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The New Aesthetics of Goaltending, Vol 1

The New Aesthetics of Goaltending, Vol 1

Volume 1: Roy’s Illusions of Grandeur

The most common complaints about contemporary goaltending have nothing to do with its effectiveness.

Yes, the NHL would like to see more goals, and to that end, smaller equipment, but these are symptoms of a greater perceived malady: today’s goalies are not athletic.

Fans and pundits alike accuse today’s goalies of filling space rather than making saves. They call them robots, programmed and trained out of any personal style or individual creativity, applications instead of artists. As a result, every goalie seems to look the same, rendering the very idea of “style” meaningless.

Goaltending, they will tell you, has sold its soul.

They’re wrong.

The position demands more physicality and creativity than ever before. The problem is that while goaltending has evolved, the narrative lenses that colour our viewing have not. Looking back more closely, we can see that what we venerated was actually a generation of goalies going out of their way to make scoring easier.

The evidence for goaltending’s plummeting excitement is rooted in the death of several dramatic save selections, and even I won’t argue that many species of save have gone extinct. The sprawling poke check, already endangered when Dominik Hasek used it to destroy Marion Gaborik, is now all but forgotten:

Hasek Destroys Gaborik Final

 

The skate save. The toe (pointing up!) save. The kick save. The two-pad slide or stack.

All of these gorgeous goaltending weapons, once considered essential ordinance, are now stowed so deeply in a goaltender’s arsenal we only see them in the most awkward or desperate circumstances. When a modern NHL goalie deploys a two-pad slide, for example, broadcasters universally jump onto their desks and shout “Holy smokes, a vintage Tim Thomas pad stack!” more excited than the Crocodile Hunter spotting a mosaic-tailed rat (now, sadly, extinct).

Undeniably, the position has changed radically since the glorious 80s, the era of greatest goaltending drama: no other decade has seen goaltenders stand so far out of their nets and sprawl so far across the ice to make saves. A sense of intrepid, audacious majesty accompanies the most immobile player standing absurdly far from his post. He is all-in, forcing immediate victory or certain failure.

Watch where Patrick Roy stands to make this save:

Roy Wilderness Final

The excitement of the showdown between shooter and goaltender is on full display. Roy stands well out of his net, sending a clear challenge to the shooter, daring him to beat him. When the shot comes, Roy is completely prepared, and launches a patented windmill glove save out of a deep split, opening the glove quickly and shutting it again at the windmill’s apex. This is a taunt, the arrogant flare of an artist revelling in his portrait of schadenfreude. The camera zooms in on the last man standing as he gathers in his victory, while the shooter, now entirely vestigial, is eliminated from view and consideration.

There is something amazing about this scene, almost miraculous. With 24 square feet to protect, Roy manages to press his glove perfectly into the precise few inches the puck actually travels through. He executes a split to move himself into range, then swings his arm rapidly upward to snag the puck, all in the millisecond it takes for the quick shot to reach him. It looks so incredible, in part, because it seems that Roy has controlled this sequence from the outset, where his highly aggressive depth dares the shooter while at the same time covering more net. This is a master course in psychological manipulation and sheer athleticism.

Or, at least, that’s the narrative we found so compelling in the 80s, and continue to pine for and venerate today. In truth, this stroke of undeniable beauty arose despite, not because of, Roy’s unparalleled swagger. If we rewind and play back the tape of actual and possible outcomes, it becomes clear that Roy’s robbery was far from the masterpiece we’ve been describing.

First, let’s consider the opening situation. The shooter is being checked so closely by the defender coming from the middle that he has little time to get a shot off. A stronger option might have been to skate the puck outside, in which case, Roy’s advanced positioning would leave the net entirely exposed. We can also see, by the end of the clip, that there was a Rangers player coming down the middle as a passing option. Should Roy have had such trust in his defenceman that he was willing to completely abandon all pretence of covering this possibility? Roy takes away every inch of visible net, but for a pressured shot from a medium-danger location. He marginally increases his odds of making one relatively easy save by giving up entirely on two other possible shots. The potential risk far outweighs the minor reward.

