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The disease is becoming epidemic, and the NHL is faced with a manifest choice. Either it can read the goalie the last rites, or it can reinforce his rights.
According to the rule book, those rights are inalienable. Take 47(c): "A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who charges (takes more than two strides at) a goalkeeper while the goalkeeper is within his goal crease."
And 62(c): "A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who, by means of his stick or his body, interferes with or impedes the movements of the goalkeeper by actual physical contact, while he is in his goal crease area, unless the puck is already in that area."
And 62(d): "Unless the puck is in the goal crease area, a player of the attacking side may not stand...in the goal crease. A minor penalty shall be imposed on any player of the attacking team who deliberately stands in the goal crease area."
Unfortunately, the rules in the book are not uniformly enforced. The referee has a lot to watch. Philadelphia Flyer goalie Ron Hextall's solution to lax enforcement is a two-handed chop with his heavy goalie stick to a trespasser's leg. "Believe me, I take three times as much as I give," Hextall says. "People will take it whatever way they want, coming from me. But goalies who don't have my reputation are getting hacked off too. Whether you're Ron Hextall or the most mild-mannered player, if you get hit for the fifth time, you're going to get mad."
Boston goalie Reggie Lemelin did. At age 35, he's hardly an angry young man, but on March 10, sweet old Reggie reacted to being run over by the New York Islanders' Alan Kerr by spearing Kerr in his midsection. "Spur of the moment," says Lemelin, who received a five-minute spearing penalty and a game misconduct. "I'm not proud of it. But it was the third time in the game that it had happened, and I got mad. The Islanders do it [rush the goalie] more than any other NHL team.
"When I first came into the league, anybody who hit the goalie would have to pay the consequences. Somebody would go after him. Now it seems like there are no consequences. The guy who goes after the guy who hit the goalie winds up with all kinds of penalties. Now the goalie faces a power play, and he winds up the loser. We always wind up the loser."
Certainly Islander goalie Mark Fitzpatrick did by blowing his cool during Game 2 of the Patrick Division semifinals against the New York Rangers. Already steaming because he had given up three quick goals in a four-minute span in the second period, Fitzpatrick boiled over after being crashed by the Rangers' Troy Mallette. Referee Denis Morel had his arm up to penalize the Islanders' Bryan Trottier for hauling down Mallette, but Fitzpatrick butt-ended the Ranger winger while he lay on the ice. In addition to a game misconduct, Fitzpatrick received a five-minute penalty, which the Rangers converted into a goal that put their 5-2 victory away.
Fitzpatrick's temper does not serve him well. But considering how hockey is now played, his 6'2" body will. There has always been some prejudice against little goalies, because they cover less of the net-and seem to wear down faster than big net minders. There remain good small goalies in the NHL, but unless the league takes protective measures, the 5'9" goalie will become as rare as the 5'9" forward. Unless, of course, all the 6'2" goalies are pounded down five inches.
Unquestionably, the magnets are drawing more players than ever to the net, contributing to the problem. But the essential difficulty with today's NHL is the size of the players. While the players have gotten bigger and bigger, the ice surface hasn't. With no real mandate to widen the rinks an additional 15 feet to international size, NHL general managers this summer will study a number of other options, including new net supports and more consistent enforcement.