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New Aesthetics of Goaltending: Myth of the Standup Goalie

New Aesthetics of Goaltending: Myth of the Standup Goalie

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. You can find Volume 1 here, and Volume 2 here.

Volume 3: The Myth of the Standup Goalie

The Save

Kirk McLean was a bit of a throwback even in 1994. His game had evolved since the 80s, no doubt, but he was still a standup goalie in an era where the butterfly had clearly emerged from its chrysalis. And I’m thankful for it, because he gave us one of the finest standup-style stacked-pad saves of all time:

Playoffs. Game 7. Overtime. The occasion could hardly be more perfect. McLean started well out of his net and is flowing back as Theo Fleury quickly approaches. He stays with the puck carrier till the pass is made, then turns his outside (right) foot out for a massive T-push, using the momentum from his retreat to tuck his other pad under as he launches his entire body, feet first, back to the far post. Robert Reichel, the shooter, must still wake up in a cold sweat after decades of recurring nightmares featuring this save. Stunning.

This is what people have in mind when they laud the athleticism of standup goalies. This is art.

Deconstructing Standup Style

Anyone who watches hockey, especially anyone watching since the 80s, likely sees nothing strange about McLean’s save selection: it was very common, and he executes with textbook precision. Non-hockey fans, however, for whom such saves have not become routine, might ask an important question: why does the goalie go feet first, instead of diving?

Think for a moment about how unnatural that movement is. Why would anyone fling their feet to travel toward something distant? The answer reveals the essential principles of standup goaltending.

The idea of “standup” goaltending was basically meaningless before the popularization of the butterfly style in the mid-late 1980s. Before then, it was simply called “goaltending,” and the principles remained largely the same throughout the history of hockey, despite their having been massive changes to the game.

Goaltenders traditionally had lots of padding on their legs (bulky wooden uncurved sticks tend to keep shots low), and very little up top, without any facial protection at all. This meant that the legs were both a larger blocking surface than the upper body, and a much, much safer place to take a shot. The position was built on the dual pillars of net coverage and survival.

The Legendary Jacques Plante illustrates both concerns superbly with this dynamic pad save on a rising shot:

The shooter has plenty of time and threatens shot the whole way. His weight shifts down, and it’s clear he’ll be able to get under the puck powerfully enough to elevate it well. He hesitates, trying to out wait and outwit Plante, who has already begun leaning down toward his blocker to cover the ice on the strong side. As he sees the play unfold, rather than trying to shift back and move over to the puck, Plante instead lets his weight drop further right, allowing him to rotate like a propeller, his upper body spinning down as his lower body rises. By the time the shot comes, Plante’s vulnerable head and torso are well away from the puck, while his well-padded and far larger pads are covering much of the space between puck and net.

Notice any similarities with Dominik Hasek’s “unorthodox” style? (More on this in the future)

The unintuitive oddness of McLean’s feet-first lunge is explained by the historical conditions that obtained for earlier generations of goaltenders: keep your bare head safe, and put as much bulk as close to the puck as possible. This required an upright stance (to keep the head away from the path of the puck), with the legs close together, presenting the widest wall of padding possible and preventing pucks sneaking between the legs.

By 1975 every NHL goaltender was wearing a mask, at least in part because curved, lighter-weight sticks were now the norm: even the craftiest tactics could no longer keep your face out of the way if you wanted to cover the top of the net. Goaltenders were able to be more patient on shots because of the mask, keeping still and square without fear a high riser would decapitate them. It also freed goaltenders to dive onto rebounds and across the bottom of the net in ways that would have been foolhardy previously. The mask changed the position, surely, but not nearly so much as we might have imagined.

In the mid 1980s, the standup style that defined the position for most of its history remained omnipresent and easily recognizable. Watch Wayne Gretzky victimize Mike Vernon in 1986.

