Have you seen him in person? He’s quite the specimen to look at and that really helps when it comes to developing a world class goalie.
Mackenzie Blackwood of the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Barrie Colts is one of the hottest goalies coming into the NHL right now. After speaking with him and Colt’s Goalie Coach, Mike Rosati about his upcoming rise to fortune and fame, there may be a little bit more to the reason behind Blackwood’s success, than what meets the eyes.
Before we delve into the Blackwood venture, let’s first take a look at the evolving role of the goalie in today’s fast-paced game of hockey entertainment. “It’s evolved into many different fields,” Rosati begins. “Today’s goalie is a lot more athletic in a sense that they’re stronger, they’re bigger, they’re heavier and they’re more powerful.”
Rosati has an in-depth knowledge of the goalie position at the professional level, as he himself is a former pro netminder. Drafted into the National Hockey League in 1998 by the New York Rangers, he also has experience playing in the American Hockey League (AHL) and The Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), which is the German Hockey League. Exiting his professional career in 2004, Rosati is now a decorated veteran of the game, winning two Italian League Championships: one in 1995 and the other in the following season. He also served as a member of Team Italy at the 1995 World Championships.
“I think one of the reasons why the position has evolved is because the equipment’s evolved. In my day when we played, we had leather pads stuffed with deer hair. They were basically on your legs to protect. Today’s equipment offers protection, but the way the pads are designed to shut down and flatten on the ice… they’re almost designed to fill net space; to take net space away from the shooter.”
Goalie equipment today has allowed goalies to head into the game fearlessly. “I think goalies are more confident now in getting hit,” says Rosati. “In my day and before my era, the equipment was so thin and flimsy, that if you got hit anywhere on the body, you were bruised or cut. If you look at old pictures of goalies, I remember seeing a picture of Tony Esposito in the dressing room with so much tape on his catching hand, just to absorb the shock of the puck coming.”
Young Goalie Signs Pro Contract
Blackwood recently signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the New Jersey Devils, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to make it pro. “I think what he has to understand, like every young player being drafted to the the NHL, signing an NHL contract doesn’t guarantee you’re going to have an NHL career,” says Rosati. “It’s an on-going process of dedication and hard work and sacrifice and if you’re willing to pay that price, you could have a very long, glorious career. But it’s not always easy, the path isn’t always just smooth, sometimes there’s bumps and curves. You gotta be able to persevere.”
Signing a contract in itself is a pretty good sign that the team signing you is interested in the long run. “It indicates they’re willing to spend the money to have him develop in their system over the next two or three years,” says Rosati. Especially when you’re being signed within the first six months of being drafted into the NHL. “Some players get drafted and a year goes by and a second year goes by and they’re uncertain about whether or not they want to invest their money in that player. Maybe a younger player becomes available in the next year’s draft… and it depends on what team too. Some teams could be very deep in that position where they have three or four goalies in their contract already and they don’t have it in their budget to sign a fifth goalie, so they may wait a year or two. In Mackenzie’s case, because of his capabilities and being in New Jersey where they’re not as deep in that position, it worked out great for him.”
“I think the biggest hurdle they have to overcome is the mental side of the game,” says Rosati. “Some people think that mental toughness is all about preparation and that’s a big part of it… but also throughout the course of the game… You may get scored on the first shot of the game and now you’re a little bit rattled; a little bit nervous. As a goalie, you need to keep it all together and just stay in that moment and not let a bad goal, or a great save, or a crowd getting on ya on the road, affect your focus and your concentration. In Mackenzie’s case, this is his third year with us – third and a half actually, in his first full year season as a rookie goalie, that was his biggest struggle. He’d be thinking so much about the goal that just gone in, that his focus wasn’t back engaged into the game. So he’s really worked out that aspect of his game and his game is really getting a lot better.”
He Started Goaltending 7 Years Ago
The story of how Blackwood got to where he is now is actually quite interesting and it just goes to show how some boys are literally born to play. “I was about four-years-old when I started playing hockey for real,” Blackwood tells The Hockey Writers. “I just played forward in house league and then I switched to goalie at 12. I was just playing on a single A hockey team. It was the last game of the year and our goalie got hurt. I went in net and I liked it, so the next year I wanted to give it a try, just to see because I wasn’t too sure with hockey – I was just playing because I enjoyed it, so I was like, yeah I’ll give it a shot.”
