Petr Čech trudged down the tunnel to a chorus of cheers. The 37-year-old had just played a full match, complete with overtime and a shootout. He had backstopped his side to a 3-2 victory, and he stopped two penalties to preserve the win. It was his team’s third win in as many games, but their first with Čech in goal.
After thanking the 900 or so fans who showed up to watch the game, Čech entered his side’s dressing room. He was immediately swarmed by his teammates, who welcomed him with hurrahs and hugs. A few mischievous players showered the Czech goalie with water squirts from half-full bottles.
When Čech finally found his way to his designated locker spot, he was a mess. His jersey reeked of sweat and tap water, and his greasy, ruffled hair made him look like the victim of a bad night’s sleep.
Čech plumped onto his seat and breathed a sigh of relief. It took him 37 years, but the Plzeň-born boy had finally completed his lifelong dream. He inhaled and exhaled deeply, before untying his laces and removing his protective helmet, his gloves, and his jersey. For the next few moments, Čech pondered over the game he had just played, the match-winning saves he had just made, and most importantly, the fun he had just had.
It looked like a typical Sunday for Čech. After all, he was a professional soccer goalkeeper since 1999, and he had made over 900 professional appearances across two decades. Many of those matches were played on a Sunday afternoon similar to the one like today. To suit up for a weekend game was just business as usual for the goalkeeping icon.
Only today, the setting wasn’t all too familiar. Čech, who retired from professional soccer in May 2019, had just played an entirely different sport. The laces he had untied belonged to ice skates, not football boots. The helmet he had removed was made of a fibreglass and kevlar mix, not his symbolic, padded rugby cap. His gloves weren’t made of latex either; they were bulky pieces of equipment, one which featured waffle-board-like padding to deflect shots away and the other which looked like a large baseball glove and was used to trap and catch attempts.
As for the jersey, the oversized top didn’t bear the logo of Chelsea, Arsenal, or any other soccer club Čech had represented. It proudly displayed a flaming “G” with the word “Phoenix” beneath it, the logos of the Guildford Phoenix ice hockey team.
Given the supposed similarities between soccer goalkeeping and ice hockey goaltending, it’s pretty surprising to find that very few professional goalies have made the switch between sports. Aside from Čech, the only other prominent goalie to have played both sports at a professional level was the great Lev Yashin who, while focused on his soccer career, also represented the Soviet Union as an ice hockey goaltender.
But Yashin retired from ice hockey in 1954; 16 years before his retirement from professional soccer and a good 65 years before Čech’s Guildford debut. For the past six decades, no other prominent, professional goalkeeper or goaltender that we know of has dared to make the switch between sports. Čech, while not the first athlete to play another sport professionally, had become the first well-known goalie of the modern era to swap his boots for skates.
This puts Čech in a unique position. Although he had been practising and playing the sport sporadically since he was a young child, Čech had very few examples to base his transition off of. There was no one he could point to and say “Here’s how he made the switch. I’ll build off of that,” as the position had evolved greatly since Yashin’s time for Čech to take anything substantial from him. Čech was essentially a pioneer in this situation, and both he and his trainers would have to use their better judgement when translating his soccer skills into an ice hockey environment.
But how transferable are those skills to begin with? What can Čech’s soccer history tell us about his chances of being a successful ice hockey goaltender?
To answer those questions, I’ve enlisted the help of three ice hockey goalie experts; Paul Campbell, Catherine Silverman, and Kevin Weekes. Campbell is an ice hockey goaltender expert who writes for InGoal Magazine and has contributed to Sportsnet and The Athletic. Silverman is a goalie, goalie coach, and writer who has published pieces on The Athletic. Weekes is a former National Hockey League goaltender who now works as the lead hockey analyst on the NHL Network.
These three have talked to me about the finer details of being a good ice hockey goalie, and they’ve each highlighted certain aspects of Čech’s play as a soccer goalkeeper that they think will translate well into goaltending.
