Since the dawn of the sport of hockey, the goaltending position has been special. It is arguably the hardest position to play in sports, played by some of the best athletes in the world. In the early years goaltenders played with the equivalent of magazines strapped to their shins while other players shot vulcanized rubber at them. But at least some of their body was protected, because they didn’t have masks that were of any real use until 1959.
You would think that these brave souls, who are largely responsible for making the game what it is, would be immortalized in song, or at the very least, regarded highly enough to be protected.
“There is no position in sport as noble as goaltending.”-Vladislav Tretiak
Yet as the years go by, the NHL seems to take every opportunity it can get to find ways to make the goaltenders lives more difficult, if not more dangerous, and limit the contributions they make to the game. If they aren’t trying to directly interfere with how they play the game, then they’re trying to reduce the protection of their equipment.
The Opposite Of Performance Incentives
It’s hard to fathom being punished for performance at a high level, yet it seems every couple of years that’s exactly what happens to goaltenders.
Not long ago, goalies didn’t play the puck very much unless they absolutely had to. Then Ron Hextall came along and made playing the puck a regular part of the goalies game, to the point that he even scored a couple goals.
Marty Turco and Martin Brodeur and others made it an art form, and what happens? The league decides since goalies are so good at it now, they need to punish them by making the area they can play the puck much smaller. Literally punish, as in they get a penalty for using the skills they developed if they use said skills outside a specific trapezoid shaped area.
It’s really astonishing when you think about it. The fact that goalies can handle a puck so well wearing a catcher and a blocker is somewhat of a miracle, it’s like trying to tie your shoelaces while wearing oven mitts. So this display of athletic prowess should be praised from
the rooftops, but instead they get the equivalent of a restraining order.
It’s particularly puzzling given that they were initiating offence, and there was a period of time in the ‘90s when the NHL needed all the offence it could generate.
I can’t think of another sport in the world where if you excel the league tries to make your life harder. Imagine someone hitting 50 homeruns in baseball, do you think the following year he would be forced to use a canoe paddle instead of a baseball bat? I don’t think so either.
The Ongoing Equipment Saga
But all that pales in comparison to the constant harassment goalies face with regards to what they can wear to keep themselves alive.
It seems that as long as goalies have been trying to find better ways to protect themselves, someone has been trying to stop them.
The masks that I mentioned that finally got regular use in 1959? They had been around longer, but coaches never allowed their goalies to use them because they thought masks might impair the goalies vision. Funny, I don’t recall ever hearing a story of a coach strapping on the pads in practice to see for himself, but I digress.
Finally someone determined that skull fractures might lead to death, and masks were graciously accepted as part of a goaltender’s equipment. A more heartwarming tale you may never hear.
The upper body was still sadly lacking, goalies were out there stopping pucks in what amounted to a thick t-shirt. In the 70’s progress was made, but you can see it’s mostly thick pieces of felt, and most goalies modified their gear constantly.
The 80’s saw significant achievements in goalie gear, and finally goaltenders were benefiting from real developments in safety. This was a kind of a golden age for goalie equipment, a balance between protection and performance had finally been achieved.
The 90’s saw a spike in gear controversy, as it was determined that gear was too big and going beyond what was needed for protection. To some degree the complaints were valid, as a couple goalies pushed the boundaries way beyond the envelope and gave the position a bad name. Garth Snow was one of the biggest offenders, devising shoulder extensions on his upper body gear that bordered on ridiculous. I support getting rid of that sort of thing, it was obvious and needed to be reeled in.
But as usual everyone overreacted and a movement began in earnest to decrease the size of upper body gear, as goalies were taking up too much room in the net. It seems to me the smart thing would have been to just go after the primary offenders and leave everyone else alone.
I play goal myself and I have the best protection out there, and I still get hurt from time to time and the people I play against don’t shoot like Shea Weber. Why does the league feel the need to constantly pick on the goaltenders? Did a goalie steal Bettman’s lunch money in primary school? This crusade bothers me more than anything, as reducing the size of the chest protector unit drastically reduces protection. Before you campaign to reduce this vital piece of equipment, maybe you should stand in front of a shot.
Maybe instead we could look at modifying the sticks players use to decrease the velocity of the shots. They’ve just been allowed to increase the amount of curve on the stick, can we reduce it again? Maybe ban the composite sticks and go back to wood? Not likely, no one would ever consider doing anything to impair the forwards game, perish the thought.
Then it was goalie pads, they were too wide. The rules stated 12” wide but it was found that after pads got broken in they were going beyond that.
But wait, now they are too long as well and goalies like Henrik Lundqvist had to make adjustments yet again. The league decided a player 5’10” couldn’t wear the same size pads as someone 6’4”, as it gives an unfair advantage covering the 5 hole when the goalie goes into the butterfly.
Are you sure? Ever strap on a pair of pads? Putting on a pair of pads that size is like wearing stilts, if you can do that and still perform at an NHL level, you deserve your own action figure.
The Future Of Spectacular Saves
The bottom line is that the war on the art of goaltending needs to be called off for the good of hockey. We cannot continue to try to increase scoring at the cost of the goalies protection, it’s bad for the game and the inevitable result will be a serious injury.
We don’t need more rules, just enforce the ones we have. And while we’re at it, maybe we could get serious about protecting goalies from players who run the crease and ensure a future of amazing saves.
If it weren’t for these brave men and women between the pipes, the game would not be the spectacle that it is, so please, next time you are at the rink, hug your local goalie.