The Goalie Whisperer
The Goalie Whisperer
Brathwaite imparts his wisdom
He’s played in many different leagues, has fought a lot of uphill battles and faced a lot of adversity.
He was never drafted by an NHL team and it was said he’d never play there. He ended up playing over 200 NHL games.
When he went to his last pro station in Germany, it was said that he was simply too old. He went on to play four seasons, never having less than a .914 save percentage, even having been named DEL Goalie of the Year one season.
Maybe it’s exactly all this that allows him to reach the young men he coaches? Maybe it’s all those battles along the way that allow him to impart ice hockey, and most particularly, goaltending wisdom in a way that his pupils can most make use of it.
“What I like to see is when kids go on the ice, battle, and show people that they are physically and mentally tough enough to succeed. I like it when they fight through things and prove people wrong,” explains the former Edmonton Oiler and Calgary Flame about what he hopes to see when he works with the future generations of hockey players in Hockey Canada’s program, all proud to represent their career while carving a path to what will hopefully be an NHL career.
It’s exactly this mentality that made him an excellent candidate to perform these duties for Canada at international tournaments, where kids need to keep an eye on the ball and face new situations on an almost daily basis. He’s doing just that in Zug, Switzerland, where Canada has gone undefeated in preliminary round and playoff play and will face off this afternoon against archrival USA in the semi-finals.Continue reading
It’s surely not his first time in Europe either.
“Hockey has brought me all over the world. I’ve been lucky enough to play from Russia to Germany and all over North America. I’m very fortunate to have been healthy and get 19 years out of it."
"Culturally, it’s been great. I’ve seen a lot of places I’d never otherwise have seen. I played several seasons for Kazan in Russia and then in Omsk, and well, those are spots I’d never have seen without ice hockey. Everywhere I’ve been, Germany included, all I’ve met are great people and they’ve been great experiences,” tells Brathwaite.
“As far as playing abroad is concerned, playing in Germany was probably the easiest from a transitional standpoint. I was fortunate to run into a lot of import players and had coaches like Harry Kreis and Dave King, and others who were English-speakers. And the community in Germany features a lot of English-speaking people, so I didn’t really have to change. Playing in Russia was great as well, but there I had to adapt more and pick up some of the language to get by.”
His playing career included a number of stations and highlights along the way. “There were a few highlights to my career. One would be winning the Memorial Cup with Oshawa back when I was, well, 17, about the same age as the kids at this U18 tournament. I played there with Eric Lindros. Then there was my first NHL game with the Edmonton Oilers, and then getting my first win. Then of course there’s being a part of Hockey Canada. I played with Canada and got the opportunity to represent my country as a player. And then there’s the Gold Medal I won last year at the World Juniors.”
Ironically, both Kazan and Mannheim just participated in the finals in their respective leagues. “I don’t really follow Kazan closely, because that was quite some time ago. I ended up winning there as well, but I really still have a lot of good friends in Mannheim and in that organization. I made a lot of ties there. Here’s sending them big-time congrats on the DEL championship. I wish we had won it while I was there, but they’ve done a great job putting a great team and program together.”
For Brathwaite, the prestigious job for Hockey Canada, the trust the program invests in him, was thanks not only to his many years of international experience, but also to the many people he’s played and worked with along the way. “I’ve been lucky enough to know a lot of people from Hockey Canada. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a number of their programs. And when I was done playing, I kind of just kept sending in my resume. I was bugging them and bugging them until they had no choice but to hire me”, he explains, unable to hold back his laughter. “And it’s an amazing opportunity to be part of something like this. The operation and organization here with Hockey Canada is top flight and any time you get to represent your country, be it as a player or coach, it’s an unbeatable experience.”
If he had his way, he’d likely still be playing. Making the transition from player to coach is something that has different motivations for different people. “The decision to coach came after my playing career kind of naturally. I was 39 after my last season in Mannheim and had actually hoped to play another year, but it didn’t happen that way. I knew I wanted to stick around the game. I enjoyed being around the players and the whole atmosphere. Once I retired, I thought about things I could do and well, the only thing I can really do is be a goalie. So I thought I could share my experience with the kids and try and get them ready for whatever.”
Now Fred has gone from a long and illustrious career as a player to being a player developer. This transition certainly isn’t as easy as one might suspect.
“You’d think it’d be fairly easy to make the switch, but it’s really not. You’re so used to being part of the group and being in the dressing room. Now when I’m with the national team at these tournaments, I’m not really trying to change these kids coming in. I’m trying to make them feel welcome, comfortable, good about their game; I’m giving them little pointers about the European game, the national team, and international play. I try to stick to the basics because I only have them for a couple of weeks at a time. I need to get them prepared for the championships or whatever tournament we may be in.”
As a part of these tournaments, Brathwaite sees not only what his goalies are doing, but also what other countries’ goalies are up to. It’s something that naturally pops out at him and gains the attention of his goalie eye, entering into the realm of his technical analyzing. “A lot of the talk about this generation of goalies is that they aren’t athletic enough. I’m finding that hard to believe. I saw Latvia’s goalie Denijs Romanovskis, who is not very big, stand on his head. I think everyone is developing the same now. Before everyone talked about Canada and the top teams like Finland and Sweden from a technical goaltending standpoint. Now we’re seeing the same thing from countries like Latvia and Slovakia. It’s like we’re on even par now.”
Making a special connection to young goaltenders is not something every coach can – or even wants – to do. It takes a special understanding and the role is not just one that requires the eye and ability to say what goalies can improve on from a technical and physical standpoint, but also what they have to bring to the table psychologically. It also involves simply being able to read, understand, and instruct a goaltender. A person who can combine all that needs to have that special something. He needs to be a goalie whisperer.
