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Why head shots are bad for more than just the goalie

I’ve written in the past on the topic of goalies getting hit in the head, so perhaps this post might seem like belabouring the subject.  At the same time, I feel there persists within hockey culture a number of erroneous notions about why and when the goalie should or shouldn’t be hit in the head by a puck.  Hopefully this article might serve to solicit some input from other goalies and-or goalie coaches, with the main goal being protecting goalies, especially younger ones, from needless injury.

This fall the goalie school I work with (Passion Gardien de But in Quebec City) was asked by one of the local minor associations to come in to help with their pre-season conditioning camps.  Partway through one of these practices I kind of ripped into the group of players (Bantam I believe) for the number of shots that were hitting the goalies up high or sailing over the net and into the glass.  If the bottom line is to win hockey games, then maybe a bit of what I said to them made sense.  Here’s a summary:

1) if every second shot goes over the net and hits the glass, then those are pucks that can’t go in the net to count as goals.
2) pucks that hit the glass generally do not rebound back in front and so generate nothing offensively.
3) a goalie who is reasonably capable will easily catch high shots or deflect them over the net, boards or into the corners with his blocker, thus ending the scoring chance.
4) practicing big wind-up slap shots in the high-percentage scoring area between the ringuette line (tops of the circles) and the hash marks is just plain useless.  In a real game one rarely has a chance to take that much time in this congested zone before the puck is easily pokechecked or the shot deflected into the stands.
5) players need to remember that with each successive rebound and recovery, a goalie risks getting out of position more and more, so they should think of scoring on the second shot and not only the first.  A second shot is much more likely if one shoots lower, off the pads, rather than into the goalie’s glove or chest protector.

I am not sure if my sales pitch convinced this particular group of players, but if it were my own team I would hammer this theme every practice, not just for the goalies’ sake, but because it actually might help the team win some games.  Goalies in minor hockey get hit in the head so often that it is largely considered a non-event.  Tonight my son was at a tryout at the Pee-Wee AA level, and there were players once again shooting the puck as hard as they could, head high (at that level some of the shots are as hard as the ones in many adult leagues), from the tops of the circles or even the hash marks.  I am not talking about during the game.  I am talking about during the damned warmup.  Predictably, there was not even a hint of a comment from any coach present that rifling the puck off your goalie’s head in the warmup is not the smartest way to ensure game success.

It’s not a question about being a wimp.  In my opinion it’s a question about safety or sheer stupidity; self-control or being out of control.  Getting hit during game action is one thing; practices are another.  Goalies face about 10 times the number of shots in an average practice than in a game, so the chance of injury, to the head or otherwise, increases by a proportional amount.  I have seen a number of NHL warmups and can attest to the generally accepted notion that one does not shoot at the goalie’s head.  There have been enough reports about goalies tearing a strip off the irresponsible head-hunter in a practice or warm-up to know it’s probably as close to law as an unwritten rule can be.  Why does a guy liike Sheldon Souray or Zdeno Chara get paid millions?  Among other things, it is because he can shoot it hard on goal, at ice level or barely above, where it is most dangerous for a deflection.  Try to imagine for a minute a single goalie who would stand in net during a practice with Chara unloading his howitzer at the crossbar on every shot for a solid hour.

Last week I played in my own garage league game, where during the warmup a player fired a slap shot that hit me flush in the chin.  I wasn’t injured, but the impact was enough to rip the chin cup and mounting screw right out of the fibreglass where the cage mounts to the chin area of the mask.  At least the guy came over and apologized.  In four years of watching my son play I don’t think I have ever seen a minor league player do that, whether it be during a game or practice.  Call it respect, or lack thereof.

In any case, if I end up helping coach my son’s team this year, I will push as hard as I can for the head coach to give consequences like push-ups or skating lines for continually shooting too high in practice.  Maybe one player or one team at a time this unfortunate fixture of hockey culture can be changed.

p.s.- Warwick masks has the rather amazing video on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igdyp-Glxfk), where a puck is shown hitting a mask, a canteloupe and a waterrmelon at 100 mph.  It is incredible to see how much a supposedly stiff mask flexes, with impact waves fluttering down the sides of the shell after impact.  As for the puck hitting the fruits, well, you can imagine the explosive consequences…
p.s.s.- a bit of research reveals that the Life Magazine photo of Sawchuk was a bit of a fake: a makeup artist apparently retouched previous scars on the goalie’s face to show what he would have looked like had all his injuries been incurred at the same time. (seehttp://www.life.com/image/50542947)

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10 Comments

  1. Kevin

    I think the lack of respect is actually a lack of knowledge and also comes from most coaches not having a clue about goaltending. I’m not a goalie, but I’ve been goalie coach for both my sons over the past 10 years.

    In warm-up and practice there is almost always someone shooting when the goalie isn’t looking. My one son even got hit in the back with a slapshot one practice as he was engaged on another puck!

