The NHL has taken on a distinct Pittsburgh flavor the past few years.
Locals such as Ryan Malone, R.J. Umberger and Mike Weber have become fixtures in the league with many more making it to the top level or on the verge of making it.
All of those players have been forwards or defensemen. But don't worry, the wave of goaltenders is coming.
And a man named Shane Clifford has had a lot to do with that.
Pittsburgh's “Goaltender Generation” is in full effect at the amateur level and is steadily creeping into the professional ranks. The group continues to rack up accolades, too.
John Gibson is leading the way. The 2011 NHL second-round draft choice helped lead Team USA (which had three other local players) to gold at this year's IIHF World Junior Championship. He was named the tournament's top goaltender and most valuable player.
Pittsburgh's goaltenders also can claim the past two NCAA Division-I national championships with Kenny Reiter backstopping Minnesota-Duluth to gold in 2011 and Parker Milner guiding Boston College to last year's title.
Mike Martin was on the St. Norbert College squad that captured the last two NCAA D-III championships.
On the amateur level, Mike Houser became the first American to claim the Canadian Hockey League's Goaltender of the Year Award last season with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights. In addition, he became the first American goaltender to capture OHL MVP honors as he equaled the league's all-time win record with a 46-15-1 record.
This year, five local men — Jake Hildebrand (Michigan State), Matt Skoff (Penn State), Bryce Merriam (RPI), Greg Lewis (Clarkson) and Milner (BC) — are starting goaltenders at NCAA Division-I schools. Also, two local women — Lindsay Holdcroft (Dartmouth) and Katelyn Pippy (Cornell) — start in net for D-I women's teams.
So, how have these goaltenders been able to excel at such a high level? They share more than just the same hometown. They all have been taught the trade by Clifford, a former minor-league goaltender.
“I am humble and take it as a huge compliment. But, at the end of the day, you'll go to the gym and these guys are in there for two and a half hours in the summertime,” Clifford said. “They have days where they lift, days where they run and conditioning days. The time they devote is enormous.
“I don't think half of these kids have ever been to a prom, probably not. They've never been to a football game on a Friday because they are playing in Detroit or somewhere else. The time these guys have put into this and how hard they work is really more of a tribute to them than it is to me.”
Clifford, a Cincinnati native, landed in the area in 1997 and began conducting goaltending lessons. He hasn't stopped since.
Clifford gives 80 private lessons a week with kids from ages 7 to 18 and holds six weeks of goalie camp every summer with 185 to 200 participants per season.
Along the way, he has landed goaltending jobs with a variety of college, amateur and professional teams.
He was the Pittsburgh Penguins' goaltending coach for a season. He has coached goaltenders in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, Major Junior, NCAA Division I, NAHL, USHL and Europe.
While he mentors goaltenders all over this country and others, he takes great pride in helping mold this generation of local netminders.
“They work so incredibly hard, so there's no real secret to it,” he said. “You have to know every goalie and every goalie's skill set.”
Even though each goaltender might bring his own set of attributes, there are some things Clifford doesn't waver on when training a goaltender.
“I don't care what you say, but you have to square to pucks; you have to set your feet; your shot preparation has to be good,” he said.
“Some kids maybe are trying to react to a puck that they can't react to and that's no good. There are some things that you have to do. In those things, some goalies are just more skilled than other ones.”
It's this personal connection that has helped cultivate a family atmosphere among Pittsburgh's goaltending community. Clifford's pupils stay in touch and come back to help work at the summer camps.
“I am very fortunate. I get to know these kids pretty well and get to know their families. I am very close to a lot of these kids, and I care a lot about them. I want to see them succeed,” Clifford said.
“We are really detailed and we just keep after it. Sometimes, at the college level, they don't have goalie coaches, so they kind of have to fix themselves. I spend a lot of time on the phone talking to them and watching video.”
Clifford is quick to point out that, while he can help improve on-ice technique, goaltenders have benefited from the off-ice workouts Jeremy Hoy provides at Finish First Sports Performance.
Clifford and Hoy were assistants with the old Pittsburgh Forge of the North American Hockey League. They worked to design goalie-specific strength programs.
“Jeremy has been a huge part of the success. He got on the ice with me and we went over every goalie-specific movement and he asked me where the weight was supposed to be and all sorts of questions. So, when you go to him, you can get a goalie-specific workout,” Clifford said.
“If you're going to be doing the butterfly (technique) that many times, you can't do it 24/7 or you're going to have hip problems. But, if you're going to do it as much as they have to do it, you better be strong enough to support that with your muscles or else you'll have hip problems in the future because it's not something that's natural to do.
“These girls and guys get after it. They are working out, eating right, getting on the ice —it's all that stuff.”
For more information, check out www.shanecliffordgoalieschool.com.
Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.