And that’s what some are saying Fred Brathwaite is.
“Well, I’ve never heard that before, but if anyone feels that way, then it may be because I’ve been around. I played pro hockey for 19 years and have been to many places to do it. I simply hope the kids I work with enjoy working with me. We want to have fun, but we work as well, and I just do my best to help them prepare and go in there feeling comfortable about themselves.”
Despite his humble nature, he too knows what’s necessary to keep the goalies ready and focused, especially in the course of a game. “A big thing is for a goaltender that you have to have a short memory. There are goals that might go in. There are situations that might happen. You can’t dwell on the past. Obviously, you have to focus and get ready. You may have had a bad game, but you have to put that out of your mind and get ready for the next game. You need to be ready to go out there and forget things that happened before. Just getting ready and getting the kids focused is a key. They need to have that short-term memory.”
Often overlooked is the aspect that a goaltender can only block shots. He can’t skate up the ice and score a goal himself. When he lets in the odd goal here or there, he can’t turn around and get it back by scoring the next one himself. This psychological circumstance places a different pressure on the goalie, or so one would think. “I think everybody, regardless of the position, has a job to do. Being a goalie, you’re there to stop the puck. If you make a big save, that brings a lot of energy to your teammates. If there’s a bad goal against, you have to get past that and then be ready to make the next big save. I think a lot of energy can be gained by the players when they see how ready and focused their goalie is.”
At these tournaments, Brathwaite has several challenges to deal with. The biggest is getting the kids ready. A lot of these kids have been very successful wherever they’re coming from. If they even get picked for this team, then they’re obviously very special. Some kids come in here and things don’t go as smoothly as planned. You just have to get prepared. You’ve got to be strong enough. That’s where I come in. I need to ease them down and try to get them at an even level. They shouldn’t be too high or too low.”
“I absolutely agree with the belief that the goalies need to be the players with the best skating propensity on the ice. I don’t know if they have to be the best skaters per se, but for guys to get around the net and move around the net, they have to be able to skate. Those are things I’m trying to work on. Them using their edges and moving around the net a little bit better, that’s what they can improve on. If you’re not the best skater, you’re going to have a harder time.”
Most players never try playing goalie. They don’t really know what exactly a goalie has to face and put up with. They tend to be critical of goalies without knowing what they’re actually dealing with. They underestimate what goes into being a goalie. “Oh yes, there’s the odd guy who thinks goaltending is easy. Going up and down, being on your knees, moving around the net – people don’t realize just how strong your core has to be. As mentioned, that skating has to be a big part.”
As for what role Fred will assume during a game and what the communication is with the head coach about the performance of a goalie, it’s a situation of gaining a read that few other than a former goalie can really understand, “If a coach were to ask me about my take on a goalie performance and whether or not he should, for example, be pulled, for me that depends on how the goals went in and what the player’s body language is like. Things really depend on how the game is going. It’s a touch and go, spur of the moment situation.
The game of hockey has many aspects and requires lots of people on and off the ice to create the product that is seen by those in attendance. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. When the time comes for a person to go from contributing on the ice as a player to off the ice as a coach and mentor, there are new goals to be achieved and new feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. Brathwaite doesn’t need long to sum up what he finds most rewarding. “Just seeing when the kid does well. As simple as that.”
“You don’t want to see kids lose, or even have a bad game, but seeing them bounce back is special. When people are down on them and doubt them, then they come back, play well and prove everyone wrong – that makes everything worth it”, he explains.
In short, he enjoys when they battle diversity and overcome it.
“That’s the way I played. Everyone said I was way too short, way too this or that. I was never drafted. I always wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to show everyone I could do it. It was that way right on up to when I went to Mannheim. Plenty felt I could no longer play at that point. I went there and things worked out. I went on the ice and proved them wrong.”
When it comes to coaching, one always has to live with the fact that these young people will often listen, but be in no rush to make the suggested adjustments. Or that they’ll just have a difficult understanding what exactly is expected of them. Or that they’ll understand the difference between constructive criticism and the kind of criticism that demands them to change. Every coach encounters it and that makes it even more rewarding when what is being taught is accepted and implemented., Brathwaite clarifies, “Well, when I see that, it’s nice to know that they’re listening,” Brathwaite clarifies with a smile and chuckle. “It’s nice to know that what I’m instructing is not going in one ear and out the other.”
“But that’s all part of my job. I’m more of a goalie coach than a goalie teacher. For me, imparting my experience as a goaltender on them and letting them know what they will face and how to face it is more important than technical stuff. It’s nice to see them implement what I instruct, but getting that to happen is simply my job.”
And it’s one he does well.
One he does with pride.
One he obviously gets done.
After a rocky start for goalie Zach Sawchenko in the tournament’s first game, which saw him allow six goals against on only 22 shots, Brathwaite went to work. He did his thing. The goaltending quickly solidified and became a strength for the team. Sawchenko only allowed a total of five goals against in his next two showings. Canada’s other goalie, Evan Cormier, has even topped that, only having allowed three goals against in two outings.
Brathwaite’s boys are getting the job done.
Think about that this weekend when Canada plays Saturday and aims for a medal on Sunday.
And let there be little doubt about what you’re witnessing should, at some junction in the nation’s competitions, you see Canada’s netminders at the bench, leaning towards Fred as he quietly imparts his instruction and wisdom into their ear.
The goalie whisperer will be doing his thing again.
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