Mackenzie has excelled at goaltending in a relatively short period of time, considering he didn’t start playing the position until the age of 12. Rosati tells The Hockey Writers, “I watched him play a period and a half at the OHL cup his minor midget year and I told our GM that’s the guy I want to draft. What caught my eye about him was one, he was big. He was 6’-1”, this is a good size already, but his flexibility for being that size was impressive. He was doing full splits, he was very agile and acrobatic when he had to be. The work that he’s put in since then to gain muscle mass and maintain that same flexibility was also very impressive.”
Blackwood has some natural abilities that are just God-given according to Rosati:
- His athleticism comes to him very naturally.
- His ability to cover the puck and play net with his legs.
- He’s so strong that he can be a full split and just barely get some steal into the ice, then he’s back up on his feet into a new position.
- His lower half is so strong and powerful, he’s able to go laterally; east to west and still be in control of his body. Some guys are flopping forward on their bellies, some guys are landing on their backs. He’s either on his knees or on his feet in a very ready position.
The Puck Popping Cure
“He used to struggle catching pucks,” Rosati says of the young goalie. “Pucks used to pop out of his glove all the time, but we worked on it. We had a baseball pitcher come in, throw some balls at him, throw some curves and just have him work that hand/eye coordination to get that feel – to get that comfort of recognizing where the ball or the puck is and making that connection. He identifies where his areas of attention need to be worked on and he goes and works at it. We work at it together, maybe it’s something that I recognize, maybe it’s something that he comes to me about and we’ll address it. Sometimes it’s just a quick phone call. It could be something as simple as his depth in the crease – a little bit too deep or a little bit too far out. We’ve worked together so close over the past four years that we don’t need to watch video all the time, we can just have an easy conversation.”
A One-On-One Conversation With Mackenzie Blackwood
It turns out that it’s not too hard to have an easy conversation with Blackwood. He’s polite, well-mannered and articulate. He’s also not afraid to say what’s on his mind and I really appreciate that.
1. You’ve been quoted saying, “pressure makes the job fun.” Can you elaborate on that? Perhaps give me an example of a high-pressure scenario that you often find yourself in, that’s fun for you?
“If it’s a tie game in the third period, or if it’s a 1-1 game, it just makes it more fun because it’s more exciting. Nobody likes to play games that are 6-1, 6-2. It’s just not that exciting because there’s not a lot of pressure on you to make an extra save. If you let in a goal in a 6-1 game, it’s not going to make or break the game, but if it’s a 1-1 game, or 2-2, or something like that, it’s just exciting and there’s a lot of pressure on you to be at your best.”
Do you get nervous in those times or do you find you kind of excel when the pressure’s on?
“I feel like it’s a little bit nerve-racking but it’s not to the point where it breaks you down. It’s to the point where it makes you better because it makes you a little bit sharper – a little more intense.”
2. Are you taking any part-time, post-secondary courses right now?
“No,” says Blackwood.
“I just haven’t got around to it.”
Do you want to eventually take courses? You’re probably going to be very successful in the NHL, but maybe you won’t be…
“You never know right.”
Maybe you’ll get injured and you’ll be forced to quit…
“I’ve been thinking about a couple of things, but I don’t really want to start taking things that I don’t really like just because there’s no need, but I think I’m going to take a personal training course or get my real estate license just to do something, but I haven’t got around to that. I mean, me and my teammates are going to do it together.”
How many suspensions have you had this year?
Do you see yourself as a little bit of a risk-taker?
You’re a goalie and goalies don’t usually get too many suspensions, right?
“Right. Well, I wouldn’t call it being a risk-taker,” he chuckled a little.
Well, when you did whatever you did to get the first suspension, did you know it wasn’t the best thing to do? Or were you like, “this is ridiculous! Why am I getting suspended?”
“No, I knew after the first one. I knew that was coming, but with the second one I had no clue. The second one was for flicking a puck over the glass after a whistle.”
“Five games. I was like, this is ridiculous!”
Wouldn’t fans kind of like that, though? They’re getting a puck maybe…?
We both laughed. “I got a Tweet. The puck missed an infant by like a foot or something…”
Did you even do it hard?
