They are the Tiger Woods of hockey.
No, we are not talking about text messaging or personal “indiscretions,” but about overanalysis both from within and without. Tiger Woods only has to rebuild his swing every now and then; most modern goaltenders have to reinvent themselves constantly.
It has never been easy being a hockey goaltender. Fitness expert Lloyd Percival once estimated that an NHL goaltender entering a playoff game is dealing with a stress load the average person might encounter a couple of times in an entire life. Hall of famer Bill Durnan shed 17 pounds one game and retired early to escape the pressure.
It’s bad enough what roils inside you, but then add on the changes to the game itself that dramatically affect the position.
1917-18 Goalies are permitted to drop to the ice to make a save. Previously, it means a penalty.
1921-22 Goalies are allowed to pass the puck forward as far as their own blueline.
1924-26 Goalie pads are restricted to 12 inches.
1927-28 Goalie pads reduced to 10 inches.
1929-30 Goalies are forbidden to hold the puck. If they fail to clear it, a faceoff is held 10 feet in front of the net. The forward pass is allowed in all zones, more than doubling the number of goals scored.
1934-35 Penalty shots are introduced, with the goalie not allowed to move more than one foot in front of his goal line.
1938-39 The penalty shot is modified to allow players to skate in with the puck before shooting.
It never ends. They change the crease size. They bring in overtime, shootouts. They restrict the goaltender to playing the puck inside some bizarre trapezoid back of the net. And sometimes there doesn’t even appear to be any actual rule that changes things: goalies used to be considered fair game outside the crease but untouchable inside; now it seems they are untouchable outside and fair game inside …
But nothing – with the possible exception of the introduction of the forward pass in 1929 – has so affected the goaltender as much as the multiple rule changes that were brought in following the 2004-05 lockout. Much has been made of what it did for skaters – the crackdown on obstruction opening up the ice to more-skilled players – but little said about the effect the changes have had on goaltending.
“But it really has,” says Chris Mason, the 35-year-old Winnipeg Jets goaltender who played his first NHL game for the Nashville Predators during the 1998-99 season and has seen duty in four professional leagues, including in Europe.
“Before the lockout you could get away with going down early and trying to play percentages by trying to cover the majority of the net. But they took out all the clutch and grab and that changed how much you can do to hold guys up.”
The result, Mason says, is that a game that previously was played in relatively straight lines, end to end, has become increasingly a game where plays are made side to side.
“It’s become a lot more east-west game,” Mason says. “Guys use the width of the ice to make plays and it’s a lot easier for guys to play with their head up as opposed to the way it was before the lockout. It was so positional and a lot of times you’d get guys coming down the wing and they’d just shoot the puck and try and drive to the net. Now it’s guys slowing up in the zone, they have their head up, D-men are jumping up into the play all the time – every team wants them to join the rush now – so it’s definitely become a lot faster and you’re seeing a lot more skilled players. So it’s definitely become tougher for goaltenders.”