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Carey Rie looking down ice close up

Since declaring November 1 International Goalie Day three years ago in honour of Plante’s definitive contribution to goaltending, InGoal has tried to find different ways to mark the occasion. This year, author Paul Campbell, who originated the concept of Goalie Day, confronts our mortality between the pipes through the experiences of someone who has done everything he can to push back the clock and keep kicking them out.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

            — from Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Considering the End

The spectre of goalie mortality chills you with a frozen shock the first time he visits. You had learned to be impervious, decades studying the art of impenetrability making you feel godlike out there in the coldest blue. You are not prepared when he forces you to consider its end. Your end, as a goaltender.

I was 32, returning to The Position after almost a decade, cobbling together the equipment. It was a Tim Horton’s parking lot (where all Canadian goalie equipment deals go down). I paid, he gave me his chest protector, and I asked why he was getting rid of it. Upgrade? Too many bruises?

“No, I’m quitting hockey” he said. He was maybe 35. “I need to be focused on my kids playing, not me.”

It didn’t quite sound like his own phrase, and though he looked resigned, it shook me. I fought every instinct to counter his statement, to make him see how strange and unnecessary his decision was. All those instincts had little to do with him – they were all about me, shuddering at the spectre I had just seen. Would I be him in a year or two? Can it be over just like that?

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10 years and three kids later, it’s safe to say I was not destined to follow his path. But after 40, the spectre settles in and starts to accompany you more and more often. Injury and extended recoveries. Declining fitness. Shifting family and life demands. An actual pandemic. His shivering whispers grow louder the older you get. Time, after all, is undefeated.

While I know I can’t ultimately win, I’m going to make a game of it for as long as possible. Looking to someone who’s gone further down the same road, a veteran of the battle you’ve only just started to fight, is an excellent way to arm yourself for the struggle to come.

I was lucky enough to have a goalie 20 years my senior reach out to me for some equipment advice in January. I ended up learning a lot more from him than he did from me, and I’m certain any older goalie who plans to play for as long as possible  will benefit from his experience. Here it is.

Veteran of the Goalie Wars

InGoal Premium Member Chris Mottola, 62, has been a card-carrying member of the Goalie Union since the 1970s. The wave of his competitive career crested in high-level junior, but his current schedule, more than 40 years later, isn’t much less full.

In the pre-Covid world, Chris was on the ice four to five times a week, including a standing pickup game with former junior and collegiate players (ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s), a session with goalie coach Danny Vitale, and an hour spent as a target at a learn-to-play-hockey drop-in.

That’s enough weekly hockey to make most beer leaguers jealous; it’s also more than enough to make most beer leaguers immobile with muscle strain, joint wear, and fatigue. Chris’s body certainly hasn’t escaped unscathed.

Like so many goaltenders, Chris started experiencing pain and decreased mobility as a result of hip problems, and in 2014, he underwent surgery to repair his right hip, where bone was grinding onto bone.

The spectre of goalie mortality had paid him a chilling visit.

“I thought it might be over” Chris remembered all too vividly over the phone. “It made me realize how much the game meant to me, and how much of my identity was defined by it.”

Improving after Hip Surgery

Determined to return, Chris followed the regimen set out by his doctor and therapist to the letter. He dropped 10 pounds before surgery (on the advice of his surgeon) to make recovery easier, and did the at-home physical therapy religiously.

“They tell you to do an hour every day” Chris recalled, “expecting you to do maybe half that. I did the whole thing, every time.”

And it paid off. Within four months, he was out at a public skate. Six months to the day of his surgery, he was back in goal, an impressive recovery for a man in his mid 50s. The experience had a profound effect, not only on his body, but on his whole approach to The Position.

“You have to wrap your head around not being the same goalie you were in junior. Now I was doing it for fun, for the love of the game, for exercise, and to get better.”

The surgery and therapy enabled him to play again, pain free for the first time in years, but it also revealed some unfortunate wrinkles, Chris notes: “For the first time as an adult, both my legs were the same length. All my mechanics, from my skating stride to crease movements, felt totally off. I realized my body had been using workarounds and shortcuts to compensate, and now none of them worked.”

His slow return to normal goaltending function was accelerated by an unexpected Valentines present from his wife in 2015: a ticket to the LA Kings Fantasy Camp.

It was there on the ice that Chris met Jamie Storr, former NHL goaltender, who offered to help him remake his post-surgical game. Within two months, Chris went from being an old-school 90s style butterfly/hybrid goalie, to having the foundations laid for a modern down game (going easy on the VH and RVH, of course). It convinced Chris that some intense coaching ­– beyond his annual July clinic with long-time coach and friend Yona Fioravanti – would be vital when relearning to play after a mobility-impacting injury or surgery like he had.

