In the midst of the Stanley Cup finals, the thoughts of even serious people may turn to hockey. I make no claim to pundit-like seriousness, but I do confess to a love of the sport, and especially the craft of goaltending, which has fascinated me since early childhood. Growing up in hockey-mad Quebec, I played on scrappy pick-up and local teams in preparation, so I hoped, for one day tending goal for the Montreal Canadiens, a team I idolized. It didn’t work out that way, alas, but my interest in the game never flagged, and I still follow the careers and study the technique of the major NHL netminders.
One thing I’ve noticed is that, although individual goalies each have their unique styles, the collective mode of goaltending has changed dramatically. The heroes of my early youth were all stand-up goalies, occasionally with a slight shoulder-hitch—though sometimes, like Gerry McNeil of the Canadiens, they would go to one knee, the pose he favored on his hockey card. It looked rather classy. Nonetheless, they all pretty well stood their ground, or ice, for the most part vertically.
The greatest of them all was the Detroit Red Wings’ Terry Sawchuk, whose like, I believe, has never been equaled. But they were all masters of the craft, and none wore masks (until Jacques Plante of the Canadiens introduced the protective device). Harry Lumley of the Toronto Maple Leafs was a brick wall. Al Rollins of the perennially weak Chicago Black Hawks did, at times, resemble a sieve, but that was no fault of his own. If he’d had a strong defense in front of him, instead of the platoon of sad sacks who roamed the blue line instead of the attacking zone like a clutch of befuddled tourists, he might have achieved greatness. Sugar Jim Henry of the Boston Bruins, whose face looked like a puck-pummeled tattoo parlor, was an intimidating fixture between the pipes. No matter how many times he was stretchered off the ice, he would always return stronger than ever. At 5ft. 7in., Gump Worsely, shipped from the Rangers to the Canadiens, was a mighty mite. None were inclined to scrooch the ice or flop around, except when the situation demanded it.
Today’s practitioners of the noble art are a different breed altogether. Their default position is the deep crouch, which makes some sense since most are a good half-foot taller than their predecessors and are able to cover a larger portion of the net. But the “top shelf” remains their weakness. I have rarely seen Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings—whose extraordinary reflexes, be it said, live up to his name—rise from his hams. Even the greatest goaltender of the current age, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, virtually impenetrable for the last few years, has been perforated in the Cup finals by the Colorado Avalanche, who have discovered an over-the-blocker weakness in his armor. If Vasilevskiy would stay upright, as did Sawchuk for the most part, he might scarcely lose a game.
I don’t mean to imply that there were not other stellar goaltenders who flourished in the more recent period: Plante himself, Glenn Hall, Ken Dryden, Billy Smith, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Carey Price, to name a few. But the earlier generation of stalwarts, playing with poorer equipment against fewer teams that could benefit from an obviously more rigorously selected and thus better talent pool of stickhandlers and sharpshooters, remain the giants of the profession.
I am baffled by this modern style of protecting the cage, shared by practically every netminder in the League—except, to a degree, by the brilliant Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, who won this year’s Vezina Trophy, and by the Colorado tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz, especially the latter. What has caused this paradigm shift? Why have goaltenders almost universally decided to “go down” or “hug the post” rather than follow the example of Terry Sawchuk and his tradecraft mates?
Of course, as noted, being taller and generally larger than their precursors, they blanket more of the net, but tending goal on one’s knees has its, so to speak, downsides. There’s a lot of slipping and sliding around, and the posture impedes the kinetics of defense, the ballet of anticipation. Primarily, it reduces what every goaltender depends on, what we might call “visionary scope,” the ability to see the play developing, to recognize where the secondary shooters are, and where they are likely to reposition themselves. Standing tall helps to see through the “screen” intended “to take away his eyes,” as the sportscasters like to say. I’m not suggesting that the modern goalie never stands upright, but the trend toward crouching low to the ice is epidemic. And I don’t get it.
If I were a poet, I’d be tempted to play with symbol and metaphor and say we are witnessing a sign of the times, however frivolous the notion. Are we as a culture returning to a more primitive stage of evolution? Is Homo Erectus now gradually sloping toward the drooping status of Homo Prolapsus, masked, padded, shielded, and though taller than our ancestors, somehow smaller than they were, less daring, less responsible, less willing to risk injury? Are we intent on seeking safety from the flying projectiles of the contemporary world, like those tiny viral pucks that a workingman Sugar Jim Henry would have no fear of and a citizen Terry Sawchuk would manfully deflect, relying on a natural immunity against being too easily scored on? We are not tending to our duty of spotting where the shooters are. So we stoop and bend and crouch and play it safe while the red light flashes behind us, like the worst goaltender ever to don the pads for the Les Canadiens, the ineffable “Red Light” Racicot.
Mere speculation, of course — just having fun with the game of hockey and willing to play the game of life, to see through the screen that our adversaries have put before us without crouching before the vicissitudes of existence, as we are now prone to do. That, I propose, should be our goal.