There were 59 seconds left in the third period. West Ottawa goalie Jr. Caleb VanHeest had just lost his stick after an encounter with Forest Hills Northern’s Tyler Kaminski. The Panthers fought to push the puck back toward the Rangers’ goal. Then VanHeest had to choose: risk leaving the goal open to grab his stick, or play it safe and wait for the next whistle. In hockey, possession can change in a fraction of a second. And that’s exactly what happened next.
Forest Hills swung back around, they charged toward the net. VanHeest’s defensemen did what they could to keep the Rangers at bay, but they were trailing. A few passes of the puck and a few seconds later, a satisfying thunk rang out as rubber collided with leather. VanHeest deflected the puck with his blocker.
He was without his stick for twenty seconds. The fans kept their eyes on the puck. But VanHeest had a more complex job. As a goalie, he had to analyze the direction of the puck, the movement of the Rangers and the Panthers, and the distance between him and his stick. To the inexperienced observer, what VanHeest does is based on luck. But VanHeest has goaltending down to a science. Years of practicing and training have honed his skill. He holds the angles, fills in the space in the goal. He keeps his glove and blocker as far away from his body as he can. He spends his spare time on the ice between whistles and off the ice between practices thinking about his movements and positions. Goalies have a six foot by four foot space to defend. With that small of an area to work with, there is no room for error. The extra time VanHeest puts toward his integral role on the team shows.
VanHeest has had the opportunity to work with many great goalie coaches, and his most recent coach is no exception. Every Tuesday, goalie coach Zac Smith works with VanHeest one on one. A goalie’s talent is built on three pillars: agility, flexibility, and reaction speed. Smith pushes VanHeest to his limits to strengthen these fundamental skills. Just bouncing a ball against a wall and catching it helps VanHeest train his coordination. Smith has spent this past year passing on as much wisdom as he can to VanHeest. How to read plays, how to react to shots, and how to track the puck from a stick into his pads. But most importantly, Smith has taught him how to harness the mental pressure that comes with being a goalie and turn that pressure into confidence.
Varsity hockey coach Nick Biondo noticed his mental control. Biondo attributes VanHeest’s talents as a goalie to his stable attitude. VanHeest gains more and more confidence after every week, every game, and every win. His self-assured attitude is what proves VanHeest is cut out for the difficult, individual role of a goalie.
The Panthers beat the Rangers four to zero. VanHeest stopped 20 shots, leading him to his third shutout of the season. This season the Panthers have earned fourteen wins and four losses, and their next home game starts at 6 on Wednesday, February 21 versus the Forest Hills Central Rangers at Griff’s Ice House West.