Side note: To make the piece easier to navigate, I’ve split the analysis into three sections: Skating, Goalie-specific Skills, and The Mental Game. Each section covers certain aspects of ice hockey goaltending, as well as Čech’s strengths and weaknesses in each area.
The most obvious difference between soccer goalkeeping and ice hockey goaltending is probably the biggest boundary preventing more goalies from making the switch; ice skating.
“I think the reason why we haven’t seen more of this kind of thing is that skating itself is a high bar of entry,” Paul Campbell said. “If you haven’t learned to skate as a child, it’s going to be very hard to pick it up and do it as an adult, let alone do it at an elite level.”
Ice skating isn’t simply walking on ice. The mechanics of skating vs. running are different. For one, there’s a low level of friction between skates and the ice surface, which allows a skater to easily glide, even if they’re not putting a lot of force into their push-offs. On the pitch though, there’s a higher level of friction between a person’s foot and the turf, so a player will have to use more force to cover greater distances.
There’s also the size of what goalkeepers and goaltenders are balancing themselves on. While a goalkeeper has the entire bottom part of their feet to balance on and push off using, a goaltender has to find balance on thin metal blades.
“Finding your point of balance when you’re on quarter-inch or third-of-an-inch steak knives underneath your feet on ice [is an important difference],” Kevin Weekes said. “So your balance point on them on the ice surface vs. being on the pitch is something to consider.”
The common misconception that exists among some hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike is that skating is not too important for a goaltender. The ice hockey goalie very rarely leaves their own crease, which is only eight feet wide and six feet long at its furthest extension. Given that the average soccer penalty box (the area in which a goalkeeper can hold the ball with their hands in) is 132 feet wide and 54 feet long, ice hockey goalies spend most of their appearances occupying a very small area. So why bother being a good skater if you’re pretty much confined to a tiny part of the rink?
The answer has to do with the evolution of goaltender movement and edgework.
“That misconception might’ve been true in the 1960s or maybe even the 1970s, but today you have to be an absolutely fantastic skater,” Campbell said. “You have to have an understanding of your edges, not quite like a figure skater, but it has to be approaching that level.”
Campbell defines edgework as the way goaltenders move around using the edges of their skates. How goaltenders push themselves off of their edges impacts their movement in goal and their chances of making a save while in motion.
“The way that you hold your edges and move your edges makes the difference between getting to the space you need to be in on time or getting their quite late,” he said. “It’s a lot of moving both skates at the same time to move out – telescoping out – and using your inside edge on one side to move laterally, forward and back, and to make both major and minor adjustments while you’re on the ice.”
“More and more, we’re seeing these goaltenders who are able to use skating to their advantage. They’re able to make better, more accurate stops, and they’re able to move within the blue paint better.”
The emphasis on edgework has seen goaltenders evolve into better skaters over time. Gone are the days where a team’s worst skater was thrown into goal. Now, good skating is a must for every up and coming goaltender, as it plays into all of the other skills they need to master.
“More and more, we’re seeing these goaltenders who are able to use skating to their advantage,” Catherine Silverman said. “They’re able to make better, more accurate stops, and they’re able to move within the blue paint better.”
That’s why simply being a goalie is no longer a legitimate excuse for being a poor skater.
“If you’re a poor skater and you have poor edgework, you’re not going to be able to move fluidly from one position to another position; from a down position to a standing stance, for example, or from a post position – where you’re down holding your post – up to your feet,” Campbell said.
“Without that kind of smooth skating and smooth edgework, you’re going to find yourself getting caught in transition, and you’re going to find yourself moving clunkily from one place to another.”
Before his October 13 debut, Petr Čech addressed his skating skills in a quick gathering with some members of the media. The 37-year-old said that he wasn’t keen on becoming an ice hockey forward because “I can only skate well enough for a netminder.”
Could that be an issue? Not in Campbell’s opinion, since there are different skating techniques that a goaltender uses compared to a forward.
“You can be a good skater as a goalie and not have that straight-line speed or be able to do crossovers very well [like your teammates],” he said. “But, you can still stand there, get yourself into position, and make saves at a good enough speed that you’re not going to look like you’re totally behind the play.”