    I agree, you have to set down rules and consequences: no shooting (during warm-ups or drills) if the goalie isn’t actively engaged with “your” puck, no slapshots past the ringette line (like the article mentioned, a player rarely gets a chance to wind up closer to the net). Consequences are push-ups or laps.

    I have seen a few young players who do respect the goalie: last year (PeeWee) during a drill, the kid with the hardest shot on the team let go a boomer slapshot (from the point) that deflected off the side of my son’s mask. He immediately skated over to make sure the goalie was okay and to apologize. Sometimes the shots do just get away from them… sometimes.

  2. paul szabo

    Hi Kevin;
    Thanks for your input. The rule about not shooting at the goalie when he or she isn’t looking is a very important point that I neglected to mention. I too have seen that often enough.

    As far as the players who do show respect, I have usually found that the best players (in my league the guys who played semi pro or major junior hockey) are the ones who are more careful since they aren’t still trying to impress some imaginary NHL scout in the stands (yeah, at age 45…)

  3. ShogiBear

    I agree that the best players are normally the ones that show the most respect! It makes a huge difference to be apologized to after taking a shot to the mask. Also, think kids are being conditioned to shoot high because of they look at the goalie in the butterfly and think that it has be to easier to score high, but I typically feel stronger on the high shots than on the low ones! That team will end up winning more games if they take your advice.

    Perfect example during the Thrashers Rookie Camp: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwrGHCoPp4k&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    You can see his head snap sideways when it hits him, yikes! At least he is quick to apologize.

  4. Sal

    Dang. Just a correction to you on the YouTube video: that puck hits the mask at 160 MPH, not 100 MPH… I’d love to see results from an actual 80-90 MPH hit; nobody, not even Chara, can hit a puck at 160 MPH!

  5. Pete Smith

    The other issue with taking shots to the mask is hearing loss. My ears rang for 3 months after a rather harmless shot to the side of the head. Some cheap masks ring way too loudly, depending on their construction and design. I have taken many, and I feel that I have lost hearing due to the sound concussion.

  6. RFleming

    Replying to Pete:

    I just started playing goalie about a year and a half ago with some guys from my church, and the sound of getting hit in the mask was the biggest surprise to me when getting hit there.

  7. paul szabo

    The points raised about hearing loss, temporary or otherwise, are significant. I wonder if there is anyone out there with true expertise to comment on why some goalies report loud ringing after a shot and others don’t. Is it the mask brand? Where the shot hits the head? How it fits? The mask material?

    I just changed masks and have found an amazing improvement. No more ringing after a shot. The difference is like night and day. I played today and by coincidence, got a slapshot in the cheek that bent the cage until it was almost touching my cheek (on a cateye, which I know is less solid). Immediately everyone stopped; I was shaken but I can honestly say there seemed to be no after-effects, ears or head.

    One strange anecdote: every time I get hit in the head I smell this particular smell, the one you smell when lightning strikes or when you rub rocks together (some people call it “cordite”). I have had this experience at least 5 or 6 times, today being another example. Maybe it is my last few brain cells frying when the puck strikes my head…!

  8. Susan

    Thank you so much for this writing this piece. My son is first year atom and has made the number 1 team in our association. We have had a rude awakening with the lack of respect given to the goalie from the players. Pucks to the head are a daily occurrence in practice and warmup without much notice from the coaches. My husband has had much frustration with the parents as their
    response is always “our boys are just learning” and “isn’t that what the goalie gear is for”. Pure ignorance I say! I would like to get each of the kids and parents on our team in the goalie gear and fire a few pucks at their head so they can see how it feels!
    I will be forwarding a copy of your article to each coach and parent on our team. Thank you again!

  9. Ken

    Thank you for this article. I wish more players understood this. Another factor to this, in my opinion, is the crazy curves available today.
    I don’t know how many times I’ve stretched outside of the net and watched guys shoot on the open net and miss repeatedly.
    There are a few guys who can consistently hit the flags above the net from the top of the crease.

    I’ve had the good fortune to be “well liked” by most of the teams I play for though most simply do not know how to warm up or practice on a goalie. One team I played for would intentionally aim for the other goalie’s head for the sheer pleasure of watching him “yard sale” all his equipment and come screaming after them. This same team would apologize if they hit me in the mask.

    The main issue I have is shooting when I am not engaged on you. I wish guys would understand that simple rule.

  10. Craig

    Its a stupidity thing. I’ve been hit in warmup far more than in a game. I have idiots that shoot from 15 feet away with their “best” shot. I’ve been hit in the mask on back to back shots in warmup. I have guys give me their best “fake” in warmup because they need to “practice” that too! I’ve been hit in the hand while putting the pegs in. I got hit in the back plate once by a guy “trying to miss the net”. Warmup is for the goalie, not the players. Its to give the goalie a feel for the puck and warms up the muscles. I always ask the guys why are you trying to make me look bad in warmup? Don’t you want me to play well??