Interview by Geoff Bland.
What was intended to be a short interview with Canterbury Red Devils goaltender Jonas Barakauskas turned into an informative, wide-ranging conversation that lasted the best part of an hour. We explored a number of topics including his almost unbelievable progression from ice hockey novice to NZIHL goalie in less than five years.
He says “goalies are a weird breed” and I guess the kind of dedication and conviction he expresses towards his craft might be considered weird by lesser beings. It gave me the impression that he’s the kind of guy who would master catching flies with chop sticks if he thought it would add to his skills – but not with the intention of maiming the flies, rather, in a watchful meditative manner.
Anyway, for this report I thought it would be better to minimize my contribution and let Jonas do the talking.
You are a Kiwi, but your background is very interesting…
Yes, I was born in Canada but I always put Lithuania first because I’m pretty proud of that background – my entire blood line is Lithuanian right up until my dad married. Actually my mum was born in Poland and my dad is Lithuanian but he was born in Canada. So, I have a Kiwi, Canadian and a Polish passport. I lived in Canada for 10 years then moved to Christchurch where I lived until I went to university in Dunedin.
Did you play hockey in Canada?
No, I don’t come from a player background. My mum has a photo of me when I was probably around three years old in full player gear when we lived in Canada, but I have no recollection of playing ice hockey and it would have been when the hockey is just getting out and having fun. I played a bit of road hockey but just as a kid.
So when did ice hockey start for you?
I only started playing in 2013 I’m still very inexperienced in terms of skating. I have a very good brother (Matas) who taught me quite a bit and he’s the one who got me into hockey, he’s actually playing for the Botany Swarm at the moment, he still hasn’t scored on me this season so I’m happy!
He got me down to stick and puck in Dunedin and I actually didn’t enjoy it that much cause I couldn’t really skate. There was an off-season where my brother was taking me out on the ice and we’d do an hour or two of skating but he’d have a whole bunch of drills for me to do as well. I’d say my brother was my biggest influence. We lived together in Dunedin, every training every game we’d be debriefing – we’d play NHL games too.
So, where did playing in goal start? Did your brother get you in the net in the garage so he could practice shooting?
Well it didn’t start like that – he wanted me to be a player but I was out there (at the Dunedin rink) one time and there was a stag do and the groom to be wanted to have a go at goal, so some of the Thunder boys put him up in gear and put him in front of the net and started taking shots at him. I don’t know why I just stood there and thought to myself “I want to give that a go!”
It definitely started with me learning about the job by myself. When I started I had a bit of help from one or two of the goalies down there but other than that it was me just researching for hours and hours – going home reading up on the techniques. On all the little points I might be missing I watched NHL games and just tried to imitate that.
I only had one season in the beer league (the social league in Dunedin) I kind of got shoved in by my brother before going into the Thunder. Janos Kaszala was in charge – an amazing coach. I didn’t think of trialling, but I played a drop-in game and the assistant coach said to give it a go.
When did you get goalie coaching?
When I started I didn’t know about Lyndal Heineman. She’s a goalie coach and she settled in Dunedin in around my second year with Thunder – that’s when my coaching really kicked in – she was absolutely great. Before that it was just researching, watching, getting all sorts of conflicting advice, so I had to like, develop my own style.
Would you say you had a particular style of keeping?
I don’t know. I‘ve thought about this myself a few times and I look at other goalies and can usually pinpoint a style, but I’m probably a butterfly with a little bit of hybrid. I’m not full butterfly, in blocking I react a lot more and I have some pretty weird movements – what I mean is it comes from the way I think about the use of both hands and what the situation is. Also, my hips are built in a way (that) they don’t like hockey, I’ll probably have to replace them at 40, where instead of doing a normal reach off to the side I have to check my leg and rotate it – just little weird things like that. I have looked at all techniques. I guess it depends on the personality really.
In what ways do you think a goalie’s view of a game is different?
Well you know I’m still part of the team, but it is kinda the loneliest place on the ice.
I mean when I’m out there I am kind of trusting in myself, having everything locked down. A lot of it is just doing the right thing at the right time – talking to the team, not just the defensemen, it’s pretty much everyone yelling even when the play’s at the other end letting the defensemen know what’s going on behind them, something like that.
