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Why an NHL goalie coach says Ontario is failing to develop enough great goalies

The Canadian Hockey League has lifted a ban on European goaltenders designed to give more opportunity to Canadian goalies. Matt Cullen of CBC Sports talks about what an NHL goalie coach told him about why that plan failed and why he thinks there aren't enough great Canadian goalies.

The Canadian Hockey League has overturned its ban on European goalies

Erie Otters goalie Cole Ceci makes a sprawling save on Oshawa Generals' Kyle MacLean during an OHL hockey game Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, in Erie, Pa. (Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News via Associated Press)
The Canadian Hockey League has lifted a ban on European goaltenders designed to give more opportunity to Canadian goalies. Matt Cullen of CBC Sports talks about what an NHL goalie coach told him about why that plan failed and why he thinks there aren't enough great Canadian goalies.

It wasn't too long ago that the Canadian Hockey League bosses decided there was a crisis in goaltending. Too few Canadians were graduating junior hockey to become great NHL goalies. The league decided to ban goalies from outside North America in 2014.

Now, even though the crisis hasn't ended, that ban is over.

This past summer the CHL overturned its ban and a new crop of European goalies are having an impact in the Ontario Hockey league this season. The CBC's Conrad Collaco spoke with Matt Cullen, a reporter for CBC Sports who also provides commentary for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.

You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Matt Cullen, CBC Sports 

Matt Cullen is a reporter for CBC Sports and is also a play-by-play commentator for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads. (CBC Sports)

Matt, there are two sides to this debate. But many coaches and general managers in the OHL believe it was the best decision to remove the ban on European goalies. Why is that?

This year in the Canadian Hockey League, all across Canada, there are seven European goalies drafted this past summer. Four of them play in the Ontario Hockey League and a couple of them are having excellent seasons. The first argument is that competition breeds better development. When you open the door to everybody — the best there is on the planet it leads to healthy competition — goaltenders push each other to be better. Usually it brings the best out of everybody. 

A couple of major difference-makers in the Ontario Hockey League have been Sudbury's Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from Finland as well as Saginaw's Ivan Prosvetov from Russia. Luukkonen led Finland to a gold medal at the World Junior's. Here's an opinion from Sudbury Wolves General Manager Rob Papineau. He drafted Luukkonen. As soon as the rule changed he said 'I have to get my hands on Luukkonen. He's already drafted into the NHL by the Buffalo Sabres. We need a star goalie.' He says it helped his team and made the whole league better. 
Sudbury Wolves General Manager Rob Papineau talks about the recently overturned ban on European goalies in the Canadian Hockey League.
We're the best development league in the world, statistically, to support players developing into the National Hockey League which is where all these players, no matter where they are from in the world, aspire to be.- Sudbury Wolves General Manager Rob Papineau

Luukkonen says he really enjoys playing in Canada and it's made him a better goalie. He also feels, that with his strong season, he's made goaltenders and the league better around him.

There is a Canadian goalie who isn't in the league now because of Luukkonen who isn't developing as quickly because he's not facing Ontario Hockey League shooters. With four European goalies in the league doesn't that mean four fewer opportunities for development for Canadian goalies?

That's the other side of the argument. Back in 2014 the Canadian Hockey League had a 'protect the net' symposium. The idea was to develop Canadian goaltending. They said Canada is no longer the home of top goaltenders like it used to be. Canada needs to give its own goaltenders the best chance to play in our best development league. To help explain this I reached out to a number of people. One of them was Jon Elkin. He's the president of the Jon Elkin Goalie School in Toronto. He works in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes and in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies. He told me that banning European goaltenders was not the answer. He says it didn't work. He points the finger at the lack of goalie development in Ontario and particularly in Toronto. Very few NHL goalies come from this province.
Jon Elkin, Arizona Coyotes goalie coach explains why he thinks goalie coaches in Ontario are partly to blame for the failure to develop enough great goalies.
Often the coaches are more concerned with acquiring business rather than teaching the kids properly.- Jon Elkin, Arizona Coyotes goalie coach

In the past NHL draft there were 29 goalies drafted. Only eleven were Canadian and just two were from the province of Ontario. 

If it's not because of a lack of opportunity to develop in the OHL or CHL, why does Elkin say we are seeing so few successful NHL goalies from Ontario and specifically the Toronto area?

There are 40 spots for goalies in the Ontario Hockey League. Because teams only have two import draft picks — and now one of them or both can be used on a goaltender — you won't see a lot of European goaltenders come over. There are fewer spots but it's not like there's a big European takeover. Elkin says the reason we are seeing so many great European goaltenders is their style of development. Of the top 48 goalies in save percentage in the NHL — generally the best way to measure a goaltender's play — only 18 are Canadian. Eight are American. The rest are European. Countries like Finland, Sweden, Russia and even Denmark have some excellent goaltenders. Elkin spent years working with goaltenders from all over the world. 
Jon Elkin, Arizona Coyotes goalie coach explains why he thinks the European system for developing goalies is better.
I think people's hearts are in a better place. There's more cooperation. There's more desire to do good for the overall development of the goaltenders in the country... rather than hold on to business.- Jon Elkin, Arizona Coyotes goalie coach

He says it's not time to press the panic button in Canada. Canada is not a bad goalie country. There are some excellent young goaltenders coming up if you look at Carter Hart with the Philadelphia Flyers or Matt Murray, a goaltender with the Penguins. There are good Canadian goaltenders but there are more Europeans and he says that's because of the lack of development from Ontario. 

Do young Canadian goaltenders spend too much time playing games and not enough time practicing?

There is a difference in the systems. When young goaltenders crack into the Ontario Hockey League they usually end up as a backup. You have 16 and 17 and some time 18-year-old goaltenders sitting on the bench for the majority of the season. There are several 16-year-old backups this season in the Ontario Hockey League. The maximum they will play is ten, maybe 15, games. Is that the best way to develop a young goaltender? They get to practice against the best shooters this country has but practice is different than games. Elkin suggests that he would have the young OHL goaltenders as backup but when they were not playing they would be sent down to a Junior A, Tier 2 team and get games that way. For him, that is the best way to develop young goalies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Conrad Collaco is a CBC News producer for CBC Hamilton with extensive experience in online, television and radio news. Follow him on Twitter at @ConradCollaco, or email him at conrad.collaco@cbc.ca.

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