Second, take a closer look at the impressive split Roy does. Because he is so far out, in order to follow the shooter, he has to shuffle like mad to follow him and stay on angle.

When the shot is released, Roy is moving quickly to his blocker side. His left leg doesn’t really jet out toward the puck: it does its best to keep him from sliding out of the way! Most of the split is actually his right, blocker-side leg sliding away from the puck because of his momentum.

The split we imagined as an integral part of moving him into the path of the puck turns out to be an artifact of Roy’s excessive depth. It look stunning, but achieves nothing.

Third, watch Roy’s glove hand. The puck enters when the glove is at its lowest point. Most of the dramatic movement is just that: drama. This is the case with most windmill saves, but no one exaggerated and enjoyed the illusion as much as Roy. Honestly, I think this trademark of his is superb, and I have no complaints about it. Well, except maybe that one time….

Fourth, and finally, the most troubling question of all: was this even a shot on goal? The release point of the shot, and the point where it (actually) enters Roy’s glove, reveals a trajectory that seems to be leading the puck well wide of the net. Was this beautiful save actually a save at all?

My purpose here isn’t to pick apart a beloved icon of goaltending excellence.

This save (or, properly, “save”), in its time, in those playoffs, under those circumstances, was a moving, glorious moment. My point is to show that much of what we laud as beautiful goaltending art, especially in other eras, is also very clever illusion.

We praise the creativity, athleticism, and beauty of goaltenders from previous generations while denigrating their modern counterparts. The truth is, today’s goaltenders are stronger, faster, more precise and far more capable than their forebears. Modern goalies would not have to gain anything to play the game like it was 1986: they would simply have to embrace the false wisdom that created the appearance of incredible feats, and those spectators who know the difference would have to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it.

My aesthetic sense is jarred when goaltenders hamstring themselves before having to make a beautiful stop. There is abundant opportunity for spellbinding saves without contriving them with inelegant play.

 

The New Aesthetics of Goaltending series explores the evolution of the position, using historical examples to highlight the subtler grace of the modern game. It’s Art Appreciation for hockey fans. 

About The Author

Paul Campbell

Paul Campbell is a writer at InGoal, and a former CIS goaltender and women's goaltending coach for Mount Allison University. He occassionally moonlights as a university literature instructor.

8 Comments

  1. Frank S.

    This is the kind of article I read this site for, that and the top saves of the week gifs, those are awesome.

    I agree completely.

    I will say, that the “illusion” was definitely part of the game at the time and was a weapon to discourage the opponent and dismantle his confidence. Bringing the subtlety of doubt into his mind, “can I even score on this goalie tonight, look at that windmill save, he made me look awful”.

    Also it would bring that excitement to the crowd and teammates. That big save before they score the game winning goal type moment.

    Thank you,
    looking forward to the next volume.

    Reply
    • DL

      Thing is, he shot specifically because he came out that far. It was a surprising, jarring move, and shooters of the day thought they had the advantage when goalies did seemingly awkward things. This is why Brodeur, Roy and Hasek all had such great success: They started their careers during the era when shooters still thought anything decent toward the net was going in. They were easily baited, taking the chance on the shot. Early brilliance from Roy with a solid understanding of the game.

      Reply
  2. Colin Hodd

    I’ve been waiting for an article like this for some time, especially as scoring as been down and many “experts” with little knowledge about goaltending have weighed in on the debate. I’ve noticed that many point to the ’90s as a golden era of dramatic saves and claim that equipment was smaller in this non-existent ideal past. Now, goalie gear is certainly larger now(and the goalies larger) than in previous eras, but I’ve found it frustrating that many commentators either don’t know or don’t care to know that almost all the gear is SMALLER now than it was during the really bulked-up era from the early/mid ’90s to the crackdown in the mid-2000s.