Or if I know where the puck is I just yell to let the guys know. When the play is a long way away I try to read what is going to happen. I kind of anticipate the play when it’s in the neutral zone – looking at who is where and what sort of play might happen out of that, but when it comes down to an individual coming at you I try not to anticipate, but just react.
How do you manage the emotions out there?
Some goalies like to get angry, some goalies slump, I just like to keep chugging along. Living in the moment, short memory, that’s what it is – three seconds then back to the game.
If I make a good save I don’t like to cheer about it, it’s just a save, I live it up later when I’m watching the replay. And if it’s a goal that goes in I sort of understand at the time if it’s my fault or out of my control, but at the same time I kind of ignore it – I have a reset button as well, that happens in the stoppage of play. I just take a drink of water, squirt a bit on my face, you’ll see me doing that all the time. It’s my reset.
How much is technique and how much is instinct?
Well… A lot of it comes down to training. That’s sort of your main game and then when the weird stuff happens, crazy bounces, then its instinctive play – like a glove behind the back or a feeling that the puck’s around here I might as well reach for it. That kind of thing is 100% instinct – flopping around like an octopus.
I was gunning for Marc-Andre Fleury in the Stanley Cup Finals. He is a butterfly goalie sort of through and through. I’ve looked at him through the years and his technique is just impeccable, unbelievable, he can just go whichever way he wants – I think that’s what every goalie dreams of being able to do.
Where do you think you are now as a goalie?
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say I’m at a peak in my goalie skills, it may sound silly but I’ve always got in the back of my mind the goal of playing in the NHL because I may as well aim for something that is way out of my reach rather than hit a point where I say I’m done.
I tend to just want to play and improve until I can’t any more. Just looking at the next step for me – it helps keep me focussed. At this point it’s getting game time under (current Red Devils head coach) Anatoly Khorozov as well – that’s just a new level for me.
Is playing for the Devils different from the Thunder?
Yeah I think it’s quite different, obviously both teams are very skilful. It’s really hard to say how they differ but I guess every team is unique.
It felt really good playing against the Thunder and taking both pre-season and both opening season games against them! Playing for them for three seasons might have had a subconscious influence because I know the players but of course those wins were a team effort. It did feel good stopping Paris Heyd’s shot in the winning overtime game.
How do you prepare for games?
There is no actual goalie coach on the team, but as well as team on and off ice training there is specific training on top of that for goalies.
I always watch the games afterwards and it takes a long time. I watch everything that’s not a goal or is a goal and I slow it right down and essentially go frame by frame and just see what I am doing in each frame to see if there is anything worth worrying about.
Also, Finley Forbes (Red Devils backup goalie) is bringing down a GoPro camera which he puts behind the net. We both practice in the same net and we are starting to view the footage together and critique each other’s style of play and that works better than trying to critique your own play.
Can you remember a specific moment that stands out for you?
Probably the most memorable moment was playing for Thunder against the Swarm in Dunedin.
It was a tied game that went to a shootout, I got a lot of advice about Swarm players – how they would likely shoot, I actually just blotted that stuff out.
My parents were down to watch and I was incredibly nervous. I just went into my net and stopped the first one which happened to be where I had been told it would be, heard the cheering, I put my head down and blurred everything out – I didn’t want anything coming in – and then I made the second stop and that was all that we needed.
I looked over and my dad was up banging on the glass. He would have been that excited when the Leafs won the Stanley Cup the last time in 1967, but I don’t know if he’s been that excited since.
Does your father play?
My dad used to play, he played really decent level hockey, my brother knows more about that than me. His old Cooper gloves are still in the garage – the ones that go half way up your forearm.
Do you think you will you stay on in Christchurch?
I can’t say how long I’ll be in Canterbury. Unfortunately, you have to go where there is work. I will go back to Dunedin in the summer but I will definitely be looking for work when I come back next year.
Jonas completed a BSc a couple of years ago in Dunedin and while he has a strong interest in conservation, he is open to any career opportunities. With the clear difficulties experienced by the Devils and other teams around the NZIHL in retaining players, finding ways to assist players into jobs would seem to be a positive strategic move.
All photos by Josh Fraser
This article was republished with permission by Puck Yeah NZ.