Vernon is in the classic stance, feet together, glove down and open to the puck, blade of the stick covering the ice between his pads. Notice how far out of the net Vernon is. The prevailing wisdom of the era insisted that the goaltender position himself as close to the shooter as possible while still maintaining the ability to keep himself between puck and net. As you can see, Vernon has to work desperately hard to keep up with Gretzky. Because 99 is threatening a shot the whole time (a trick he often used), Vernon can’t use the much faster t-push to move across, which risked opening the legs wide and preventing quick changes in direction. Eventually, Vernon can’t keep up with shuffles and has to turn his lead foot out to move fast enough. As he does, the cunning Gretzky fires back against the grain: with no lead edge to stop with, Vernon can’t do much but drag-kick his back foot at the puck. He, like so many other goalies at the time, fails. It’s not entirely his fault. Gretzky had spotted a weakness inherent in the era’s goaltending, and feasted on it mercilessly.

At this point, the naive observer foreign to hockey might ask, “But why is the goaltender so far from his net?” Hockey fans know the answer, of course. Vernon is coming out to cut down the angle: the closer he is to the puck, the less room there is to shoot past the goaltender and still put the puck on goal. In the 80s, especially, goaltenders took this to an extreme. Their job was to stop the first one, and it was up to the defence to clear away rebounds.

When you move that far out, so long as you can stay on angle, you create a large blocking surface the puck has no way to pass through. The tradeoff is that, aside from being vulnerable to lateral plays, you leave yourself far less time to react. Your goal is to make yourself big enough from the puck’s perspective that it just hits you, even if that means you aren’t in good position to react to changes or deal with rebounds.

Questioning Standup’s Athleticism 

Wait a minute. The goal of 80s aggressive standup style was to facilitate blocking; isn’t this the same criticism levelled at contemporary goaltending? Make no mistake: Mike Vernon just wanted that puck to hit him, and he, like most goalies at the time, played in a way that gave him very little leeway if it didn’t.

The key difference between traditional standup-style blocking and contemporary butterfly-style blocking is simple: the latter is far, far more effective. Standup goalies made more dramatic athletic moves because they had to: when they were forced to break from the preferred blocking stance, they needed to move a long way very quickly. They had time for a single lunge, be it a pad stack like McLean’s, a head-first dive, or a massive split. It looked like pure magic when it worked, leaving a lasting impression. When it didn’t, which was most of the time, the goaltender simply looked stranded, awkward, strangely distant from his crease.

Today, goaltenders still prioritize blocking, but are actually more reactive and athletic than their standup forebears. By remaining deeper, goaltenders give themselves more time to react to the initial shot, as well as any tips or deflections. On lateral plays, instead of having a single chance to somehow stretch across, goaltenders can often hold their edges and keep following the puck even if another pass is made. Watch Andrei Vasilevskiy play this 2-on-0.

Instead of coming out hard and then having to dive or stack for the first pass, Vasilevskiy is able to make two very abrupt, powerful shifts to follow each lateral pass, a far more difficult, physically demanding sequence than McLean’s. This, too, is art.

To suggest that standup goaltenders of previous generations were more athletic is simply absurd. Their no-holes stance maintained as close to the puck as possible was motivated by the same blocking-first mentality that gets contemporary goalies ridiculed. The irony is sharp.

The legendary Johnny Bower facing down a flurry of consecutive shots will always be beautiful.

Never leaving his feet, Bower juggles, swats, jumps, and dances into the path of the puck, incredible reflex and instinct on full display.

For pure athletic excellence, however, can there be any doubt that Tuuka Rask’s acrobatics ascend to a level unattainable by previous generations?

The end of standup wasn’t the end of an era of athletic greatness. It was a necessary step in the evolution of a far more authentically powerful game.

 

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.

17 Comments

  1. Mike

    I would like to see how Gretzky does with his playing style with the goalie of today. Im willing to bet he wont be so great……

    Reply
    • Nick

      Gretzky would still be the best player today. You saying this makes it obvious you never watched him play.

      Reply
      • Michael

        Not if you dropped him (even in his prime) into the middle of a modern-era NHL season. Wayne would have developed his game (and his physique) totally differently *over time* and would have become great(est) in the modern era, but perhaps the style he used at his peak wouldn’t translate especially well to the current era.

        Reply
      • Salman

        Gretzky and the other greats can play in any era. However I think a lot of older fans incorrectly assume he would still average 2pts a game. Modern defenses were built to stop that type of domination. The thinking is that Gretzky and Lemieux did it on talent and guys like Mcdavid and Crosby is because of modern training /coaching.

