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Seems Like Old Times
E.M. Swift
February 20, 1995
A new generation of star goaltenders like Felix Potvin (left) has emerged, recalling the days when netminders like Tony Esposito (above) ruled the game
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February 20, 1995

Seems Like Old Times

A new generation of star goaltenders like Felix Potvin (left) has emerged, recalling the days when netminders like Tony Esposito (above) ruled the game

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"What's changed is that coaches and managers don't automatically assume that someone can't do it because he's 21," Dryden says. "Earlier the thinking went: The goal's too important a position to entrust to a rookie. Forwards were broken in the quickest because a mistake by a forward probably wouldn't lead to a goal. Defensemen were broken in a little slower and goalies the slowest of all. They were seen as too emotionally vulnerable. There was a fear that if they made a mistake it might ruin them, break them. What people forgot was that goalies have been trained for that their whole lives. They've let in big goals before, and they've learned to forget them."

Add to the aforementioned bevy of fresh goaltending talent Roy, Mike Richter of the Rangers, Kirk McLean of the Vancouver Canucks, Curtis Joseph of the St. Louis Blues, Ed Belfour of the Chicago Blackhawks—all of whom are still in their 20's—and it becomes evident that the NHL now boasts the best crop of goalers since Dryden, Parent, Tony Esposito and Gerry Cheevers were in their prime in the 1970s.

"There used to be a few teams who had great goalies," says John Davidson, the former Ranger and Blue goaler who is now a Ranger TV commentator. "Now there are a few who don't. Teams are paying more attention to the position than they did in the past. They've all added goalie coaches. The overall conditioning of goalies is better than it's ever been. Right now, they tend to be the best athletes on the team."

That's certainly a change from the days of potbellied puck-stoppers like Gump Worsley. Esposito, Cheevers and New York Islander Billy Smith were among the best of their day, but they were not exactly paragons of fitness. A summer of Ping-Pong to sharpen the reflexes used to pass as off-season conditioning. "Cheevers was a great athlete," says Sin-den. "But he probably drank too much beer. I don't believe there was ever a goalie who wouldn't have been better if he'd been in better shape."

"Goalies have come a long way, both technically and in off-ice conditioning," says Wayne Thomas, the former netminder who is now an assistant coach for the Sharks. "Irbe, Richter, Belfour—they're all in tremendous condition. They work a lot more on their legs, on the slide board and in the weight room, improving their ability to move laterally and up and down. The basis of it is the teaching. Before these guys get to the NHL, they're being reached in youth and summer programs by people who know what they're doing."

A generation ago the only instruction a goalie was likely to get was from a coach who'd never played the position and knew little more than to mutter, "Stay on your feet," as if it were some sort of mantra. A bad goal, to the coach, was a goal that went in at the wrong time. "The knowledge of how to play goal is really quite limited," says Sinden. "Goaltending is to hockey like putting is to golf. It really has no relationship to the rest of the game."

The stand-up style, in which the goalie relics on playing the angles and rarely drops to the ice, was acclaimed primarily because it was adhered to by most of the great goalies of the '50s and '60s, including Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante and Johnny Bower. It made a great deal of sense at the time. The equipment was heavier and more cumbersome than it is today, which made getting back in position more difficult and time-consuming once a goalie had left his feet. Goalies back then also played most of their careers without masks. Standing up reduced the chances of injury, from both pucks and sticks.

Glenn Hall, a contemporary of the trio mentioned above, introduced the butterfly technique, fanning his legs out in a V to cover the lower corners. But Hall didn't remain on the ice. He was up as quickly as he went down, and both he and his butterfly were viewed as anomalies, not to be copied by youngsters. When Esposito came on the scene in the late '60s using a butterfly style even more pronounced than Hall's—he would often drop into his V before the shot had been fired and remain there after it had been stopped—he was criticized by traditionalists. Montreal gave up on him in 1969 and exposed Esposito to the expansion draft, where the Blackhawks selected him. Then Espo left the mouths of his detractors gaping by turning in 15 shutouts for Chicago in 1969-70, a figure unmatched by any other goalie in the last 65 years.

A new generation of butterflyers was launched by the Canadiens' Roy, who goes down on the majority of the shots he faces and has led Montreal to two Stanley Cups. Brodeur was 14 when Roy, as a rookie, was voted MVP of the 1986 playoffs, and he has modeled himself after Roy. So have hundreds of other French Canadian goalies.

"Patrick Roy is a superstar in Quebec," says François Allaire, the Canadiens' goalie coach, who runs several goalie camps in Quebec during the summer and has had 18 pupils drafted by NHL teams in the last six years. "So now all the good athletes in Quebec want to be goal-tenders. Ten years ago in the hockey school, if you couldn't skate, you were the goalie. Now the best athletes on the team, guys 6'1" or 6'2", they want to play goal. That's a big difference. And it's just starting. There's going to be a big generation of goalies coming from Quebec in the next 10 years."

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