New Aesthetics of Goaltending, Vol 4: Hasek’s Genius of Dynamic Space
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, Volume 2 here, and Volume 3 here.
Volume 4: Hasek’s Genius of Dynamic Space
Of course I was Patrick Roy. By the time I was eight my friends – Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque – knew who they were facing in road hockey without asking. Every day after school it was game 7 and we were being massively outshot, but there was never any doubt who was going to come away with the Cup that afternoon. Roy was my idol.
He was incredible. He ushered in a new era of goaltending, wearing his swagger like a crown, killing you dead with a single wink. Some believe he is the greatest of all time.
I don’t think it’s fair to rank modern goaltenders against the legends of old – the NHL Georges Vezina played in was a world away from Terry Sawchuck’s, and at least a galaxy away from Roy’s. However, I can say with absolute confidence that, of all the goalies I’ve ever watched during my lifetime, one goaltender stands clearly above the rest.
That goaltender is Dominik Hasek.
As you can imagine, I did not come to this conclusion quickly or easily. It started as a persistent, nagging feeling that just wouldn’t go away. Like so many others in the early 90s, I was quick to dismiss Hasek’s success as luck, or randomness, or simply the result of his unorthodox style confusing and surprising shooters. I was confident the best players in the world would figure him out sooner rather than later.
They never did.
Hasek just kept getting better, and as time passed, it became clear to me that for all the strangeness of his style, there was nothing random about it. Certain saves, and variations of those saves, appeared again and again. Not only was there method in his apparant madness, but I had the growing, frankly disturbing suspicion, that there was more intentionality, control, and design in Hasek’s game than that of any other goaltender.
By 1998, my Patrick Roy-as-the-greatest standom was eroding. My fingertip-grip on that cliff’s edge was precarious, but a childhood of worship is very difficult to dislodge.
A game in Nagano finished me. Dominik Hasek personally skated into my living room and curb-stomped my hands bloody. I dropped like a rock in water.
Patrick Roy played well. He was still on top of his game. But he was was mortal and fallible. Hasek was a demigod. Within 10 minutes, waves of despair were radiating from the television. It was as though Canada – the players, the fans in the arena, all of us at home – had collectively given up, surrendering to the the dire chill emanating from Hasek’s crease, the grave our hopes were laid in.
But then the almost-cadaver thrashed, the panic just before the eyes close forever, a goal, a tie, a miracle, and for a second, seeing the god-king bleed, we believed he might be mortal after all.
We were dead wrong.
One by one, Hasek turned five of the best Canadian shooters of their generation to dust, a dementor avant la lettre, swallowing the soul of a nation whole. A moment of silence, please, as we remember:
I felt sick, my profound admiration for Hasek’s performance entirely grudging, laying there unable to wrap my head around the fact that the most talented team on earth couldn’t score a single goal in five shootout attempts. In that moment, Hasek became the greatest I’d ever seen.
The king was dead. Long live the king.
Acceptance came hard, but it turns out that was the easy part. The real difficulty came in figuring out how he did it. How did he make those saves? How did he arrange them into a coordinated game? What ability, what difference, enabled him to play that way when no one else could even understand it, let alone do it? I don’t have all the answers, even today, but I’ve identified something, at least, that gives some descriptive unity to his otherwise inscrutable style.
Inhabiting Dynamic Future Space
Basic goaltending theory (especially in Hasek’s era) deals with filling present static space. The net offers 24 square feet to shoot at. This available area shrinks as the puck moves toward the sides of the rink. A goaltender standing on the goal line covers less area than a goaltender centred closer to the shooter. Get close enough to the puck, and you can block all 24 square feet with a single inch of stick.
As Mitch Korn, Hasek’s renowned goalie coach in Buffalo, told InGoal near the end of Hasek’s career, his understanding of how to fill space was ahead of his time: “We were coming out of the skate save era but he was very good at the same thing we are doing today: Sealing the ice, taking away vertical space.”
Dealing with pucks moving laterally is more difficult, but it’s usually conceptualized as getting into position at point A, then moving through the transitional space till you arrive, ideally set and ready, at point B, where the expected shot will come from. Repeat as necessary. This is essentially the same theory as above, just repeated in a serial fashion.
Save selections are also generally discrete movements designed to fill the correct space at the present time. They are terminal, in the sense that they lead to nothing further, and a goaltender must make a transitional movement to get to the next required position. The whole process is conceptually digital.
Hasek was analogue, and inhabited space dynamically, rather than statically.
We need an example for clarity.
