Last fall, a Canadian hockey delegation travelled to Scandinavia in the hopes of changing the way the goaltending position is taught and developed back home.

Former NHL netminders Corey Hirsch, Fred Brathwaite and Rick Wamsley joined representatives from Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey League on a trip to Sweden and Finland to learn how those countries have better standardized goaltending lessons for young players. The result will be the implementation of some of those practices as Canada seeks to develop the same kind of goaltending talent as it has in skaters.

"Goaltending in Canada in general we've been spoiled, and we always just thought there would be a guy," said Hirsch, a goaltending consultant for Hockey Canada. "But now that these countries are getting better, these other countries are finding guys, we've got to step up our game."

Canada's world junior goaltenders Zach Fucale and Eric Comrie are not the problem — they're the cream of the current crop. Neither is Carey Price, the elite Montreal Canadiens goalie who helped Team Canada win gold at the Sochi Olympics.

Instead, the problem is that for the size of Canada's hockey-playing population, there isn't the same depth of talent in goal to produce generational stars as often as it can with centres like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.

"There should be a Carey Price every two years," Hirsch said. "There should one every couple years that, 'You know what, this guy is this good,' and it's not happening. That's not to say there's a panic going through, but we recognize we need to help out our parents of goaltenders and we need to help out our goaltenders."

It's not necessarily that Finnish and Swedish goaltenders are learning better technical things. The issue is in how Canada has approached teaching goaltending at a young age.

Whereas youth head coaches have to be certified to run midget or bantam teams, Hirsch said that anyone who claims to know goalies can get on the ice with them.

"We don't know if they have the knowledge or not, or if they just watched Jonathan Quick on TV so that's what they think they're going to teach," Hirsch said.

After winning the world hockey championship in 1995, Finland got an infusion of money into its hockey program. Those in charge decided to invest it in goaltending to keep up with the likes of Canada, and not long after Sweden followed.

In Finland and Sweden, there is a structure from the top down. The result is one set of principles for goaltenders to learn from the time they put on skates through their entire development.

"This is something we're trying to do, this is something Finland's been doing for 20 years, Sweden probably the last 12 years, where they're trying to get everyone on the same page," said Brathwaite, Canada's goaltending coach at the world junior championship. "All their goalie coaches are talking the same language."

Brathwaite pointed out that Sweden and Finland are the size of Alberta, so it'll be a bigger challenge for Canada to adopt the same system. More than likely, it'll be up to each province to manage its goaltending, once a system is implemented.

The first step, after what Hirsch called "the most informative and inspiring trip" he has been on in his career in goaltending, is creating a Level 1 manual for beginner goalies. Hirsch, Brathwaite, Wamsley and Los Angeles Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford are tasked with coming up with those basics, like skating and catching.

Hirsch said he hopes to have that out soon, and what will follow down the road is a certification course for goaltending coaches to learn how to teach the fundamentals and build on them. Wamsley wants an 80/20 split, where 80 per cent of what's taught is standard across the board and the other 20 can be tweaked for individual coaches and goalies.

The junior level has become a source of contention about Canadian goaltending, especially since the Canadian Hockey League passed rules to limit Europeans from being drafted at that position. In the not-too-distant future, the CHL won't have any European goaltenders left, assuming the current rules remain in place.

Brathwaite said the immediate goal is for the Ontario Hockey League, which was represented by Joe Birch on the trip, to test a pilot program similar to what Finland and Sweden use.

"We'll have a head guy in the OHL and it'll kind of branch out to maybe the OHL goalie coaches and then actually try to recognize the younger goalies at a younger age, maybe 13, 14, and help them develop," Brathwaite said. "We're going to have a main person (who can) kind of go out to the different branches and try to get everyone on the same page here."

Brathwaite takes exception to the notion that other countries have better goaltenders than Canada's. The five-foot-seven Ottawa native who played for the Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames called that "a crock."

"I really, strongly believe we are producing the goaltenders," he said. "It's just the way they've been doing it as a country and an organization getting things on the page earlier than we did."

The results have shown through over the past two decades. Over the past 20 seasons, only two Canadian-born goaltenders have won the NHL's Vezina Trophy: Martin Brodeur (four times) and Jose Theodore.

In the previous 20, only three times did someone born outside Canada win the Vezina: Americans John Vanbiesbrouck and Tom Barrasso and Swede Pelle Lindbergh. The past three winners are from Finland (Tuukka Rask), Russia (Sergei Bobrovsky) and Sweden (Henrik Lundqvist).

Hirsch thinks Canadians have taken great goaltending for granted. A generation headlined by Brodeur and Patrick Roy made it easy to do that.

"It's the lack of the coaching," said Hirsch, who spent time as goaltending coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Blues. "There's a lot of coaches out there that just bury their head and (follow the) old analogy of, 'Just shut up and get in there and stop the puck.' That's barbaric and that's the way it was. We taught ourselves. That's how you learned. And if you were the best athlete and you were able to learn and teach yourself, pretty much, or got lucky and met somebody that knew about goaltending, that's how you became good."

"Now we can't rely on that anymore. We need coaches, and we need these guys to be respected."

It'll take some time before Canada is able to fully implement a brand new system of growing goaltenders. The results likely won't be seen until the 2019 world juniors at the earliest.

For now, it's a start.

"We're behind in it," Hirsch said, "but better late than never."


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