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
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.