    Reply
    • E

      You are so wrong. Equipnments are way smaller than the 90s. Pads are 12 inch width way back. The block and glove are like as big as fish net. Do some research before commenting.

      Reply
      • Scott

        It might help if you read his comment throughly before commenting. Colin Hodd clearly stated that the current goaltending equipment is far smaller that that used in the 90s and early 2000s, while also stating that the equipment is larger as are the goaltenders of earlier years.

        Reply
  3. Brent

    I’m sorry I don’t understand this article…you wrote a detailed article on the “illusion” of this save? Everything you said actually reinforces the notion that it was a nice save(not the greatest save of all time)…first off you would have to be an extremely confident and good skater to even think of challenging that much.secondly you say “When the shot is released, Roy is moving quickly to his blocker side. His left leg doesn’t really jet out toward the puck: it does its best to keep him from sliding out of the way! Most of the split is actually his right, blocker-side leg sliding away from the puck because of his momentum.” so considering he had to stretch back to his opposite left side to make the save(and catch it) is all the more impressive. yes, he put some flair into the snag, but who really cares he was having fun. i guarantee there were many goalies at that time that would not have made the save. Yes, modern day goaltending is much more efficient and precise(and it needs to be) and it is more physical,but creative,no way! Your picture at the top perfectly sums that up. I agree with the rvh,but it has halted creativity at the post,where many goalies,even pro goalies get beat,because they lack the creativity to do things out of that locked in position. and i won’t even go into the amount of articles and lessons on that basic position,you would think it was some type of rocket science! They used to say guys like Brodeur and Hasek never made the same save twice,now that’s creativity! I understand why goalies don’t do what the old guard used,but I’m not understanding your knocking of the “illusion” of their saves,if anything more saves today are
    due to better technique,equipment and bigger goalies,plain and simple. Nice article, but i respectfully disagree.

    Reply
  4. Joe Feeney

    THis article has its own agenda, which does not meet historical review or perspective. While the pair of saves that were picked upon, did not necessarily keep a puck from entering net, they both were important to the team and the play of the time. The current aesthetic of goaltending has its positives and negatives. The windmill glove save was always a late if not last resort for catching the puck, or at least should have been. The poke check, skate save and pad stack were important techniques, that are often overlooked or even denigrated as slow and putting a goalie out of position. THis is wrong! Just as in any butterfly technique, there is back up in all of them, and when done correctly lead to a very controlled rebound, as much or more than butterfly techniques.

    In addition, the two pad stack is a net clogging technique which covers not only low, but all but the very highest part of the net, which the gloves can then take most away from on top. this is far more effective than a “long Body” which is effectively a one pad stack.

    I love the comparison between the old school and new techniques, but all are just tools in a goaltenders tool box. Taking old school out confuses skaters and they don’t know where or when to shoot. As always, great skating takes a goalie where they want or need to be, which Roy did and could have continued in either alternate version. The basic idea is learn to use as many tools as you can, and then pull them out at the right time!

    Reply
    • Andrew

      Joe,
      I understand what you’re saying, but as far as a two pad stack being more effective than a tall body butterfly, I have to disagree for a few reasons. First of all, the speed of the game at the professional level isn’t going to allow for the extra time it takes to get into the two pad stack position. Secondly, from the butterfly, a goalie is able to use their stick to direct rebounds into corners and away from shooters looking for rebounds. It would be pretty tough to control where the puck goes from a stacked position. And when it does, you’re effectively laying down. Last, but not least, the two pad stack was employed mostly in an era when players used wooden sticks. With the shots players are taking these days, you won’t find too many goalies willing to lay down in front of them.
      I can appreciate that the techniques of days gone by were based on the best knowledge available at the time, but we now know better and the result is much more reliable goaltending.

      Reply

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