        I am old enough to remember seeing 99 and 66 burn goalies but it would not be as easy anymore. .910 got Eddie the vezina. That won’t even get you a backup job these days. Defenses and goalies were created to stop the 99s and 66s.

        It’s not that Crosby is not as good or lacks hockey smarts like the 2 mentioned above, it’s because what worked for them isn’t working anymore. That’s what fans don’t understand. I can only imagine what McDavid would do against 80s defense. Gartner was fast and had 650(?) goals…nowhere the player McD is.

        Reply
      • John

        Nick, you’re wrong. I watched Gretzky play and he wouldn’t be nearly as dominant in today’s game as he was in his era. The goalies and team defenses are so much better than they were when he was playing that he would struggle to put up point per game stats. Let alone his 2ppg.

        Reply
        • Nick

          I’m not wrong, I’m not saying he would score as often but he would still be the best player in the league.

          Reply
    • DaN

      The problem is not Gretzky it’s the way hockey was played. I truly believe that a goalie today would not be successful in the 80’s .

      Reply
      • Mike

        It’s hard to compare the 80s to today, so much as changed. If you put a modern day goalie in 80s equipement with the way the game was played, I suspect they’d be better then the average 80’s goaie simply due to being bigger and in better physical shape but not as dominant as today, the gear simply wasn’t as advanced. The gear was smaller and less protective and simply didn’t seal the ice the way todays gear does, the perfect butterfly of todays pads simply wouldn’t happen.

        Reply
  2. Craig

    There is a clip of McLean making a similar series of saves like Bower’s, against St. Louis I think, where he stands at the top of his crease and barely moves making saves on 4 or 5 shots. Amazing. Tried to find it but couldn’t. (Might be against NY Rangers?)

    Reply
  3. Eddie

    With the advent of the butterfly style, I see more pucks zip over the shoulders of the down-on-his-knees goalie, into the upper corners of the net.

    Reply
  4. Jeff

    As a former junior/college/ECHL goalie that straddled the stand-up transition to butterfly era throughout my career I agree with much of what is written in the article with the exception of a few points.

    I started squirt hockey with full leather Cooper’s stuffed with deer hair and now wear a pair of CCM E-flex IIIs on my legs playing beer league in my 40’s. I have to tell you that I love the equipment changes and just how light everything is that is worn today. I would have killed to lose that extra weight when I was playing competitively (now i need to lose the extra weight in the mid-section).

    When you talk about athleticism, I would caution that goalies like Hasek were pretty darn athletic with equipment that was nowhere near as light and built to allow for movement the way that the gear is made for today’s pro goalie. On the contrary, to say that Carey Price is not athletic is just plain crazy. I think that all of the goalies were athletic but it was a different kind of athletic catered to their era. One should note also how tall the average goalie is today (darren pang video should be inserted here….i think his shoulders are still lower standing than Holtby’s are on his knees)……a 6’5″ goalie is pretty darn tall on his knees.

    What I can tell you from personal experience is that the muscles you use in a more stand up style, versus the butterfly and slide style of today are totally different. It took me a bit to teach myself how to effectively slide….partly because my legs were so conditioned to sit in my stance and my quads were strong, but the muscles (and coordination) needed to push off from a kneeling position were not there. As I have a son who is a young goalie, I forced myself to learn this new style to help teach him, but it was not easy or comfortable.

    There are a few places where I do think that today’s goaltending style can be exploited compared to the “stand up style”. One is that on breakaways, there seems to be little aggressiveness from the goaltenders. They seem to sit in their crease and wait. I would love for them to bring back some more poke checking!!! Watch shootout highlights and notice how long these shooters stickhandle and push the goalies deep in the net. Second, it is very hard to teach a young goaltender the butterfly and slide style as a 4’0″ goalie gives up a lot of net up top when on his knees. Guess where Squirt/Pee Wee boys love to shoot the puck….you guessed it…upstairs. This new style has created a challenge for age appropriate training of goaltenders.

