I grew up in Oceanside, Long Island and we lived about 15 minutes from Nassau Coliseum. When the Islanders started up in 1972, my father bought season tickets for the family and I fell in love with hockey immediately.
I took skating lessons at the Long Beach ice rink (the New York Rangers’ practice facility at the time and home to some memorable Ranger/Islander rookie and pre-season games) and the next year I started playing for the Long Beach Mites hockey team. I started out playing defense, because my favorite Islander was defenseman Bert Marshall. I even wore his No. 6.
A friend of my dad’s told him if I was serious about hockey, the best team to play for was the Oyster Bay Gulls. A few weeks later we traveled 30 minutes to Oyster Bay so I could try out for the team. The coach told my father I might make the team as a defenseman, but what they really needed was a goalie. I still remember my father walking over to me and asking if I wanted to play goalie for the Gulls. My eyes lit up and I shouted ‘yes!’
Oyster Bay practiced at “Racquet and Rink” in Farmingdale, the same rink the Islanders practiced at. My parents were already friends with a few of the Islanders, including Chico Resch. My mom saw him a few days later and told him I was going to be a goalie just like him. He replied, “Do not let him be a goalie. For his sake and yours!”
Chico sure knew what he was talking about. It is a tough job. Many people say it’s the toughest job in pro sports; it’s certainly not for the fragile. Coaches, opposing players, fans, teammates (and sometimes their parents) and the media will torment you every chance they get.
I told my girlfriend, Michelle, that in college when we would play at a rival school, I was constantly hearing thousands of people chanting, “Littman…Littman….Littman…YOU SUCK!” I really shouldn’t have told her that, because now when I get home from work late I hear, “Littman…Littman…”
Most people who don’t know hockey very well assume the worst part of playing goalie is the physical aspect. Not so. I would rather have a small rubber disc shot at my head than have a 250-pound defenseman crushing me into the boards. The toughest part of the job is, in fact, the mental aspect. A forward can have a bad game and his teammates can bail him out, but if a goalie has a bad game, there is almost no doubt your team will lose. You have to concentrate every second of the game. If you let up for a moment the puck is sure to find its way to the back of the net.
Before each game, most goalies have a routine they follow to keep focused (OK, most goalies are superstitious, too). As Ken Dryden says in his book The Game, you can always tell which goalie is starting. The starter won’t talk to anyone and the backup won’t shut up. In fact, my entire game day routine was mostly the same for 10 years in the pros.
9 a.m. – Get up and go to the rink for the morning skate.
10 a.m. – On the ice, if we were home (the home team always goes on the ice first on a game day. The away team goes on at 11:15 a.m.). If I was playing that night I would stay on for about half an hour. I would end the practice with a glove save. If I wasn’t playing, I would stay on for an hour and get a good practice.
12 p.m. – Time to eat, if we were at home (on the road there would be a team meal at 1:30 p.m.). Small salad, chicken and pasta, followed by a scoop of ice cream and a small glass of milk.
2 p.m. – Nap time. The most important part of the day. If I didn’t take a nap, I would find it hard to focus and concentrate.
4:30 p.m. (for a 7:30 p.m. game) – Go to the rink (players get to the rink at least two hours before the game). Change into shorts and sneakers. Tape up two new sticks. Drink a Mountain Dew. Stretch. Lay my equipment out on the floor in front of my stall in the exact reverse order I would be putting it on. If you looked at it from a distance, you’d think there was a dead goalie on the floor (learned this from Darcy Wakaluk.)
6 p.m. – Coach comes in for a 10-minute talk with the team. Usually it’s just to go over the players on the other team and discuss strategy.
6:10 p.m. – I wouldn’t talk much after this point. I was in game mode. I’d sit in my stall with headphones on and listen to Metallica.
6:30 p.m. – Start getting dressed. Left skate first and left pad first. Just before going onto the ice, I’d pour cold water over my head from a cup (learned this from Pat Jablonski.)
6:55 p.m. – On the ice for warmups. Got a good warmup and ended with a glove save.
The main reason goalies have superstitions and don’t like talking to anyone is that it helps keep their focus. You need to get to a certain level of concentration for the game and these steps help get you there. It also helps to keep yourself calm even if you are nervous before a game. Each goalie has his own thing that gets him to this place.
Another job in sports that compares to this is a field goal kicker in football; goalies and kickers are known to have similar quirks and personalities. The big difference is that while a kicker plays less than one minute each game, goalies have to play 60 minutes.
Once I got out on the ice and heard the roar of the crowd, my adrenaline took over. I am no longer nervous and usually have a lot of fun playing, but there are two people in the crowd who didn’t have fun – my parents.
They learned quickly why Chico said what he did. I had fun on the ice, but my parents were nervous wrecks. In fact, they never sat together when they watched me play. My dad needed to pace and go outside for a smoke between periods. My mom would hold her breath when the puck was in my end.
In Part 2, Littman looks at dealing with coaches, the importance of confidence and provides some tips for up-and-comers.
A native of Flushing, N.Y., David Littman was drafted by the Sabres in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft. He spent four years at Boston College before turning pro in 1989. Over the next 10 years, Littman would play in the ECHL, IHL, AHL and NHL (with Buffalo and Tampa Bay). The 40-year-old currently works as a producer for the wildly popular EA Sports NHL series of video games. Read his other THN.com blogs HERE.