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.”
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.
“Back in the early ’90s,” he says, “the guys just went out and worked on their own. Now the other coaches, with the help of the goaltending coach, try and design practice drills to help goalies work on various aspects of their games.”
Mason says the proliferation of “goalie gurus,” as they are called around the league, has also changed the way the position is being played: “I remember growing up and watching goalies back then and every goalie had a unique style, every goalie had a unique way of playing and it was really individual. But now I do a camp in summer and I see a lot of young goalies and they’re all taught the same movements. It’s almost fair to say they’re robotic, to some aspect.
“They’re all great skaters and athletic, but a lot of times I think you kind of get hauled into that thinking that every movement is this way, that you have to do it the same every time.
“The position has just taken on such a technological view with all the video and all the coaching.”
And this again has had a ripple effect on the position. The days of Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur owning the position seem to be a thing of the past. Increasingly, the backup goaltender is not just someone sitting at the far end of the bench in case of an emergency; he plays, and is expected to play well, and if he plays well enough, starting goaltender and backup goaltender can often switch places, sometimes several times a season.
“The level of goaltending has improved to the point where you just don’t have that one guy,” Flaherty says. “You have that capable guy behind him that the coach has confidence in. There’s good goaltenders everywhere now. Not just this league. But everywhere.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed – despite the never-ending evolution of goaltending – is the reality that Frank (Ulcers) McCool pointed out when he tended net for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940s.
“If you lose,” Ulcers lamented. “the fans blame the goalie … and the reporters take up the cry. After a while the other players believe what they read and the goalie feels like it’s one man against the world.”
The loneliest position in professional team sport.