Clint Malarchuk held court in a corner of the Thrashers' locker room after a recent game.
He spoke to Chris Mason, offering a few technical notes and words of encouragement after the goaltender had been pulled from a start. He addressed Peter Mannino, the young goalie who made his fourth NHL appearance as the replacement. In the middle of the two sat Ondrej Pavelec, dressed in a suit while on injured reserve, who listened as intently as his teammates.
The words of wisdom were just part of the many facets of Malarchuk’s job as the Thrashers’ goaltending consultant. The veteran of 10 NHL seasons will travel throughout the organization working with players at the NHL, minor-league and junior levels.
This job of goalie, it’s a pressure-packed position. In no other team sport is there a player like the goaltender, who has the ability to win or lose a game all by themselves.
“These guys are all skilled, and they all have talent,” Malarchuk said. “We try to improve on those talents and make them better physically but this game, with the pressures on goaltenders, the responsibilities they have, the position we’ve chosen for ourselves for our careers, it’s a heavy load on the mind. You’ve got to be in tune with these guys.
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"I promised myself years ago when I thought about coaching, I said to myself, I’m not going to forget what it’s like to be a player. I think some former players when they become coaches, they change. They forgot that. You’ve got to remember what it’s like.”
Each goaltender has his own style, Malarchuk said. He may offer advice or suggestions, but stays keenly in tune with the mental makeup of a goaltender. Above all, goaltenders must be comfortable.
“One thing about goalies, you have to earn their trust and build a relationship with them,” Malarchuk said. “It’s such a pressure situation if you want them to try something, but they are so used to doing it their way because they are comfortable. You don’t shove it down their throat. You peck away and peck away. I like to be open enough where they can say ‘Hey, that’s not for me.’
"Goalies more than anybody have the responsibility of being able to win a game or lose a game. With that responsibility comes huge pressure. Trying to get them to try something they might not be real comfortable with is not going to happen because they don’t want to be vulnerable. That’s building trust, building a relationship.”
Mason worked with Malarchuk while he was at AHL San Antonio.
“I have the upmost respect for Clint as a player and a person,” Mason said. “He’s not the kind of person that’s going to come in and change everything about you. He is going to play to your strengths and getting stronger in things he believes in -- lateral side-to-side movements and getting set and being in the optimal position at all times with powerful movements. ... He’s worked with a lot of different style goalies, and he’s been successful with everyone he’s worked with.”
Malarchuk played for Quebec, Washington and Buffalo during his NHL playing career. He turned to coaching almost immediately following the end of his career. He was head coach of Idaho of the West Coast Hockey League (1998-2000) and returned to the NHL to serve as goaltending coach for Florida (2002-03) and Columbus (2006-07).
Malarchuk said he brings a career worth of experience to the position.
“Looking back now, being a coach, I’ve been fortunate,” Malarchuk said. “I’ve been a starter. I’ve been a backup. I’ve been in the minors. At the professional level I’ve been there, done that. I can relate to a goaltender who hasn’t played in five games. I can still remember how that feels. I can relate to the guy who is on a roll, in the zone. You’ve got to try to keep that thing going for that guy. … I know what it’s like to be sent to the American League and to wait your turn. I remember those things, and I promised myself I wouldn’t forget. That’s a big thing to be effective.”
Malarchuk has spent the majority of his time with the Thrashers since the start of the season. However, the team has a prospect at ECHL Gwinnett. He will spend time at AHL Chicago. Occasionally he may find time to return to his ranch in Nevada.
“It’s very gratifying when [goaltenders] trust you and they listen and try what you teach them and it clicks and all of a sudden you’ve added another skill or another element to their game,” Malarchuk said.