“No. It like, flipped up on me and like, flopped down. It was the lightest flick in the world.”
So the first time you got a suspension, you knew that was wrong…
So you did kind of take a risk…?
“I was just mad. I didn’t really think about it. I wasn’t like, ‘oh, you know what, this is bad, but I don’t care. No. I was just like, F-this.”
3. This question might seem random, but do you like to read?
“Personally, I’m not a big reader,” says Blackwood.
That’s what I thought.
“There’re lots of guys on our team that do, though,” he continued on.
Yeah… but do you just like, hate it?
“Yeah,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m not… I hate it.”
4. Have you ever been diagnosed with ADHD?
“No, but I’ve never been checked – but I might actually have it.”
Do people tell you that you might actually have it?
“My mom,” says Blackwood. “When I was in school, I would never be able to pay attention for a long time and I’d just get bored.”
One of the things I’m trying to figure out is maybe the reason why you’re such a good goalie is because you hyperfocus, which is common for people who have ADHD. I’ve kind of been probing for this – not that I’m a doctor, but I think it’s possible that you have it and that could be a contributing factor to your success.
In the book, ‘The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was A Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength’ by Dale Archer, MD, a New York Times bestselling author, he ‘changes the conversation about ADHD by focusing on strengths, rather than deficits’ and defines ADHD as such:
“The trait is a combination of brain chemistry and genetics that affect the dopamine transporter gene and its receptors. Simply put, the brain reacts differently to stimulation in someone with an 8 or 9 or 10 on the scale, compared with someone who is calm and well organized or, say, a 1 on the continuum. In effect, the risk, the pressure of a deadline, chaos or the possibility that you are about to go off a cliff actually causes a different reaction in those high on the ADHD scale. They actually feel a rush, or euphoria, not the panic, anxiety or dread many would experience who don’t have ADHD. These extreme states actually boost a feel-good response in the brain, which is why many with ADHD appear so focused and functional in the middle of a maelstrom.”
Archer, D. (2015). The ADHD Advantage: What you thought was a diagnosis may be your greatest strength. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.
Although I’m not a doctor and the idea that Blackwood may indeed have ADHD is just a theory, I’m going to go as far as to suggest that Blackwood also ranks highly on the ADHD continuum. Perhaps the reason he’s so well equipped at goaltending is not just because of his physical prowess, but also because he has ADHD and perhaps that’s the reason why he’s one of the best goaltenders going into the NHL right now. In Archer’s book, he also speaks of the ADHD “symptoms” and I’m pretty certain Blackwood has a few of them:
“Generally speaking, an ADHD diagnosis means you have some of the following tendencies: difficulty focusing or staying on task; inattention to details; inability to sustain attention; trouble listening; disorganization; avoidance of tasks you don’t find interesting, frequently losing things; being easily distracted by external stimuli; and forgetfulness.”
Blackwood’s extreme dislike for reading may be caused by an inability to sustain attention. He also doesn’t want to take any courses that aren’t interesting and the reason for not taking part-time courses is because “he hasn’t got around to it”, which could also be viewed as avoidance. However, he doesn’t have trouble listening. Rosati tells The Hockey Writers that Blackwood is a very good listener.
This list is often the list that ADHD specialists will use to determine if an individual has ADHD or not. Archer takes a new approach to looking at these individuals, though:
“Flip them around and you have the following: an ability to multitask; a propensity to thrive in situations of chaos; creative, nonlinear thinking; an adventurous spirit; a capacity for hyperfocus on something that fascinates you; resilience; high energy; a willingness to take calculated risks; and calmness under pressure.”
No one can deny that Blackwood exemplifies some of these characteristics. A lot of hockey journalists and commentators have identified Blackwood as being a calm goalie. Whether or not he takes calculated risks is debatable, as seen in our conversation above and you don’t play sports if you don’t have high energy… especially if playing a sport is your career. Having the ability to focus on the puck at all times, especially in the midst of a crowd that’s yelling has got to be a little bit chaotic, but somehow, Blackwood seems to pull it off with ease… so maybe he does have the ability to hyperfocus. Today there isn’t enough research out there to prove my theory true, but for all those parents out there with kids who seem overly hyperactive, perhaps strapping on a pair of goalie pads to their little legs may help them out in more ways than you could ever imagine.