Interview with Calgary Flames’ Emergency Goalie Dusty Nickel

Tyler Fiddler Behind the Bench Leave a Comment

Dusty Nickel developed as a goalie with the Crowfoot Minor Hockey Association in Calgary. He split his junior career in the AJHL and SJHL. He went on to spend four years with the Mount Royal University Men’s hockey team. He’s been working with Top Prospects Goaltending for the past seven years. Currently, Dusty is the emergency back up for the Calgary Flames. 

Dusty, you’ve been a goalie instructor with Top Prospects Goaltending for seven years now, what has changed in the goalie position from your viewpoint?

Dusty: The skill level of the players and the speed of the game has increased drastically over the years. Goalies have had to become smarter at reading plays, become more efficient in their movements, and become more athletic. Goalies have had to raise their hockey IQ and understanding of how to read the play.

There was a time ago when goalies had to be big and bulky, who took up the net. Don’t get me wrong goalies still have to look big and take up space, but as they rise through the ranks, they need to have a better understanding of angles.

You’ve touched on it briefly, but players are faster, they shoot the puck harder, what are ways goalies can keep up to this increased level of play?

Dusty: A lot of becoming a great goaltender is becoming a well-rounded athlete. If you study the game and look around at the talented goalies, they aren’t just goalies. They do cross-training, they play multiple sports, and they find ways to incorporate other athletic abilities into the goaltending position. 

Becoming a student of the game is something all goalies should focus on. Actively watching hockey games means analyzing and seeing what goalies do in certain situations. Goalies can visualize themselves in the net and try to understand why these goalies are making specific movements. 

Let’s slide into the mental side of the game. Only two goalies can make the team, what is the mindset goalies should take into evaluations or tryouts to help them earn a spot?

Dusty: Goalies have to go into camp and play their game. Don’t try to do too much and stick with what makes them successful. 

To be an elite goalie, they need to be a competitor. Pick the returning goalie if there is one and compete with him. That could be in drills, scrimmages, or just in terms of work ethic. Challenging themselves to make an effort to make each save. 

As you advance age groups, you’re going to get into goalie battles. Only one goalie can start, how can you challenge for the starting job while still being a good teammate?

Dusty: I tell goalies that competing in practice is considered being a good teammate. Competition is good for everyone. It is a disservice to your fellow goalie and your teammates if you don’t challenge one another.

Goalies have to understand what their role is. For instance, if they are the backup, they still need to be supportive. At the same time, they must challenge themselves in practice in case of an injury or if the other goalie slips up. As a goalie, they must always be ready for when their opportunity might come.

Let’s look at the up and coming goaltenders, what are some of the fundamental skills that are most important to master to continue to progress as a goaltender?

Dusty: As a goalie coach with the younger goalies, we are working on the fundamental skills such as skating, movement, and understanding where they are in the net. If you can’t skate and can’t move, it will be tough to play at an elite level.

As goalies start to progress further, we can work with them on game-like situational movements. But the basis of becoming an elite goaltender is becoming a great skater and creating muscle memory. 

As a goalie coach, what changes from working with the younger goalies versus more established goalies?

Dusty: A misconception for parents and some goalies are the drills we do with pro goalies are way more advanced than what we do with the younger goalies. A lot of the drills are the same, but the details become that much more critical. For young goalies, we try to focus on one thing, so we’re not overwhelming them. 

The skills goalies learn they don’t just learn them once and then forget about them. They must do the movement consistently to continue to create muscle memory.

Movement is the key for all goalies. If you look at NHL goalies, they all continue to work on their movement and are finding ways to become more efficient.

What are some things goalies can do to stay sharp and improve during this unique offseason?

Dusty: Goalies can break down there offseason into two aspects. Physical and Mental. It is hard not to be on the ice, but there are other things goalies can focus on. 

Physical Side:

  • Cross-training is an excellent way for goalies to become stronger and more explosive. 
  • If goalies want to work on their agility and footwork, an agility ladder would be beneficial. 
  • Everyone has tennis balls, and there are a ton of different exercises to work on your reactionary skills.
  • Synthetic ice is a good alternative for goalies to work on their skills while not being on the “actual ice”. Goalies should ask their local goalie center’s if they will be adopting the synthetic ice as part of their training regimen. Obviously health and safety protocols would need to be followed in order for this to be allowed.

Mental Side:

  • Watch old game footage of yourself. Ask yourself what you did good, what you could have done better.
  • If you don’t have game footage of yourself, you can Youtube goalies and critique their game.
  • Take the time to sit down in a quiet space and visualize yourself playing a game. Put yourself into situations where you need to react to certain situations. It will keep your mind sharp.

Is there a specific goalie in the NHL you would encourage goalies to watch?

Dusty: I wouldn’t say there is one specific goalie to watch because it will be different for each goalie. For example, if you are a smaller goalie, you wouldn’t watch Pekka Rinne (6’5) because your game wouldn’t overlap very well. I would encourage goalies to watch games actively.  

Things goalies can look for while watching a game:

  • Depth of the goalie in his crease
  • Stick positioning
  • Rebound control
  • Analyze the goals against
    • Was it a good shot?
    • Did the goalie go down to quickly?
    • Was the goalie out of position?

Try to take the lessons you learn from other goalies and coaches and implement them into your game. The truth is finding your game is a bit of an experiment, each goalie is different, and goalies need to try to find things that work for them. As goalie instructors, we try to give goalies tools they can use, but there is no cookie-cutter way of developing a goalie.

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