This is a truncated version of what’s been called the barrel roll. As the shooter cuts to the glove side, Hasek starts a pad stack to cut off that avenue. The shooter, seeing this, cuts hard to the blocker side. As he does, Hasek extends his paddle-down blocker hand forward, forcing the skater to pull the puck back as he stretches to the far side of the net. With arms extended like this, the shooter can’t lift the puck (and likely doesn’t think he has to).
As he goes to tuck it into the presumably empty net, he’s utterly foiled by Hasek’s backward-stretched arm, perfectly sealing all the available ice.
It’s easy to dismiss that crucial back-flung arm as a reactive afterthought, a lucky instinct, but even this tiny bit of video evidence suggests complete intent. Every goalie, at some point, has seen his or her initial save selection fail, and then followed up with a desperate plan B save that, against all odds, actually works. This is classic present-centred, static-space thinking, and the resultant save shows that kind of 2-phase, disjoined, digital motion.
Hasek, on the contrary, isn’t moving to a plan B at all. His motion is one fluid, interconnected save across a changing space as the shooter continuously changes location. At no point in the motion is there both a possible shot threat and an uncovered space the puck could be shot into, even though both shooter and goaltender are in motion the whole time. This is not covering space A, transitioning, and then covering new space B. Instead, this is executing a unified motion/save selection that covers the entire AB space as the puck moves across it. As Hasek moves to cover space A, everything is already in motion for him to arrive, just in time, at space B. His stack covers the glove side. His blocker extension naturally (biomechanically speaking) twists his torso so he’s laying flat on his back, rather than on his side. His glove arm can only be laid flat on the ice because he is on his back, and his glove arm, which starts moving immediately after the blocker extension, actually helps to whip his torso more quickly around. When that glove snaps down finally against the ice, it’s the completion of a coordinated movement, like a figure skater’s triple axle, where the legs, arms, and torso mutually intensify and optimize one another’s motion.
The full barrel roll is an even more complex manoeuvre, used to cover more space when the shooter has better, potential vertical options between point A and B. Mitch Korn was the first to describe Hasek’s barrel roll as a kind of upside down butterfly, with the arms sealing the bottom (like the leg pads usually do) and the leg pads covering the centre and top of the net (like the torso usually does). It’s a great way to describe how the move provides such strong static coverage, but its dynamic aspects are what make it so suffocatingly effective.
As the pass comes out to the wide open shooter directly in front of the net, Hasek moves forward and dips sideways, creating a stacked-pad wall directly in front of the puck. closing off holes and giving the shooter little, if anything, to aim for. His blocker and thrown stick further pressure the shooter, forcing him to pull the puck in toward his feet as he tries to flank the keeper. Unlike in the first example, the skater has no forward momentum, so Hasek knows he’ll have a better vertical angle (a top shelf to shoot at) when he gets the puck out of his feet and back into shooting position. So, instead of simply snapping his arm down, he rolls his entire body over, his pads moving like the hands of a clock, rotating through the air in front of the puck continuously as it moves to his right. His blocker, having finished the first part of its movement, continues up and forward toward the puck, mirroring the clock-hand coverage of the pads.
The shooter, head up most of the way, never sees enough empty net to be confident he’s going to score, on a play where it looks as though he should certainly score. He holds waiting for more net, and holds, and finally, when he gets to the widest point he can realistically score from, the trap snaps shut like clockwork.
The language of trapping is not accidental. Because the end of the movement is already prefigured in its beginning, Hasek, from the time he dips to the side, is already pushing himself into the eventual location of the shot. He is not simply covering the presently available space: he is setting in motion a sequence that will cover a preconceived space in the future.
What’s perhaps most unsettling of all is that fact that he guides you into that eventual dead-end space from start to finish. He knows where you’re going and how you’ll get there because he’s leading you there the whole time.
Conventional goaltending wisdom advises patience and stillness, reading the oncoming play before reacting appropriately. Hasek could do these things as well as anyone, but it was in his defiance of these dictates that he showed his unrivalled brilliance.
By setting himself in motion in both examples above, Hasek was forcing the shooter to make an instant decision, requiring him to react to Hasek, reversing the usual dynamic. It looked to the shooter like Hasek had bitten on a move, or committed to a given shot location, closing down one scoring avenue, but leaving another wide open. The problem for shooters was that Hasek was misleading them. When most goalies stack or dip onto their sides, they’re done, and if you can flank them, you’ll score easily. Hasek used this knowledge to lure shooters into taking a path that should lead them to success. Of course, having planned everything out beforehand, Hasek was able to lead and follow them through to the path’s end, where he would be waiting for them, precisely in time to crush their dreams.
Nobody put it better than Hasek himself: “If you give them something to shoot at, you can set them up for failure.”
Setting them up for failure. The most apt – and chilling – description of goaltending I’ve ever heard.