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Posted: Wednesday March 18, 2009 1:43PM; Updated: Wednesday March 18, 2009 5:52PM
David Epstein David Epstein >

The butterfly is ravaging goalies

Story Highlights

Patrick Roy's popularizing of the butterfly has led to an epidemic of hip injuries

Hip irregularities and the force from dropping to the ice usually destroys cartilage

Knowledge of the dangers is crucial since the style is likely to remain the standard

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J-S Giguere of the Ducks has been using the butterfly style since he was 11 years old, and his hips have paid the price.
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Of all the butterfly goaltenders in the NHL, Patrick Roy likes the style of Jean-Sebastien Giguere the best. It is immense praise for Giguere, 31, the Anaheim Ducks netminder who can remember plopping in front of the TV as a kid in Montreal to watch his idol Roy change the course of goaltending history night after night.

It was 1986, and Roy, a mere rookie, was leading the Canadiens to their first NHL title in seven years -- a long drought for a club that had hoisted the Stanley Cup six times in the '70s. Roy was just 20 years old, but he was confounding the NHL's most adroit scorers with his butterfly technique: constantly dropping to his knees and splaying his pads along the ice to barricade the lower portion of the net.

The butterfly had been used sparingly during the previous two decades, but Roy -- 6 feet, 2 inches tall, flexible and fearless -- could cover practically any attack from his knees, and he inspired a generation of goalies to do the same.

"When I was a kid," says Giguere, "I think everybody I know in Quebec modeled themselves after Patrick."

As Giguere watched those '86 playoffs, Roy gave up a scant 1.93 goals per game, and the underdog Canadiens stormed to the Cup. Roy was swiftly beatified and canonized in Montreal as "Saint Patrick." Across the frozen ponds of Canada, goal was no longer the spot for the chubby kid who was usually stuffed in front of a tipped-over garbage can for a game of shinny. While America's most athletic boys were pounding the blacktop to be like Mike, Canadian kids were flocking to goaltending camps to butterfly like Patrick.

Giguere went as close to the source as he could get: the Ecole de Hockey Co-Jean, where he and thousands of others over the years would learn from Roy's mentor: Canadiens' goaltending guru Francois Allaire, who is now a consultant with the Ducks. "That's when I really started playing like Patrick," Giguere says.

By the time Roy retired in 2003, having amassed a record 551 wins with the Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche, 12 of the 30 starting goalies in the NHL were Quebecois, including Giguere, and nearly all 30 used the butterfly at least on occasion. What neither Allaire nor Giguere nor the throngs of youth imitating Saint Patrick could see, though, was that Roy's style had been steadily ravaging his hips.

"All that going up and down at high speed," says Pat Karns, a former Avalanche trainer. "We really had to work on Patrick daily [to keep his hips healthy]."

With each drop, the butterfly excavated the cartilage in Roy's joints. It would be worse for his disciples, the goaltenders who started using his style as children and have dropped to the ice thousands of times. Those boys are all grown up now, and for many of the brightest among them -- Giguere, Rick DiPietro of the Islanders, Antero Niittymaki of the Flyers and Vesa Toskala of the Maple Leafs among them -- a scar on their surgically-repaired hips marks them as the butterfly generation. But from pee wee to the pros, butterfly is firmly entrenched.

"It's incredible how they can spread their legs from post to post and cover the whole net," says Kings coach Terry Murray. "That has to put a tremendous amount of stress on the body." It sure does.

"It's part of the history of the players now," Murray adds, "and I don't see us going back to any other style of goaltending."

If so, more goaltenders will bear the scar with each passing season.

The butterfly takes flight

Perhaps the hip epidemic was set in motion when Roy was eight and his swim-coach mother forced him to practice the breast stroke before he could hit the ice. The frog-kick, with its locked knees and wide-flung toes, was perfect training for the butterfly. But until 1985, when Roy met Allaire while both were with Sherbrooke, the Canadiens' AHL affiliate, he had been scolded by coaches for flopping to his knees and told to stand up, like traditional goalies.

"I remember Jacques Lemaire asking me if I need a pillow and a blanket," Roy says of the Canadiens' coach at the time he was drafted.

But Allaire could see right away that the butterfly worked. "Patrick was a naturally flexible guy, and he wasn't shy to stop pucks with his upper body," he says, "so I said, 'Wow, there's enormous potential here.'"

To bolster his hunch that playing low was an advantage, Allaire began analyzing game film in earnest. "Fifty percent of shots were near the ice and 85 percent from the [mid torso] down," he recalls.

Allaire had Roy practice a dozen situations that recurred on game films -- among them passes from the corner to the circle for a shot, and passes from the corner to a defenseman to another defenseman who gets a screen -- and the pair found ways to use the butterfly to defend all of them, leaving only a sliver of top shelf for the shooter. The more proficient Roy became at moving on his knees, the more standard the butterfly became at all levels.

"These days, around 11 or 12, you can see their level of technique is already so much better than it used to be," Allaire says. It was at Allaire's camp that Giguere, 11, started on his path toward the NHL -- and hip surgery.

Pity the cartilage

Butterfly is a recipe for hip damage in the 10-to-20 percent of the population that, like Giguere, has a structural problem with the femur, the thigh bone that runs from the knee to the hip. The head of Giguere's right femur -- the part that fits into the cup on the side of the pelvis to make the hip joint -- was not cue-ball-round as it should be.

Picture Giguere, in 2004, eyeing forward Jarome Iginla as the feared Calgary goal machine flies down the ice, heading for the crease. Iginla shoots, the puck whistles through the air an inch above the ice. As Giguere explodes down into the butterfly to stop the shot, his femur, the longest bone in his 6'1," 200-pound body, becomes a lever. Powered by his formidable muscles, the aspherical ball atop his femur is jammed into the cup of his hip joint with force akin to an Olympic weightlifter performing a clean and jerk, this according to research by McGill University and hockey equipment maker Nike Bauer. As Giguere flares his toes to wall off the bottom of the goal, the ball rotates inward, scraping away at the cartilage that pads the interior of the cup. Multiply that by 500 repetitions a day -- Giguere's estimate -- and you start to feel sorry for the cartilage.

By the end of the 2003-04 season, Giguere's hips were constantly sore or tight. "Every time I was going down on the ice," he says, "I was fighting against my hip."

After the season, Giguere sought out Marc Philippon, a surgeon at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colorado, who guesses that he has operated on two dozen NHL goaltenders in the last decade. Philippon explained to Giguere that he had a classic case of femoroacetabular impingement, or FAI. That's orthopedic lingo for, essentially, a square peg in a round hole. The condition is insidious because there are no nerves -- thus no pain -- in the cartilage. That enables a goalie to wear down the natural padding until bone scratches bone. By then, a hip replacement is the only treatment.

Philippon has seen a 25-year-old player who has already needed a hip replacement -- surgery that is more befitting the young man's grandparents. If a goaltender with impingement is lucky, relatively speaking, he will see a doctor in time to avoid such a drastic measure, thanks to chronic groin pulls caused by muscles around the hip straining to make the head of the femur fit into the socket, or the pain of a torn labrum -- a band that rings the hip joint, securing the head of the femur.

Giguere was lucky. Philippon arthroscopically fixed his torn labrum and shaved the head of his femur into a sphere before his hip was destroyed or his career impeded. Jordan Parise, the older brother of Devils' winger Zach Parise, was unlucky.

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