A Right or a Privilege?
By Ethan Shippen aka TheBoxBreaker
During the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the National Hockey League announced the implementation of new rules to be either tried out or used during play for the 2013-14 pre-season. One of those rules dictate that the current size of goaltender equipment should be smaller, trying to increase the number of goals scored in each game. According to the stats at quanthockey.com, goal scoring in the NHL was at its lowest in 2012-13 since the late 90s when the NHL experienced a big decrease in goals scored. But is shrinking the size of the goalie’s equipment really the answer?
It’s not the first time that the NHL has tried to downsize goalie equipment: in 2003-04 the NHL limited goalie pads to 38 inches in length. If a goalie’s pads exceeded that length, his team would be fined $25,000. As if this wasn’t enough, further changes were implemented following the 2004-05 lockout season. Pads, blockers, catching gloves, jerseys were all cut down in size. Pads could now not be wider than 11 inches while blockers were downsized by an inch, and catching gloves by three inches.
A few inches might not seem like a big deal to most people, but hockey is often defined as that game that is “defined by inches”. Not that this has always been respected, though. The late Jacques Plante once tended goal for the Montréal Canadiens in a game in Chicago versus the Black Hawks. He noticed something rather strange about the nets: He swore that the goal that he was patrolling 2 periods out of 3 was taller than the one the home team used. A representative got out on the ice and measured the bars, and sure enough, Plante was right.
In the past goaltender equipment has changed tremendously. From the 1950s where goalies barely wore any protective gear whatsoever (let alone a mask) to the 1990s where equipment modifications were popular. A good example is Garth Snow of the Philadelphia Flyers (depicted). The shoulder pads he wore were huge, angular and basically made sure that he could keep the puck out of the net.
According to Hockey Hall of Fame’s Book of Goalies it was in 1996 that the NHL began random spot checks where many goalies were caught cheating under the new and envisioned rules. In 1998 a two-minute penalty was to be assessed to a goaltender if he violated the new rules in any way. Dave Dryden once stated the following in an interview regarding shoulder pads in the NHL: “The guys for a while were really abusing it. They were puffing that stuff up, putting wood in there, doing everything.”
According to the official NHL rulebook found at NHL.com, rule 11.1 regarding the goaltender’s equipment reads as follows: “With the exception of skates and stick, all the equipment worn by the goalkeeper must be constructed solely for the purpose of protecting the head or body, and he must not wear any garment or use any contrivance which would give him undue assistance in keeping goal.” In other words, a goalie’s equipment shall only serve as protective gear rather than puck-stopping material. This seems completely fair to most people, but despite guys like Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber having over 100 mile an hour shots, equipment is still regularly being downsized. Everyone who has personally been a hockey goaltender knows that such shots hurt (sometimes a lot), despite wearing equipment.
A look at the stats provided by Quant Hockey, goal scoring always increased during the periods where equipment was downsized. However, it always decreased (sometimes dramatically) after less than a decade, meaning that the goalies adjusted well.
It has never been easy to be a hockey goaltender; being the lone wolf with a completely different task than all other players. People pay for tickets to see goal scoring, not to see the men who prevent goals. Therefore rules have often been in favor of forwards and defenders. According to Hockey Hall of Fame’s Book of Goalies, tenders weren’t allowed to go down into the butterfly position or even fall down onto the ice until 1917-18 and couldn’t force a face-off by holding onto the shot for decades afterwards. Hall of Famer Clint Benedict tried bending the rules by telling the referees he had accidentally fallen onto the ice because he had lost his balance, and more often than not he would get the benefit of the doubt.
Another goalie who proved skeptics wrong was when Jacques Plante donned a goalie mask on November 1st, 1959. Almost everyone mocked his attempt, saying that he was a coward and that his new flesh-colored mask scared children. However, after the Habs went on an 11-game winning streak with Plante playing with a mask, the coach of the Canadiens, Toe Blake, let him wear it.
According to A Breed Apart by Douglas Hunter, Hall of Famer Gump Worsley was quoted as saying: “You’re wearing up to forty pounds of padding as you stand there in front of a cage that is four feet high and six feet wide, and you’re expected to be as agile as a ballet dancer.”
And that’s it, isn’t it? By downsizing equipment, all you’re doing is forcing the goalies to be more agile, quicker, more flexible and read the play even better.
Glenn “Mr. Goalie” Hall once compared goalies to monkeys, because all in all they felt like an animal dressed up in loads of equipment. You almost just had to place yourself in the net and hope for the puck to hit you. That’s not possible anymore. You’re forced to constantly stay on top of the game, and this has made goaltenders quicker and more agile.
Goalies have always found a way to counter the adversity they face, whether it be downsized equipment, bending the rules or trying to implement new ones. When the game and the odds were against them, they always found a way to fight back and get better. No other sport has seen a revolution so major in such a short amount of time within a single position of the sport as hockey’s goaltenders, and to be the best in the game and have a 15-20 year career, you need to know how to get better all the time. New up-and-coming youngsters who are better at butterflies, trapping, consistency and with better reflexes constantly surface, and the low goal scoring numbers confirm that all too well.
Just the fact that goal-scoring has always gone down a few years after downsizing equipment speaks for itself. The goalies have adjusted. The shooters haven’t.
So no, down-sizing goalie equipment isn’t going to solve the matter if you want to see high-scoring games. Quite the contrary. Taking away something from the net minders forces them to get better, so when the NHL will face a similar problem in 10 years, what are they going to do? Increase the size of the net?
The beautiful game of hockey has never been better. Ratings are going through the roof and the whole world watches the NHL every night. Especially watching the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs and seeing so many entertaining, action-packed, low-scoring OT games where both teams had a legitimate chance to win. Isn’t this the game that we all fell in love with?
A message to the National Hockey League: Leave the game as it is. You can’t improve on perfection.
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