(L-R) Andrew Suitor, Tyler Hass and Josh Gillam take a few pre-practice shots on Swarm Intern Brent Hollerud
The routine started the same way it had hundreds of times before. I find a corner spot in the locker room to accommodate my behemoth of an equipment bag, and tug on my knee-high socks before slipping into my skin-tight athletic pants and shirt. The next step was stepping into my bulky goalie pants, but after that, all familiarity fell by the wayside. Instead of putting on a pair of skates and strapping on a set of pillow-like leg pads, I put my Nikes back on and pulled two giant hard-plastic pads out of the bag, which were akin to a super-sized version of your typical rollerblading shin guards. After struggling to find out where all the various straps and buckles belonged, I tossed on the chest protector, jersey, gloves and helmet and began making the walk to the tunnel.
Donning the mask was nothing new to me, I have amassed over 17 years of goaltending experience on the ice, at the youth, high school, junior and collegiate levels. But on this night the situation was something entirely different; instead of stepping onto a fresh ice sheet, I walked onto the cushy green turf at Xcel Energy Center, and instead of dealing with slap shots I had to find a way to get in front of bounce shots. A week after bringing the idea up to the Minnesota Swarm coaching staff on a whim, my pipe dream was about to come true. An hour before the Swarm were scheduled to begin their practice at The Hive, I was making my debut as a box lacrosse goaltender–an experience I wouldn’t soon forget.
I made my way to the net closest to the Swarm bench, and took a moment to get familiarized with the equipment, the stick in my hand, and the smaller net than I was used to (hockey nets are 4-feet high by 6-feet wide, while box lacrosse nets are 4-feet high by 4-feet-6-inches wide). My first shooter was Ross Chicantek, equipment manager and ex-collegiate laxer at the University of Minnesota. Ross, to my relief, fired a few long-range shots at first to ease me into things. I was feeling really good after the first dozen shots. I stopped just about all of them, some with my legs, some with my body, and I was thinking to myself that things weren’t that much different from what I was used to on the ice. You use your angles and size to maximize your blocking space, and then follow the ball into your body once the shot is taken. I could be pretty good at this, I thought to myself.
My hypothesis was immediately put to the test as onto the floor stepped assistant coach Aime Caines and forward Corbyn Tao.
“You sure are brave stepping in there,” Caines said, a statement which I wasn’t sure was a complement or a friendly taunt. The coach, who had a fruitful five-year career in the NLL, picked up a nearby ball and effortlessly fired one, which I didn’t see until I heard it bounce in off the post behind me. Well, nothing you can do on that one, I reassured myself as I turned to face Tao’s shot. His offering bounced two feet in front of my left foot and ended up hitting the top corner of the net. At that point I was ready to call shenanigans on how someone can shoot low and high simultaneously, these bounce shots are straight-up cheating.
Eventually more and more players spilled onto the floor, some still in their street clothes, all looking to get their hands warmed up prior to practice. My competitive side kicked into overdrive, not only do I get to try my hand at lacrosse goalie, I get to step in front of some of the best players in the game. Quickly scanning the floor, I see the franchise-leading point getter Callum Crawford, 2013 top draft pick Logan Schuss and 2013 NLL all-rookie team members Shayne Jackson and Kiel Matisz, all of whom are household names in the lacrosse world and all of whom were grabbing loose balls and heading in my direction.
All hockey goaltenders can tell you, a benchmark for good performance is a save percentage over .900. So for every 10 shots you face, nine should result in saves. It quickly occurred to me that in this case I would have to lower my standards significantly. The best NLL goalies hold save percentages in the high .700’s, and only the truly elite break into the .800’s. And those are professional goaltenders, not some college kid stepping onto a lacrosse field for the first time for kicks and giggles.
Over the next half-hour or so I was in a situation some people might find terrifying but one that I didn’t want to end. I was on the receiving end of 90-plus MPH howitzers unleashed from the sticks of some of the best lacrosse players in the world, figuring out what I was doing as I went along. Due to my lack of instruction, I took it upon myself to take mental notes of a few things that would keep me in one piece and perhaps keep the ball out of the net in the meantime.
Lesson No. 1: There is no catch glove in lacrosse. It is a natural reaction when a puck is coming at my left-hand side to try and catch it with my open palm, similar to a shortstop snagging a line drive. However, that is not how things work in lacrosse, as all the padding is on the back of the glove, not the palm, and after I attempted to make my first painful glove save I quickly understood that trying to catch the ball on the fly will more than likely give you a broken hand than a place on the highlight reel. I did catch it however; at least I can say I have good hand-eye coordination.
Lesson No. 2: There is no possible way to anticipate where a shot is going. In hockey I at least have the luxury of knowing that every shot originates from the same basic spot – on the ice. Unless it’s some circus-type scoop-and-shoot play, the puck starts on the ground and will either stay low or rise on its way to the net. All of this predictability went out the window when the Swarm started firing at me. Lacrosse players have a seemingly endless arsenal of shot-types to choose from. There is the overhead shot, which sinks rapidly before reaching the cage, the “sub-shot” which starts at the player’s feet and has an upward trajectory, and there are sidearm shots which can either come straight in, rise or fall. Then if that wasn’t too much can handle, the crafty players start shooting the bouncers and behind-the-back shots that seem to defy all laws of physics. While all these shots started in different places, they all seemed to end up in the same area behind me.
Lesson No. 3: Dekes are hard. Check that, dekes are basically impossible. At least when the guys shot from a distance I had time to try and react and move an arm or leg to make a save. When someone would run up to the net moving their stick at a dizzying pace, the best thing I could do is look for the next shot, because I didn’t have a chance at stopping the current one.
The Swarm players didn’t score every time they shot (whether that was because I made a save or they simply hit me with the ball is up for discussion), but every shot was a new welcome challenge for me. The players were fantastic sports with me intruding upon their field and locker room. Many of them had a good laugh at my efforts and a couple of them even gave me pointers. Soon practice started and I stepped aside to watch the professionals show how it was done, gleaming both inside and out for having the chance to cross being a lacrosse goalie off the bucket list. I got to watch practice in its entirety from the bench, ogling at how easy the Swarm netminders Tyler Carlson and Zach Higgins made everything look.
I left the arena that night without a major injury, with the satisfaction of indulging my competitive side, making a few saves and gaining a new appreciation for my fellow colleagues in the goalie brotherhood.
(Note: As luck would have it I was soon to be outdone in a big way when it comes to people trying their hand in net at The Hive. The next morning NHL superstar Sidney Crosby padded up as him and his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates took the floor before taking on the Wild later that weekend. But Sid cheated– he wore hockey pads.)