Given the level that he’s playing at, Silverman doesn’t think his skating will pose a potential problem either.
“To me, that’s really something that will ultimately be a hindrance to Petr Čech if he wants to move above the level that he’s going to be playing in right now,” she said. “But if you’re playing at a low, fun level [like the NIHL2], as long as you can skate, you can play both sports.”
Čech’s skating skills shouldn’t be undersold, though. He may not be as finetuned as other goalies, but there are signs in his game that he’s not only been skating regularly but that he’s also kept up with the evolution of goalie-specific skating techniques.
“From looking at some of his ice hockey clips, I can see that he’s obviously been training in a modern game,” Campbell said. “Back when he quit hockey, a lot of the current techniques weren’t available. Even the way the pads worked was different back when he would’ve been training as an ice hockey goalie as a kid.
“He’s obviously picked these new [skating] moves up, and he’s able to execute those movements. His precision isn’t there because he hasn’t had decades to work on them, but he’s obviously been picking things up and working on techniques appropriate for the modern game. He’s not relying just on his childhood and the training he received then.”
It’s these skating moves, not his teammates’ fancy crossover steps and speedy acrobatics, that will ultimately matter for Čech come game-time.
“As long as you have good balance, as long as you’re strong, as long as you can get onto your edges, and as long as you can execute crease movements, you can be a good skater,” Campbell said.
If there’s one quality Petr Čech could use to make up for his slightly weaker skating ability, it’s his positional play.
“Positioning is huge, especially when you have a slightly weaker skating ability or when you have a slightly less agile frame,” Catherine Silverman said.
Some professional goalies can get away with poor positioning because of their strengths in other parts of the game.
“You see a guy like [Los Angeles Kings’] Jonathan Quick,” Silverman said. “Sometimes he gets out of position, but he’s so fast and so flexible that he’s able to get back to where he needs to be quickly. Similarly, you see a guy like [Edmonton Oilers’] Mike Smith who sometimes gets a little out of position and misreads the play, but is a fairly good skater.”
In Čech’s case, because of the weaknesses in some of his other areas, his positioning has to be spot-on.
“If you aren’t an elite skater [like Smith] or aren’t like Jonathan Quick and able to stretch out in the splits and do a crossword puzzle on the ice, you really do have to have that perfect positioning because you don’t really have the speed and the agility to compensate for it,” Silverman said.
That’s not a tall ask for Čech, though. He’s been hailed as one of soccer’s best positional goalkeepers. His ability to position himself in the right spot at the right time has led to him making a plethora of difficult saves look easy. He uses quick footwork and small steps to adjust his positioning, and he often stays close to his line to give him slightly more time to react to an attempt.
It’s the latter point that Campbell believes will translate really well into goaltending.
“In hockey, you’re never that far from the net, and for Čech, he doesn’t tend to stray far from his goal,” Campbell said. “For someone who isn’t a natural, fluid skater with two decades of skating experience, that’s valuable. He doesn’t have to range around the entire defensive zone. He sticks near the crease, and that way he’s never very far out of position.”
This is also helped by Čech’s anticipation. He’s always laser-focused on the play that’s unfolding in front of him, and that gives him an edge when reading the play and setting himself up for a save attempt.
“He’s able to read plays as they unfold, and it means he doesn’t have to react as quickly because he’s already in the right place so often,” Silverman said. “That makes him so fun to watch because he makes it look so easy. He’s one of those goalies that doesn’t make it look like he has to put in a ton of work to do what he does.”
Čech 6’5 height is a strength too. Campbell notes that, because of his large frame, Čech doesn’t have to do the same flexible or aggressive maneuvers that someone like 6’1 Jonathan Quick does.
“Smaller goalies tend to range a little bit more; they tend to be a little more aggressive, and they have to have excellent footwork,” he said. “A bigger person can get away with having less precise positioning. They can get away with staying closer to the goal line, and a lot more pucks will just hit them so long as they’re square to the puck and in a proper stance.”
