Like many other retired National Hockey League players who want to remain part of the game, Fred Brathwaite is patiently paying his dues in hopes of getting back in the league as a coach.
But instead of the endless back-road bus rides that fledgling major junior and minor league hockey coaches usually endure, Brathwaite is doing his apprenticeship in the pressure-packed spotlight as goaltender consultant for Hockey Canada. And he’s doing it well.
Under his guidance, Canada’s goaltenders backstopped the country’s Under-20 team to a Gold Medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation Junior World Championship in Toronto/Montreal in January and a Bronze Medal at the IIHF’s Under-18 championship in Zug, Switzerland, last month.
“I would love to be an NHL goalie coach,” said Brathwaite, who played 254 games for the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, St. Louis Blues, and Columbus Blue Jackets over nine NHL seasons. “And having this opportunity with Hockey Canada is helping me prepare for that. And it’s really not that bad paying dues when you end up getting the best kids in the country to work with.”
Indeed. Zach Fucale, a Montreal Canadiens 2013 second-round draft pick who played for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Quebec Remparts in 2014-15, and Eric Comrie, the Winnipeg Jets 2013 second-round pick who skated for the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans, provided serious goaltending for Canada at the worlds.
Fucale appeared in five games at the world juniors, posting a 1.20 goals against average and .939 save percentage. Comrie played in two games and had a 1.50 goals-against average and 933 save percentage.
“I’m very fortunate and very proud to be working with Hockey Canada,” Brathwaite told me recently. “Anytime you get a chance to wear your country’s flag, it’s an honor. “There’s still a little bit more I can learn about being an NHL goalie coach. And having this opportunity with Hockey Canada is helping me prepare for that.”
Brathwaite began preparing for a career transition in 2010-11 while he was playing for the Adler Mannheim Eagles of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. At 39, he wanted to play one more season. But when no good offers came along, the man who shares the same real name as legendary rapper Fab Five Freddy became Mannheim’s goalie coach.
He quickly learned that the change from player to coach isn’t an easy one. “It’s a little more difficult then I thought,” he said. “Before I could control what’s happening in a game by playing and now, sitting up in the stands, you have no control. You just hope the kids play well, the team plays well, and, hopefully, you’ve prepared them as well as you could.”
While in Germany, Brathwaite stayed in touch with Hockey Canada. As a goaltender for the Canadian national team in 1998-99 and member of Canada’s world championship squads in 1998-99 and 2000-01, he was familiar with the organization’s brain trust and had no problems in being a pest about employment.
“Every time I would see those guys I’d keep bugging them, asking them when are they going to give me an opportunity,” he told me.
Opportunity knocked when Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice president for hockey operations, national teams, called in 2013 and “kind of offered me a job,” Brathwaite recalled
“I wouldn’t say it fell in my lap by any means because I kept bugging them and bugging them until they kind of gave in,” he said.
In Brathwaite, Hockey Canada tapped a former goaltender who won a Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals in 1990 with a bruising young teammate named Eric Lindros; posted a 81-91-37 NHL record with 15 shutouts and a 2.73 goals-against average; and became a standout goalie in Russia and Germany. He was the German league’s Most Valuable Player in 2009. Not bad for a player who wasn’t drafted by an NHL team.
As Hockey Canada’s goaltending consultant, Brathwaite scouts and evaluates goalies for all of Canada’s world teams and provides on-ice coaching during international tournaments.
“At tournaments like that my job is keeping them (goalies) sharp, keeping them focused, and try to keep them as relaxed as possible – not to let the highs get too high and the lows get too low,” he said.
Sounds simple enough, but goalies at almost every hockey level will tell you that the position – once dismissively considered the place to stick the kid who couldn’t skate – has become one of the most complex and most scrutinized in the game.
Back in the day when Braithwaite first strapped on the pads, it was “Goalie, heal thyself” in terms of development and fixing flaws in a goaltender’s game. Most NHL head coaches either didn’t have sufficient knowledge about the position or lacked the temperament to deal with sometimes-temperamental netminders.
“When I played in Edmonton, Billy Ranford and I, we were our own goalie coach,” Brathwaite said. “Goalie coaching just wasn’t a big thing back then.”
Full-time goalie coaches in the NHL were unheard of until Warren Strelow joined the Washington Capitals’ coaching staff in 1983. Today, nearly every NHL team employs a full-time goalie coach or consultant.
Heck, even a pee wee hockey team might have a goalie coach these days. “A lot of these junior kids that we get on the worlds teams, they probably have a guy they use in the summer, a guy on their junior team,” Brathwaite said. “And now, they’re drafted in the NHL, so they have an NHL guy as well. And then they have me. It’s a big focus now.”
With nearly 20 years of professional hockey experience in North America and Europe under his skates, Brathwaite is uniquely qualified to share knowledge about playing in the NHL and overseas with young goalies.
“A lot of things are very similar, especially now,” he said. “Back in the day, the NHL was more crashing the net. The goalies were a little more aggressive back then. But now you’re seeing guys like (Braden) Holtby in Washington and (New York Rangers’ Henrik) Lundqvist playing a little deeper in the net. That’s kind of more of a European style, sitting back and not being so aggressive.”
Brathwaite summed up his playing style back in the day with one word: “Messy.”
“Kind of like Martin Brodeur where you didn’t know what I’d do,” he said. “Sometimes I might stand up, sometimes I might go down. The way I played, I pretty much competed, battled. I had to be able to read the game, and that was something I was able to do.”
With Hockey Canada, Brathwaite is trying to get a bead on how other countries are developing their goalies. He and former NHL goalies Corey Hirsch and Rick Wamsley traveled to Sweden and Finland Sweden last fall to see what those countries are doing to produce talents like Lundqvist and Renne.
“What we noticed is they’re just more organized as a group in the way they’re doing the goalie structure,” Brathwaite said. “In North America, there are just some many different goalie coaches all over the place. Something that we would like to try is to get everybody on the same page: the kids learn how to skate and catch, do all the basics and fundamentals first before they start to get into different styles.”
While some in the hockey community fret that Europe is producing better goaltenders, Brathwaite isn’t worried. He noted that two North American goalies – Canadian-born Corey Crawford with the Chicago Blackhawks and Denver native Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning – are playing for the Stanley Cup.
“I believe Canadian goaltending is doing very good,” he said. “But at the end of the day, people are talking about Lundqvist or Pekka Renne. But we have Carey Price. And Braden Holtby had an excellent year.”