“A good coach will see and fix the poor mechanics and inefficiencies you’ve been compensating with forever,” he said. “On your own, it might never happen, and you’re repeating the same old movements that injured you in the first place.”

It might seem counter-intuitive that a modern down game could be easier on a body, with all the joint impact of frequent dropping and the hip strain that comes with rotating and pushing while kneeling.  However, performed according to the right biomechanical principles, the modern down game moves a goalie from point A to point B far more efficiently, with less strain, and less impact, than the hybrid butterfly game many of us older goalies learned in the 90s.

The modern game is more precise and deliberate, mitigating the loss of athleticism due to age with the removal of delays and inefficiencies.

“I’m a better goalie now than I was in my 40s,” Chris said, convincingly. “And after my first surgery and working with Storr, and then with Vitale, I enjoyed playing more than I had since my late teens.”

I can see some of you empathically wincing at the implication of Chris’s phrase “first surgery.” Early in 2019, he started experiencing pain in his left hip, and quickly discovered he had the same kind of deterioration that lead to his previous surgery.

Looking around for possible therapeutic, non-surgical options, Chris discovered Pilates; its central focus on core strengthening and proper biomechanical alignment (including the neutral pelvis that features so prominently in elite NHL goalie trainer Adam Francilia’s philosophy) allowed him to play for several months before the pain returned and demanded a more invasive intervention.

Chris followed the playbook he developed for his first surgery, and was on pace to hit the ice even more rapidly than before. Then, a pandemic shut everything down, and left Chris, and almost every other goalie of any age in North America, with nowhere to play and very little to do.

As usual, Chris made the best of his situation: “I just did what any goaltender does when they can’t go out and actually play. I started looking at gear.”

Modding Pads to Protect Hips

This is when Chris reached out to me, asking about pad options for a (then) 61 year old goalie with two replacement hips and a desire to feel more connected to his pads, but also less strained by them. I proposed jury-rigged knee pad layers made of a basketball knee sleeve with a soft, thick volleyball kneepad on top, all to go under the goalie knee pad (which itself goes under the large, long leg pads).

My colleagues at InGoal sent some useful strapping options, and as usual, Chris came up with something that surpassed everything we told him.

The first mod was a no brainer from a both a feel and tension standpoint: he replaced his shoelace toe ties with elastic versions:

The elastic keeps the pad feeling more connected to the skate, and allows it to snap back to the front more quickly after recovering to your feet. The elastic also stretches enough to accommodate full rotation, easing strain on the leg that can be caused by a fixed lace preventing the pad from rotating beyond a given point.

Next, Chris decided to add a professor strap to each pad:

These straps further add to the “connected” feeling many (especially older) goalies value, and also help ensure the knee hits the landing gear more consistently. Missing the knee blocks is both annoying from a mobility standpoint, and unfortunate from an impact/injury perspective, so any preventative measure helps in both regards.

Finally, Chris’s real masterpiece (besides his mask, which is an absolutely inspired design worthy of its own article) comes courtesy of Protective Athletic Wear (PAW). A set of custom Viscoelastic gel knee pads helped to both reduce impact on his knees and raise them on his blocks, while a new, far thicker set of custom knee blocks with a gel top flap intensified both effects even further.

A side-by-side of the old and new knee blocks makes the difference obvious.

The higher the knee is above the ice when down in butterfly, the less strain on the hip. An added benefit is that it takes less time to close the five hole, allows for a wider butterfly flare, and keeps the skate at a better angle for regaining an edge – these are the performance improving factors that make it illegal for NHL goalies to have stacks this thick.

Installed, it also becomes clear that the sheer width and blocky thickness of the new stacks creates a stiffer, more reliable landing surface.

After a couple of months on the ice, Chris reports that the equipment is having the desired effect: less strain and impact stress, and greater mobility. It’s a combination that any goalie, but especially those of us over 40, could really benefit from.

Just the Beginning

Most goaltending resources are aimed at two groups – professionals and children.

Unfortunately, the motivations, life circumstances, and physical characteristics of older goalies mean that what works for the other two groups won’t always work for them. By spotlighting an older goaltender and the steps he’s taken to maximize the quality and longevity of his game, we hope to spark some larger conversations about the needs of The Position’s longest serving members.

Many thanks to Chris Mottola (@mottocto on Twitter) for sharing his story, and providing some excellent ideas for an underserviced slice of the goalie community.

Do you have an equipment mod, technical suggestion, or any other tips or tricks you’ve found effective as an older goalie? Please share them in the comments below, on our social media channels, and anywhere else goalies talk shop.

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