Like positioning, stance is as important in hockey as it is in soccer. The way a goaltender positions their limbs can make the difference between a good save and a clumsy goal conceded. Take how wide a goaltender’s stance is, for example.
“When I’m working with kids, I personally recommend that they not stand too wide because the wider your stance, the harder it is to push off and the less explosive power you have because you have to use more of your core,” Silverman said. “If your stance is too narrow though, that adds another second or two when it comes to dropping into a butterfly.”
It’s the same in goalkeeping. If a soccer goalkeeper positions their feet too far apart from each other, they won’t be able to get much explosive power behind their dive, which could result in them not getting enough air-time or under-jumping a shot completely. But if their stance is too narrow, they’ll have to take an extra second to get a good step in before their save attempt, which would give them less time to react to a shot.
But that not’s where the similarities between a goalkeeper’s stance and a goaltender’s stance end.
“Similarily to soccer, he should have his knees slightly bent and, most importantly, he should be on the balls of his feet and not back on his heels,” Silverman said. “That’s just for ease of mobility; the farther back you sit on your heels, the harder it is to get yourself going.”
“I noticed that his stance looks like almost any other goalie. There’s a variance from person to person, and his stance didn’t look like it was an outlier. All of his stance attributes look absolutely within the normal range of a goaltender at any level.”
Given these similarities, Campbell was not surprised when he found that Čech’s ice hockey stance compares favourably to the stance of other professional ice hockey goaltenders.
“I noticed that his stance looks like almost any other goalie,” Campbell said. “There’s a variance from person to person, and his stance didn’t look like it was an outlier. All of his stance attributes look absolutely within the normal range of a goaltender at any level.”
Of course, not everything is the same. The role of angles is one way a goaltender’s positioning might be different than that of a goalkeeper’s.
“There’s a difference between your angles in relation to where the ball is on the pitch vs. the puck on the ice in correlation with the net,” Kevin Weekes said. “Just based on your spacial awareness, it’s largely different when you’re looking at a big pitch compared to being in a rink confined by boards.”
The size of each sport’s setting also plays into how busy a hockey goaltender is compared to a soccer goalkeeper. At 360 feet long by 240 feet wide, the average soccer field is much larger than a standard NHL rink, which is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide and has a corner radius of 28 feet.
With more distance to cover, soccer players don’t tend to take many shots per game, so soccer goalkeepers aren’t forced to make nearly as many saves as their hockey-playing counterparts. For example, the English Premier League’s busiest goalkeeper this season (based on total saves made), Tim Krul, has averaged 4.6 saves per game. On the other hand, the busiest NHL goaltender this season, Marc-André Fleury, has averaged 27.8 saves per game.
“You could end up seeing 400 pucks a day every time you practice,” Weekes said. “That’s a lot of repetition.”
This is why, despite both types of goalies doing the same job, hockey goaltending is considered to be a more intense workout.
“I’ve seen soccer goalkeepers do almost all of the things that hockey goaltenders need to do to make a save,” Campbell said. “But it’s the repetitive stress of these motions constantly that makes the training difference for a goaltender.”
These motions are mainly focused on a goaltender’s lower body.
“There is so much core work that needs to be done, and there’s so much flexibility of your hips and your groin that has to be done,” Silverman said.
“Every time you go into the butterfly, which hockey goaltenders do dozens of times in a game and hundreds of times possibly in a practice, your hips are rotating internally, your feet are pointing out, and your knees are pointing in towards each other in a way,” Campbell said.
The intensity of these lower body movements is the key that separates a hockey goalie from a soccer goalie.
“A soccer goalie needs to remain upright, needs to be mobile, and needs to work in short bursts a lot, which is similar to an ice hockey goalie,” Campbell said. “But as far as the lower body flexibility and the flexibility of the hips especially, that’s just not comparable and it would be something that you’d have to work on very strenuously.
Factor in the amount of power behind an average hockey shot and you’re in for a gruelling, incomparable experience as a hockey goaltender.
