to play for a high school in Pittsfield, even though I didn’t go to the school. The directors worked it out. I got out at 11:30 from my regular school to go to practice every day. He had asked me if I wanted to move. I said “It sounds interesting, I’ll have to talk to my parents.” I didn’t talk to them about it. I forgot, and it fizzled out. And then two weeks later I went to an 11:00pm open hockey. I saw him, and he was like, “Hey, did you think about Pittsfield?” And I was like, “Yeah, my dad thinks its a good idea.” He said “Oh that’s good because we leave tomorrow morning.” I was 14. It was end of freshmen year. So we went home and my mom was like “Why are you packing?” I said, “I’m moving to Pittsfield tomorrow.” She was not pleased. But when I went up there [Pittsfield], that was my first real time away from home, and my first serious hockey training. I lived with Jimmy and another kid from the same program. We were roommates. I was very excited, this was the first thing I really wanted to do. Unfortunately, my parents made me move to Bayonne my junior year.
I was recruited by Catholic school teams in New Jersey. I was considering it until I discovered that Bayonne had its own ice hockey rink.
I would’ve gotten better exposure at a place like Hudson Catholic, but all that time I was still playing in men’s leagues, meeting people in the industry who would ask me, “Mike, why aren’t you playing pro?” And I would tell them “I don’t know how to get into it.”
When I was 17, I was approached by the Athletics Director at Yale who told me, “We have to get you to Yale!” I said, “Ok, tell me what I need to do.” “You have to get an athletic scholarship. You have to go to NYU and have a minimum of a 3.8 in your first semester, and then you can transfer over.” I told him, “That’s just not realistic.” Forget the fact that I was working, it just wasn’t realistic. I never liked school. If he said that I could’ve just come, I would’ve went. I had every D3 team in the tri-state area contact me. I was playing D3 when I was 15. I didn’t want to do that.
I had an opportunity with a USHL team, the Rochester Mustangs. I was by far the best goalie at their camp. They said, “The goalies we have now, their contracts end next season so we’ll bring you in then.” But that didn’t work out. They went through two coaches in the meantime so when I went, they were like, “You shouldn’t be here.” I said, “This coach told me I was playing.” If I got beat out by goalies that were better than me, then fine, but these guys were terrible. In fact, I remember the last day when I went head-to-head with their returning goalie. We won 8-0, and I had at least 20 more shots on goal than he did. I got released.
So I came home, worked, played in Chelsea’s D1 league, played a little in Hackensack and then I played on a team with Billy Tortorella, John’s brother. At this point I was 24, 25. He said, “Mike, why aren’t you playing pro?” And I told him my story up to that point. He said “I’m going to talk to John, and we’re going to do something.” And I had emails back and forth. And I was going to go to Tampa’s camp that year. I quit the job I had at the time, I trained real hard for four months, and I was ready. And that was the year of the first lockout.
During the lockout I trained with some of the Rangers, some guys from Detroit and Tampa. The Russian players had secret skates, no names will be mentioned. They had to be secret, they weren’t supposed to be together. They had to stay in shape until the season started again. We all met at this rink in Staten Island, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Put in a two hour workout. Sometimes we’d alternate days because people would find out. [In Russian accent] “No no, we cannot come today.”
And you know, that kind of killed it. But by that point I was like, you know what, this keeps happening. I want hockey to be my every day life. I didn’t want to go back. I had so many different jobs; construction, installing security systems, working on the highways. I didn’t want to do that. So I called the director of Chelsea. He was one of my coaches when I was 12 and13, and they needed a goalie coach and assistant youth hockey director. So I worked there for two seasons. That was great, it was two of the best years of my life.
So, for reasons I didn’t understand, things got rocky at Chelsea. But I was always networking. My brother had a friend who worked for a minor pro team in Venta, Finland. He knew I had an opportunity to try for Tampa, so he asked if I would try out, so I was like “I’m going to Finland!” So I went to Finland, same thing happened. I was miles better than the goalies there, but the goalie coach said, “You could play at this level, but we don’t need you, so thank you.” It turned out that he didn’t want an American goalie. I wouldn’t say I was bitter, I was mad. I wouldn’t have flown all the way there if I had known. The GM [in Finland] wanted me to play, but there was a new coaching staff. The other coaches liked me too, but it was just this one guy. Politics, story of my life.
So I come home, and I started working at the rink in Staten Island, running a program there as the goalie coach. My brother and I had a really great program running, We started with 11 people in this program, then three months later we had 56, but the Director just wasn’t a good person, so it didn’t work out so well.
TEACHING THE POSITION
Yeah, after all this stuff happened, I just wanted to be on my own. That’s when my brother and I decided to start Omega Hockey (we were very into Transformers) which officially launched it on ‘08. I was an alumnus at Bayonne so I had access to the rink. We had clinics, I worked with their travel program. In the first year I worked in Randolph, Stockholm, Montclair…but the thing is a lot of programs don’t have the money to have a regular goalie coach, even when a regular goalie coach is willing to show up.
I’ve been teaching since 2006, and I used to catch so much flack and criticism, “Oh that doesn’t make sense!” “That’s nothing like what I was shown!” The game’s changing. It’s not just in equipment. There’s different systems, there’s a better way, and a lot of it has nothing to do with how you were taught and how I was taught. There’s almost no connection and it’s why goalies are in this kind of funk now, there’s this disconnect between the coaches they have now and they can’t put it together. Like in power skating, there’s a new technique where instead of your first 3 or 4 steps being a running start, you move your feet forward like on trolley tracks, because all your power’s going forward. It works, it’s way more efficient, but the coaches are used to the crossing over and the players all accept it.
All that time I was in between, I was studying the position, coming up with methods of my own design, not just copying a book that was written 20 years ago. I was a traditional goalie for 13 years, I went through the transition myself. It took me 8 months to go from Mike Richter to Henrik Lundqvist. And I understand every little gear, every little detail on how to get you from here to there. And now I have a big demand because everyone wants that one on one.
And I always keep myself fit. Goalie coaches are always out of shape, no one wants to be coached by a fat guy. You have to be in shape. You might notice not a lot of coaches wear their pads and glove and blocker, and shoot. I believe that there’s nothing like a visual aid. To be able to show the students what they’re supposed to be doing, not just talking to them, wearing player gloves and stick.
Hockey became my life. It’s a bittersweet victory. It’s my fulltime job. I’ve never had my name on the back of a team’s jersey. Even though there was an independent pro team I signed with in New Jersey, last year, the Spartans. I passed the physical, and two months later the team folded. I’m just a black cloud. I had a verbal agreement with a coach from Aviator, it was the A team. I just wanted to play! And then they folded. I just wasn’t allowed to play. My destiny is to be an instructor. My girlfriend always says I could do so much more good with the kids I meet. Not just their coach, become their friend, a mentor. I try to make myself available at all hours. •