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WHAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
E.M. Swift
October 06, 1997
As in the late 1950s and early '60s, when almost every team had a Hall of Famer in the nets, goaltenders are dominating the game. Here's why
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October 06, 1997

What's Old Is New Again

As in the late 1950s and early '60s, when almost every team had a Hall of Famer in the nets, goaltenders are dominating the game. Here's why

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Florida's suffocating style helped the Panthers become an immediate success: They were a .500 club their first season and reached the Stanley Cup finals their third year. Other teams, naturally, adopted a similar style, the result being that NHL goals-per-game totals have dropped every year but one since 1992-93. During that span the number of goals per game has gone from 7.2 to 6.5 to 6.0 to 6.3 to 5.8—the lowest since 1969-70. Not incidentally, the 1969-70 season featured no fewer than nine Hall of Fame goalies in the 12-team NHL: Bower, Esposito, Hall, Plante, Sawchuk, Worsley, Gerry Cheevers, Ed Giacomin and Bernie Parent.

So why has goal scoring gone down so dramatically? Is it because there's a goaltender bonanza featuring Hall-of-Famers-in-the-making Brodeur, Fuhr, Hasek, Moog, Roy, Vanbiesbrouck, the Edmonton Oilers' Curtis Joseph, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Felix Potvin and the New York Rangers' Mike Richter? Or is it simply because of the more defensive style of play, which could make your Aunt Millie look like Vladislav Tretiak?

"It's a combination of things," says Ottawa Senators goalie coach Phil Myre, who played for six teams during his 14 NHL seasons. "Tighter checking, better equipment, better coaching before the goalies get to the NHL and better coaching once they're in the league."

The concept of a goalie coach is relatively new. Myre was 31 and had been in the league for 10 years before he had his first goalie coach, in 1979-80. "We learned by watching, and by trial and error," he says. "No one talked to us. The only person you had to talk to was your goaltending partner, and you were competing with him. Back then it was always said that goalies reached their peak at 27 or 28. That was true because no one taught us anything. Now kids go to goalie schools starting from the age of eight or nine. They learn proper techniques so they're not making the same mistakes year after year. Plus they're getting more ice time. Some of these kids play 11 months a year. Their skating skills are better. They have people directing them all the way along. There are goalie coaches throughout the minor leagues."

According to Esposito, now the director of scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning, another factor contributing to the goalies' success is the semicircle crease, which made its NHL debut in 1986-87. It is 24½ square feet larger than the old four-by-eight rectangular crease. The added space gives the goaltender more room to move unimpeded and cut down angles, and also forces forwards to set screens and deflect shots farther from the net. What's more, referees are strictly enforcing the rules protecting the goalies' territory. "If a forward has a toe in the crease, even if he's not involved in the play, a goal will be disallowed," Esposito says. "The officials never used to do that. I'll bet I didn't have five goals reversed in my career. These days every goal seems to be reviewed."

Certainly goalies are more athletic now. They are lifting weights and doing flexibility exercises with the rest of the team, which they didn't do as regularly in the past. Some are taller—the Flyers' Ron Hextall and Garth Snow and Tampa Bay's Daren Puppa are 6'3", and the Carolina Hurricanes' Sean Burke is 6'4"—though height is not the determining factor in the success of a goalie. The majority of the topflight netminders are of average height or smaller. Roy and Potvin are 6 feet. Hasek, Richter, Ed Belfour of the Stars and Bill Ranford of the Washington Capitals are 5'11". Joseph is 5'10". Vernon and Fuhr, who have won six Stanley Cups between them, are 5'9", while Moog and Vanbiesbrouck are 5'8". "I like size in a goalie, of course," says Caron, whose star pupil, Brodeur, is 6'1", "but if a big guy's not flexible enough, height creates a lot of holes. Many of those smaller goalies, like Richter and Vanbiesbrouck, play big because they stay on their feet. And when they do go down, their torsos remain upright. The shooters still can't see a lot of the net."

Goaltending was once a skill that primarily required lightning reflexes, with the majority of saves being made by kicking the skates out toward the corners in a split or using the glove to catch a high shot. Now goalies mostly position themselves to block the puck and control the rebound, and therein lies the importance of size. Because most shots are fired along the ice, the first area goalies protect is down low. "The split save is almost obsolete," says Myre. "The butterfly style has become the way to go, where you create a wall with your body and legs and arms, instead of kicking out with a 12-inch blade."

The butterfly style, in which the goalie drops to his knees and fans his pads out in a wide V, was pioneered by Hall in the mid-1950s. But he played most of his career without a mask and only used the butterfly when the puck was close to the net and unlikely to be shot high. "The mask is what changed the position," Hall says. "We were all conscious of how the puck could injure us. Even with the early masks, a permanent eye injury was an occupational hazard. With the masks they're using now, goaltending has gone from one of the most dangerous positions in sports, to the least dangerous position in hockey."

"Perfect protection" is how Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie for the Canadiens and now the president and general manager of the Maple Leafs, describes the modern mask. Most of them have a wire cage that extends in front of the eyes, nose and mouth, surrounded by a molded fiberglass shell that protects the rest of the face and head—a style first introduced in the late 1970s by Ken's older brother, Dave. "Until then goaltending had always been an unconscious compromise between safety and effectiveness," Ken says. "You stood upright to protect your face, and that became the model for goaltending."

The upright style first came into prominence in the 1970s with the success of Esposito and the Soviet star Tretiak, both of whom spent more time in the butterfly position than traditionalists thought proper. However, shots that struck them in the arms or chest were painful—even debilitating. Chest protectors and arm pads at that time were made of thick felt and afforded minimal protection against pucks traveling more than 100 mph. But in the '80s, upper-body armament became lighter and much stronger, and many goalies began using throat guards, further adding to their sense of security. "The last five years I played," recalls Smith, who retired after the 1988-89 season, "I'd get hit in the shoulder or arm, and I wouldn't even feel it."

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