“Imagine the force [of a 90 mile per hour slapshot] that you’re taking on your ligaments, your joints, your tendons, and your bones. It’s a lot,” Weekes said.
Čech’s lack of lower body training doesn’t mean he won’t succeed. As mentioned earlier, he has displayed comfortable positional and stance techniques, which could make up for some of his flexibility and lower body action.
In fact, Weekes thinks Čech’s soccer training will help him extemporize in net more, which could lead to Čech channelling the unorthodoxy of Dominik Hašek, the Czech Republic’s finest ice hockey goaltender.
“If I had to guess one thing, I would say Čech would probably improvise more and maybe bring a little soccer goalie into the net,” he said. “Especially in this era, where guys might want to be super technical or overly technical, Čech would probably be a little more reactionary. Maybe a little more like [Dominik] Hašek let’s say, as opposed to traditional Carey Price – not current Carey Price – or Kirk McLean.”
The Mental Game
For as important as the technical aspects of the position are, there’s arguably nothing more influential to a goalie’s performance than the mental game.
“The psychological demands of goaltending are a challenge,” Kevin Weekes said. “Knowing that you’re going to be called upon as the last line of defence, and you accept that of yourself and demand that of yourself. You’re pushing that expectation upon yourself to deliver for your teammates and the fans.”
Weekes knows more than a thing or two about the mental pressures a goaltender faces. After all, he played in the NHL — the world’s premier professional ice hockey league — for over a decade. He amassed over 355 NHL appearances and kept 21 shutouts.
So when Weekes highlights how quickly non-goalies are to point the finger at the goaltender, he’s speaking from experience.
“When things don’t go well, I feel like it’s very easy to blame goalies,” he said. “It’s always an easy excuse and an easy scapegoat for people to start talking about the goalie.
“‘Just stop the puck! Just stop the puck!’ You get that from your own teammates, you get that from management, and you get that from coaches.”
It’s not as though goaltenders don’t want to hear constructive criticism. Weekes says that every goalie he has worked with blames themselves for a goal conceded before anybody else can blame them, and they look forward to hearing how they can improve. Goaltenders are not stupid; they know what they did wrong and what they should work on for next time.
But the goaltender is an easy target in sports, which is why a goalie must be ready to accept criticism without buckling under its weight.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Weekes said. “You can’t be soft to be a goalie. You have to be hardcore on every level. Physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally; you have to be hardcore.”
Petr Čech is no ordinary goalie, though. He was a professional goalkeeper for two decades, and he’s won trophies at both the national and continental levels. He also understands how strong mentally a goalie must be to succeed, and he’s proven that he can handle the intense pressure that comes with playing the position at the highest of levels.
Even if he ends up buckling under the weight of the switch, Campbell argues that people will cut him some slack because of the reputation he carries.
“When you’re an elite athlete at that level, people give you the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn’t give others,” he said.
“You can’t be soft to be a goalie. You have to be hardcore on every level. Physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally; you have to be hardcore.”
Čech’s situation is also unique compared to the average ice hockey goaltender. While the minds of other goalies are likely occupied with off-ice pressures along with on-ice challenges, such as financial security, there are no external factors clouding Čech’s love of the sport.
“It just seems like he’s doing something that he loves,” Catherine Silverman said. “He found something that he genuinely enjoys and he’s not trying to make a career out of it. He’s doing it because he loves it.”
“He has nothing to gain, personally, from this [experience],” Campbell said. “He doesn’t need publicity, he doesn’t need money, and he’s not going to get it with this opportunity. The only motivation he had to do this was his love of a game that he hasn’t been able to devote himself to like he might’ve had things worked out differently for him.”
Campbell believes that this genuine love for ice hockey, mixed with his want to fulfill a childhood goal, will push Čech to be more committed to excelling at the position as best as he can.
“I think his level of dedication is going to be enormous,” Campbell said. “I also think he would be a lot more invested in any given game, regardless of what the stakes are.
