SHERIDAN — The NA3HL Sheridan Hawks take the ice every Friday and Saturday night in an attempt to win a game and move up in the frontier division standings.
Standing between the pipes for the Hawks are goalies James Downie and Zach Hearn. Both started as goalies in local leagues.
Hearn said players rotated through the different positions when they were first learning the game of hockey.
Once Hearn was in the pads and stood in the crease, he loved the position and stuck with it.
Hearn was also influenced by watching professional hockey goalies playing at the time, wanting to follow in their footsteps.
Downie was also influenced by a professional goaltender, his father, who played professionally in England and Scotland during the 90s. Downie said his dad helped coach him growing up and hopes to follow in his footsteps by playing professional hockey.
Hearn and Downie play a position that requires them to be a good athlete and have strong mental strength.
“You have to be an athlete, you cannot be a bodybuilder, you cannot be a lot of things,” Hearn said. “You have to be a well-rounded athlete to have the endurance to play a whole game even if you are busy or not busy. You have to have crazy mental strength to stay focused and you have to be a gymnast to make some saves. Ideally, our training in the summer helps us in being simple and we do not have to do that. If I could have a game where I do not make a single crazy save because my positioning is good, I would take that any day of the week. Boring is better as a goalie sometimes. Sometimes you have to battle.”
Downie said when he and Hearn are netminding for the Hawks, they need to stay mentally focused and concentrate on the little things.
“It is a consistent grind of the little things that make a huge difference,” Downie said. “Mentally, I think it is the hardest position on the ice. If you get scored on, you feel like it is your fault, but if you can switch that off, you can mentally be stronger and develops you into a stronger goaltender.”
Even though they are not always in the middle of the action, the goaltenders need to read the game and follow the puck, Downie said. When the opposing team is on the attack, Hearn will follow the puck and make sure he knows where the other opposing skaters are on the ice. This allows him to be ready if the puck is sent across the front of the goal.
Hearn will be able to know if there is a one-time opportunity or if an opposing player will need to gather the puck before shooting. Knowing which one it is will determine how Hearn attempts to stop the shot.
The importance of knowing locations of opposing players increases when the Hawks are shorthanded because there will be an open skater at all times. Killing the penalty plays can help bring energy to the team, especially when the Hawks are down two men.
“Of course, if you kill (the power play) you are buzzing,” Downie said.
Because of their vantage point, the main job is to communicate with teammates. When the puck is advancing down the ice, goaltenders have the best view and can help call out opposing skaters moving into position, Downie said. Downie is also in position to help call out open players down the ice and help set up the offense.
Downie and Hearn also have the mental obstacle of not seeing action for five to 10 minutes in a period because of the strength of the Hawks offensive attack. The Hawks are able to gain early leads, which also gives goalies some room for errors.
“When we are up six, to rip it has been nice,” Downie said. “Obviously that hurts the mental game, being cold. Five to 10 minutes without shots, then coming down, but you just go to stay strong. We have a really huge offensive team and I know we are going to score goals every game so if I let one or two in I know it is not going to be a huge deal. Against better teams, we have to be there for our team as well, and I know we will be.”
Hearn tries to not let the uninteresting portions break his mental focus, knowing the other team could come back down and take a shot at him at any moment.
“Things go from zero to 100 really quickly,” Hearn said. “We see that a lot with some of the teams we play where their second, third or fourth lines are not as strong but their first line is decent so you could get caught in a bad change and end up having a tough shift in your zone.”
When those pucks start flying, Hearn and Downie need to be ready physically and maintain their position on the puck. Downie said position on the puck is everything for a goaltender. He needs to keep his body centered on the puck, not the skater’s body.
Goalies take up most of the net when they are in the proper position. Downie, who is listed at 6 feet and 2 inches tall, said because of his height he will take up more of the net, making it harder to be scored on.
By placing themselves directly in front of the puck, Hearn and Downie are ready to sacrifice their bodies to stop the shot. Hearn said it is just a part of the daily grind and they are used to being hit in the head or in a spot where you usually do not get hit.
“I would much rather get hit in the head than let in a goal any day of the week,” Hearn said.
Hearn and Downie focus on making sure they have strong hips, knees and core. They use those areas of the body to help them drop to the ice to stop a shot and quickly reset and be ready for the next shot.
Hearn said eventually every goalie will find themselves in a weird position and will have to find a way to get back up. He works on being elastic and does a lot of stretching before and after games to give him the needed mobility.
“It is a tough position physically to play even when you are mentally there some times,” Hearn said. “Physically you have to work to get there and just daily taking care of your body. Doing the maintenance things that are not very fun to do but you got to do them to play a long time.”
Hearn said he learned from pro and college players about the importance of taking care of one’s body. It will help them on the ice and increase the number of years the goalies can play.
The Hawks are on a 10-game win streak. The most recent game against the Missoula Junior Bruins Nov. 16 the Hawks had a slow start and faced an early two-goal deficit. While the Hawks were able to come back and win the game, some complacency set in for the team.
“We cannot be complacent,” Downie said. “I feel like we were getting into that last week but I feel like this week of practice we have been a lot better, working hard and ready for this weekend. We were going into the game knowing we were going to win instead of thinking of it as a battle.”
Downie said it was a good lesson for the Hawks to learn early in the season and give the young team a chance to correct the mistake before the important games at the end of the season.
The Hawks will face the Yellowstone Quake this weekend. Sheridan hosts 7:30 p.m. on Friday and travel to Cody Saturday.