    Anyway…interesting post……

    Reply
  5. mike

    The one thing not taken into account is the size of goalies now. They are all over 6 foot tall. Being a goalie over 6 foot tall back in the 80’s was rare.
    Its tougher for a shorter goalie to play butterfly all the time. They get beat high and the lateral distance is longer.

    Reply
  6. Ralph

    Great Article and cant agree with Jeffs comments above more. Played at the same time 70’s through 80’s through D1. I never transitioned to the B Fly as a career ending spinal injury forced me out. Having a son who is a tender now its not just the up or down style but every phase pf goaltending that has changed dramatically. Just look at the post hug on modern day tenders that play it multiple ways and I still see them get burned up top. The shoot out example is one i have sat and pondered myself.. With 6 foot 5 tenders and a 5 foot stick it makes me cringe to see Patrick Kane playing with a puck for 15 seconds about 4 feet from the tender with the tender backed in just about under the post. We were overly aggressive i admit hell sometime my first save was at mid circle but it seems like some explosion from the tender out against the player every now and then would keep them on their guard a little more. Then again maybe thats why I sit in my lounge chair with a beer and they make millions.

    Reply
  7. Medic man

    The sticks forced the style change, shots are harder, quicker, and more accurate all over the net. Goalies today have much less time to react, sitting in the crease theory is debunked due to all mentioned above. The butterfly evolved as the quickest way to cover the most area, pure and simple. The great shooters exploit that with oon point accuracy odd shots. Hell go to beer league game and watch the shots from is old washed up guys line me. They shoot harder than when I was a college goalie in the 80s add early 90s. As for Gretzky, he would still be the best ever, he had all the gifts…. that’s like saying Nicholas couldn’t play gold today cause the club’s are different. That is plain craziness.

    Reply
  8. marc

    I think Mitch Korn has it right…the butterfly is not a style, its a type of save…the whole vocabulary is wrong ..

    Reply
  9. John

    Some on here are saying Gretzky could score like he did in the 80’s playing in any era ?? How do you come to that conclusion ? The 80’s were a wide open offensive time in pro hockey unlike anything seen before or since. You were a very good goalie if you had a 3.50 goals against average. If you had a 3.50 GAA in the modern age you would not be playing in the NHL, most likely you would be lucky to get a spot on a farm team. Just look at the scoring leaders in any year in the 80’s and you will find 10 , 100 point plus players, 7 or 8 50 goal scorers in any given year. The NHL is lucky if we have one of those per year now and it is not because of a drop off in talent it is because of being in a defensive era instead of an offensive one. Plus back in the 80’s the goalie equipment was much smaller given up more room for scorers to score. Also there are no more enforcers to protect big star players like there was in the 80’s. Gretzky had no fear because he had his thugs protecting him all the time where as players like Sydney Crosby have got to fight their own battles because of the instigating penalty which pretty much got rid of enforcers. 80’s you did not have one or two players getting 50 goals in 50 games but several, We are lucky to get one in 82 games now. Its absolutely ridiculous to think he could score like he could in the 80’s in any other era. He came along at the perfect time but it would be a different story if he came along at a different time. Try imagining Gretzky playing against the Flyers of the mid 70’s, Broad street bullies, they would have probably knocked him out of the game in the first period, literally knocked out. As for the stand up goalie article, both stand up and butterfly have their advantages and disadvantages. Just look at the Gretzky goal on Mike Vernon, now if Vernon did the butterfly as Gretzky let his shot go he would have saved it but standing up he gives up the corner. Butterfly was good when if first came out and for several years afterwards but now it is a joke. Goalies are always on their knees giving up the top part of the net.

    Reply
  10. John

    Lets not forget why goalies originally played stand up style. Its because they did not want to get a puck in the teeth so they only went down as a last resort. Also going down they would be more likely to get a stick in the face, remember they had no masks way back when the stand up style was used a lot. Also that with all the huge goalie equipment these days that allows them to play the butterfly a lot more because their equipment covers more of the net and because all the goalies are like 6 ft 5, 215 lbs.
    Remember Mike Palmateer for the Leafs, small goalie, small equipment, you could see easily half the net being open at all times. Its crazy to compare one era to another.

    Reply

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