“It’s all just him, he wants to do this. And there’s no stronger motive in the world than someone who can perform at an elite level trying to do something difficult that they really, really love.”
This mentality likely means he’ll have more fun playing the sport. According to Weekes, the extra fun factor will bring the very best out of Čech in a similar way that it brought the best out of his own game during his own playing career.
“For me, it makes a huge difference just being able to play free [from pressure],” he said. “That was one of the cool things of certain teams that I played at at certain times. There was just a feeling of being more liberated and feeling free.
“When you have an atmosphere and you can have fun and enjoy each other’s [presence], it makes all of the difference in the world, for sure.”
It also helps that Čech is a great people person. He was often the captain or vice-captain of his soccer teams, and the fact that he speaks five languages made him connect with a lot of his teammates on a closer level. New players would usually be first welcomed by the Czech goalie, oftentimes in their own mother tongue.
That leadership and ability to connect with all of his teammates is something that’s going to make Čech an even more popular figure in the Guildford Phoenix dressing room.
“That leadership really goes a long way,” Weekes said. “As a goalie, much like a quarterback, you need players in front of you, and players get hypersensitive. So sometimes, even though you’re [being] real and you know what you’re saying makes sense, sometimes you need to live to fight another day.
“A lot of the positional players can be super soft and hypersensitive and envious of goalies, so you kind of have to know how to massage them a little bit too.”
These mental strengths make Čech the perfect pioneer for switch between sports.
“I can’t imagine a better pick for this than someone in his position,” Campbell said.
Čech made his Guildford Phoenix debut on October 13, 2019, just a couple of days after his signing was made official. He stopped all but two shots in regular time and overtime, and he ended the game victorious thanks to two saves in the subsequent shootout.
Čech will only play sporadically this season; his full-time role is with Chelsea as a technical and performance advisor. Nonetheless, his very presence as a member of the Guildford Phoenix ice hockey team will draw much-needed attention to the club and British ice hockey in general.
“It’s going to put eyeballs on a league that’s still very much growing and developing,” Catherine Silverman said. “You look at the leagues in Great Britain, they’re gaining traction and popularity, but they’re nowhere near the leagues in the other European countries and definitely not the leagues in North America. So I think he’s giving them a bit of a gift there, for sure.”
“There’s seldom a big spotlight on British ice hockey,” Campbell said. “They recently made the top level in the world championships, and that received a decent amount of press and got the momentum started. I think [Cech’s move] is another step along that path.”
There’s no timetable regarding when Čech’s next match will be; he didn’t dress for any of Guildford’s subsequent games following his debut. But both Campbell and Silverman are confident that the 37-year-old will stick around for another year or two.
“If things go well, I can see him playing for a couple of seasons,” Campbell said. “If we do see him for a couple of seasons, that would be fantastic. If we see him until he’s 40-years-old, that would just be amazing.”
“I think that playing for too long — especially since soccer already put some wear and tear on his body — will put some more mileage on his body,” Silverman said. “But, he could play for another five years. We’ve definitely seen guys last that long. I think as long as he’s still having fun with it, he could play for a while.”
Although some hockey purists might express disgust over such a player in such a league even getting this much attention in the first place, you won’t find any haters here.
“This is a fricking world-class, one of the best ever goalies in the British Premier League and the international level,” Kevin Weekes said. “He’s one of the best goalkeepers on the planet and a legend.”
“This is a really big, successful, world-class kid who is reliving his dream,” Campbell said. “I really look forward to seeing what he can achieve. Him being able to do this and have any success at all is heartwarming.”
Special thanks to Paul Campbell, Catherine Silverman, and Kevin Weekes for their expert analysis. You can follow each of them on social media by clicking on the hyperlinks.
2 thoughts on “Predicting Petr Čech’s hockey success based on his soccer career.”
Ne’er knew this, thanks for letting me know.
I’m curious what you think of Ken Dryden’s recent article in The Atlantic about the problem with goaltender pads. It broke my heart, even if I understood where he was coming from.