When Russ Courtnall was playing hockey, he wouldn't dare step in front of a shot and not many of his teammates did either.
Blocking shots was a rarity in Courtnall's day, so much so the NHL didn't even keep track of the statistic until 2005. "I wasn't going to put my skinny leg in front of a shot," said Courtnall who spent 16 seasons in the NHL from 1983 to 1999. "Far more players are blocking shots today than when I was playing."
Indeed, shot blocking has become such a key component of hockey, Courtnall is now helping coach his 15-year-old son's team on how to stand in front of a shooter. "We started when they were nine or 10 with sponge pucks and balls," he explained. "We tried to teach them the timing in getting in front of a shot."
Shot blocking has increased steadily in the NHL in recent years, a sign of the growing importance it plays in team strategy. In the 2005-06 season the St. Louis Blues led the league with 634 blocked shots and 92 players overall stopped 100 or more shots. Last season Anaheim led with 714 blocked shots and six other teams had more than 640. As for individual players, 110 blocked 100 shots or more.
The are many possible explanations about why shot blocking has become so prevalent. Some point to rule changes in 2005 that opened up the game and left shot blocking as one of the few legal means available to counter skilled players. Others say improvements in equipment have given players better protection. And still more say players are just bigger, stronger and more durable nowadays.
"Teams are definitely harping on it a lot more," said Mark Stuart, a Winnipeg Jets defencemen who is tied for sixth in the league with 40 blocked shots so far this season. "In the last few years, there are a lot of teams that just collapse five guys in front of the net. Basically, if you are shooting from the point, you've got to get through two guys and then the goalie."
Teams like the New York Rangers pride themselves on shot blocking and last year Ranger defenceman Dan Girardi led the NHL with 236 blocked shots. Girardi didn't start blocking shots until he reached the NHL in 2006, when it became a central part of the Rangers' penalty killing.
Some teams like the Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins have practised shot blocking over the years using sponge pucks. But that's still rare and players are generally left to figure out how to do it themselves. Techniques vary, from lying down on the ice just as a shooter winds up, to standing up and being as big as possible to reduce the target area. Other players go down on one knee or both, making it easier to get back into the play once the shot is taken.
The key is to get as close to the shooter as possible. That cuts down on the speed of the puck which reduces the possibility of injury. Above all, timing and positioning are crucial. "You have to know when he is going to shoot because if you just go down and try and block a shot and he just passes it around you, it's not working," said Stuart who prefers to stand while blocking shots.
However a players does it, shot blocking can take its toll. Stuart has already missed a couple of games this season because of injuries inflicted from shot blocking. The Jets have also been without defenceman Randy Jones for four games after he got hurt blocking a shot with his foot. Even though many shot blockers wear extra padding on their hands and skates, it is often no match for a puck travelling at up to 160 kilometres an hour.
Most important of all, players need to know when to step aside and not block a shot at all.
"There are guys who are really good at it. But there's guys that when they are not good at it, sometimes it can be a nightmare to a goalie," said Jets goalie Chris Mason. Poor shot blocking leaves goalies screened and opposing players unguarded and able to pick up a loose rebound. Mason's preference is for forwards to try to block shots at the point. If they can't, then the defencemen should leave the shot to the goaltender.
Like many goalies, Mason has mixed views on the popularity of shot blocking, saying it has almost become a fad. While he appreciates the sacrifice his teammates make, he sometimes prefers them to just get out of the way. "I just think that the game today there's maybe a little too much forcing guys into doing that when it's not necessary."