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No proportional pads in 2009-10 after fight with NHLPA

The National Hockey League goaltenders will be smaller for the 2009-10 season, but not nearly as many, and not by nearly as much, as the league hoped, planned and fought hard for.

While the concept of making equipment proportional to the physical size of each goalie – an ideal approved by both sides two summers ago – appears to be moving forward with sizing charts for pants and upper body protection this season, the Players’ Association delayed the implementation of a similar sizing plan for goaltender leg pads by a year.

The changes, approved under the principle of proportionality by the Board of Governors and Competition Committee two summers ago, would have affected as much as 60 per cent of the league, opening the five-hole on a long list of goalies that includes both of last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, Marc-Andre Fleury and Chris Osgood. They were the biggest part of the NHL’s two-year plan to shrink its stoppers, and the most significant since the width of pads was reduced from 12 to 11 inches coming out of the lockout.

“It was supposed to be a discussion between us and the NHLPA about the measurements and how to use them, but they refused to co-operate and then they were like `No. Sorry. It’s too late. We don’t like it.'” said Kay Whitmore, a former NHL goaltender now charged with policing his former peers. “And here we are again.”

The players paint a very different picture of the proceedings. And while it does include frustration that the league sent them a list of what each goalie could wear less than an hour before summer meetings in Las Vegas, goalies insist their concerns – over logistics, timing, fairness and most of all safety – are legitimate and remain unsolved.

“We chose not to be bullied into a half-assed decision, simple as that,” said Ryan Miller, the Buffalo Sabres No.1 who also sits on the Goalie Equipment Working Group started two years ago and is the lone puck-stopping voice on the Competition Committee. “We have a duty to protect players and the league probably feels more strongly about following through on publicly made promises to the fans through the media.”

Add in a belief by many that a thinning of the padding their knees land on in the butterfly led to last season’s increase in injuries, and NHL puck stoppers are preaching caution.

“We’ve already run into the law of unintended consequences, and that’s the thing I am most afraid of,” said Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins’ Vezina Trophy-winning starter.

What remains for this season is a 38-inch limit that allows 5-foot-10 goalies to wear the same pads as 6-foot-5 peers, a practice the NHL still plans to end. By directly linking pad length to each goalie’s physical makeup – not just height but more specifically their leg length – a majority of NHL goalies could see the top of their pads chopped down.

Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford, an ex-goaltender who is also part of the Goalie Equipment Working Group, didn’t think the impact would be as dramatic as some predicted, saying of the 60 per cent affected, most would only lose one inch atop each pad, and just a few could lose “three or four inches.” Double that measurement for the gap it could create in the 5-hole, though, and the significance becomes clearer.

If only it were that easy to find a solution both sides agree on.

“I look around and see guys my size wearing gear that’s a lot bigger than I am wearing, which is frustrating at times,” said new Canucks’ backup goalie Andrew Raycroft. “But to make it all completely specific to each goalie is going to be very, very difficult.”

There was little resistance, however, to last year’s alterations, which included reigning in the size of kneepads and how they’re worn, restrictions designed to open up the five-hole of a handful of goalies like Roberto Luongo, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Patrick Lalime, who use a narrow butterfly stance, closing the gap between their legs with kneepads.

This year’s changes were designed to have a similar affect on the majority of goalies that use a wider butterfly, flaring their legs out when they drop to close the five-hole with the top of their leg pads. For many of them, longer pads that come higher up their legs make it that much easier to close that gap without having to stretch their hips out any wider.

Whitmore said last summer it probably wasn’t fair to punish one style before the other, but there wasn’t enough time to implement sizing charts for last season. He spent last year coming up with one, only to have the leg pad portion derailed by the NHLPA.

“It should be going quicker than it is, and I think the league is a little frustrated because they thought it was done, that they got proportionality and were all good to go,” said veteran Vancouver defenseman Mathieu Schneider, one of five players on a 10-person competition committee that also includes five league voices. “It’s just not that simple.”

Whitmore said the NHL was forced to hold off on the technicality that each goalie was measured by someone from their own team last season, producing inconsistencies and a chance to cheat.

Others on the competition committee said no specific rule or formula was submitted by the NHL and, given the subjective nature of the measurements, they weren’t comfortable voting on a concept and leaving it for the league to interpret. Either way, as the league prepares to make its own measurements over the next three months, it’s clear that the goalies still have concerns about implementing proportional pads.

They range from logistical problems measuring between brands that fit differently and goalies that are built differently, to further eliminating smaller goaltenders from the NHL, to forcing goalies to change how they play. Just as Luongo threatened to retire if the nets got bigger because it would change the points of reference he grew up perfecting, many worry that smaller pads will force goalies to alter a style they’ve worked on for years.

“It would definitely mean a style change for some,” said Thomas.

The biggest issues, though, are safety and getting enough time to adjust.

“You need to give a guy at least three to four months in gear to make a change because most of us have spent 10 to 15 years minimum in the sizes we are wearing in the NHL,” said Miller, adding that telling manufacturers in July they’d have to make new pads for every NHL goalie wasn’t enough time. “If I am changing pads it takes me a few sets just to get things dialed in. Just for competition reasons we should be given time to adjust.”

Included among last year’s changes was renewed enforcement of a one-and-a-half inch limit on the thickness of the knee stacks that goalies land on when they drop into the butterfly. It was part of a series of reductions in flaps around the pad perimeter designed so it took a little longer to get down flush to the ice, and so that seal was broken sooner as goalies got back up or moved laterally. For many goalies it also meant traveling a little further every time they went down.

Considering Nike Bauer has a study that equates the force of that motion to a clean and jerk in Olympic weightlifting, it’s little wonder many NHL goalies blame that change for last year’s rash of knee, groin and hip injuries.

“I felt it really much in the beginning,” Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom said during a season that ended with hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. “It’s tough on your knees and your hips, because your knees go too far down to the ice. It’s really tough on your body.”

Miller said looking back that “it was a little irresponsible of the committee to reduce the inner knee landing area without testing how that effects the body,” adding that played a role in his resistance to rubber stamp the latest proposals without more research.

“I took the stance that I would not back a revision of a rule unless it was safe and thought through by more than just the league or the media momentum,” said Miller. “We owe it to the game to be reasonable but we should also think about the long term effect of making pads proportional. That is why proportional equipment needs to be well thought out and maybe by more than just a handful of people in a boardroom.”

Miller knows it’s an uphill battle to get it right for everyone, especially with goalies a minority in the union, a fact also pointed out by both Rutherford and Schneider.

“If you ask any shooter in the league he’s going to say he wants the pads smaller and there’s room to make them smaller I think, absolutely,” said Schneider.

Just not in time for the 2009-10 season.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.