The other major shift in strategy in recent years has been the universal shot blocker. Hockey always had its valiant defenders – Toronto’s Bobby Baun, Detroit’s Bob Goldham – who could go down to block a shot, but in today’s hockey everyone is expected to block shots. Don Cherry’s preaching for defencemen to get out of the way – especially their sticks – and let the goalies see the shots is history.
“Without a doubt it has changed,” says Wade Flaherty, who played goal for 16 professional teams – NHL to China Sharks – in his 21-year career. “Now it’s the more shots you block, the less shots are going to go in. You have the shot that goes bing off the player and in the top corner, and that’s frustrating. But now you have shot blockers in the shooting lanes and some guys make careers out of it.”
Flaherty, however, is okay with the way the game has changed in this aspect. “I like the idea of blocking shots,” says the former Chicago Blackhawks goalie coach, currently working with the Jets’ Mason and young Ondrej Pavelec.
“The less shots you have to handle is better. But I don’t want the guy not in the shooting lane trying to stop a shot with his stick. That’s the one you’ve got to be careful of. There’s a grey area there, but if you can get body position and you’re in the shooting lane, then sure, I want that shot blocked.”
“You have to be in synch,” Mason adds. “As players you’re always told, ‘Get in the shot lane! Get in the shot lane!’ and it’s tough when you have to make that decision whether you’re there in time to block the shot or whether you’re too far back and you’re just going to get in the way.
“The key with that is you have to get close to the shooter. It’s hard when you’re standing close to the net and you’re virtually doing the goalie’s job. Whatever gets by you is tough for the goaltenders to see.”
This requirement for lightning-quick reaction side to side has led to a new requirement for goaltenders, what Flaherty calls “goalie explosiveness.” At practices he will work with Mason and Pavelec near the penalty box, having them practice quick moves – gloves, stick, pads – with no one shooting on them.
The standup goaltender of the 1960s who became the butterfly goaltender of the 1980s is now an exploding goaltender expected to moved from one side of the net to the other as quickly as he once moved up and down.
This, Flaherty says, is another consequence of the lockout and the shift to “east-west” attacking. “What the goalies have had to do,” he says, “is back off a bit. They stay closer to the blue paint so they don’t get caught out of position as much and you work on their explosive power so they are able to stay with that player going east-west and the passes.
“But even if you go back to the first lockout , goalies were getting more athletic. It’s a long time since they put the little guy who couldn’t skate in net. Goalies are stronger, bigger and they’re getting more explosive. You got 18-year-old kids coming into camp and they’re 6 foot 2, 6 foot 3 and they’re in unbelievable shape.”
To Flaherty, it is all part of the evolution of the game and the position, a position that has been forced to adapt by rule changes and has had to adapt to the way the game itself is played. But they no longer do it alone, and this is perhaps the largest change of all. Just as Tiger Woods has a swing coach, or several, and a putting coach, goalies now all have goalie coaches.
“There’s a lot more attention being paid to the goaltenders than there used to be,” says Flaherty, who himself didn’t experience a goalie coach until he was into his 30s and nearing the end of his NHL career.