Ice Hockey Goaltending 101: You think you want to be a goalie, eh?

May 14, 2004 (Updated Dec 13, 2005)

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The Bottom Line The cost of gear can make the decision tough. See if you can borrow a set of gear, call local rinks to see if they have a loaner set.

The Goalie position in Ice Hockey is arguably the most challenging position in team sports. That Libyan sport involving horses, a dead goat and whips makes a strong case as well. Regardless of any arguments you would like to pick, the learning curve in ice hockey is considerable. Hey, you’re playing it on abnormal shoes (those things we call skates) made for an abnormal surface (that stuff we call ice). Things aren’t likely to be easy when you have to learn to just stand up all over again. To further complicate things there are people who are going to shoot nearly rock hard pieces of vulcanized rubber well in excess of 70 miles per hour at you. Not so surprisingly sometimes those things hurt. Being a little crazy doesn’t hurt in this position. So are you sure you want to be a goalie?

Playing goalie in a drop in game makes you the hero of every shooter there. They don’t even care if you are knocking in shots that weren’t going to hit the net and yes I’ve seen goalies that bad . . . heck, I’ve been that bad at times. You see, the option for the players is to shoot on a living goalie or a piece of 1/16” thick vinyl called a shooter tutor. Trust me, shooters would prefer a drunk net minder unconscious in the crease to the shooter tutor. There is something a little more exciting about scoring on even the most inebriated goalie than an inanimate object. This is one of the reasons that most rinks let goalies play for free.

The mental toughness required of the goalie position in actual games is huge. While you always have the chance to be the hero, good play is often less recognizable by your non-goalie counterparts than the save you should have had and didn’t. One of my most memorable games was a dismal seven goals against loss. No one in the locker room cared that I had faced seventy-five shots including twelve odd man rushes that night. Heck, they didn’t even believe me when I told them my shot count. Honestly, I didn’t care that I had played well that night myself. When you let seven in, the shot count doesn’t make you feel much better . . . well maybe if it had been 350 shots.

As a goalie it is always possible to go to the locker room thinking that your play was the difference in a loss. Forwards are much more likely to blame a 1-0 loss on the goalie even though no one on the entire team scored. So be forewarned, as challenging and fun as the position is, there is a lot of pressure as well. This would be the other reason that most rinks allow goalies to play for free.

Perhaps the biggest part of the goalie mindset is the willingness to stand in front of hard shots repeatedly. Let me put it this way. I mentioned before that sometimes the puck hurts. If you play long enough it will hurt. I have had broken bones, a concussion and more bruises than I could count from being hit by the puck. Still, it is funny to me when forwards tell me, “You have a lot of courage to stand in front of the puck. I really respect that.” I don’t really consider it brave. Maybe it’s a little stupid, but not brave.

By now the smarter portion of the readership just clicked to another page. They’re all thinking, I’m not stupid, this isn’t for me. I wonder if there is any helpful information on macramé on the epinions website? Well, they are going to miss out on more fun than they could imagine, besides that macramé is dangerous stuff too. You could put an eye out with one of those needles! As slightly crazy, mildly stupid as you have to be to play goalie, it is immensely rewarding. There is little that compares to stealing a shooter’s near certain goal from midair and seeing the surprise in their eyes as you make a miracle glove save. So the next question is do you have the proper willingness to play?

Old School vs. New School Goaltending
Ten or fifteen years ago the kid who was a little over weight and couldn’t skate well was the one that reluctantly donned the pads and stood between the pipes. Today the only thing that he probably would have going for him is that he is a little bigger than his peers . . . well that and being the comic sidekick in bad hockey movies. Modern goalies need to be strong skaters, usually the best skater on their team. Shooters will move the puck across the front of the net looking for an opening requiring the goaltender to respond with strong lateral movements. If you can’t get from one goalpost to the other easily, your career as a goalie will be difficult.

Further, goalies today are highly reliant on positioning rather than pure reflexes. Often saves are made blindly just from being in the right spot. Today’s goalies need to be quick skaters to come out and challenge shooters from a strong position. On breakaways many goalies will come out as high as the top of the circles before throwing it in reverse to keep position on a speedy forward crashing in for a scoring chance. Goalies who cannot skate will quickly become a spectator watching that forward score on their open net. I for one prefer to challenge any shooter who gets around me to score while tripping over my goal stick, dirty I know, but unfortunately sometimes necessary.

The days of the Goalie being the guy who stood around at his end of the ice hoping the puck might hit him instead of the mesh are over. Goalies work as hard as, if not harder than any other player. Anyone thinking that they might be better suited as a goalie because they won’t have to skate or work as hard as the other players do need not apply. Forwards and Defensemen take two-minute shifts. Goalies work from start to finish every game.

If you’re on a bad team, you might go five, ten, even fifteen minutes without a break. My team worked some poor goalie for about 55 minutes and ten goals last night. I, on the other hand, was yelling to my opponents to shoot because I was so bored. They finally snuck one by me on a five-on-three power play (my team’s way of responding to my boredom was to fill the penalty box with our best players last night). Goaltending is exhausting most times. I have played both forward and Goalie and can tell you that while both are hard work, goalie is normally much more physically challenging.

Beyond the stamina portion of the physical challenge you will take bruises, cuts, muscle pulls and other injuries home from time to time. I’m a pretty quick healer due to my extensive practice in that area, so I haven’t missed much playing time over the years. However, I have had more bruises than I can count, needed stitches once, a broken shoulder, a concussion, and two broken ribs among my more interesting injuries. This doesn’t even consider things like minor groin pulls, sprains and the like. You play and you will get a ding or two.

So the point of all this rambling is that you need to be willing to work hard at goalie. It will take some athleticism and a lot of sweat. Is it worth all of the injuries? Absolutely! The only thing that annoys me about getting injured is that it takes me away from playing goalie. But that’s me, you’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to take the risks.

What are the basic Goaltending styles?
Ah, you’re still reading, great! The next thing prospective goalies need to consider is their style of play. This isn’t clear-cut, nor is it likely that you will develop your style until you’ve been playing for some time. However, if you have a basic idea, you will be able to make a more informed decision on the purchase of your first set of gear. If you can borrow pads, all the better. Using loaners will help you determine your style before you buy your own.

Modern goalies don’t stand up at the goal line waiting for the shot like netminders of twenty years ago would. Patrick Roy (Roy is pronounced “wah” for you wannabe goalies who have no idea who I am talking about) forever changed the way the position is played, popularizing the modern butterfly technique. However, Roy wasn’t the first goalie to play the “butterfly.” Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet goalie remembered for his role as one of the other netminders in USA’s 1980 miracle on ice, was among the first great butterfly goalies.

Patrick Roy was however, the player who perfected and best exemplifies the butterfly. As a rookie goalie Roy won his first of his Stanley Cup victories with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986. He won another with Montreal in 1993 and two with the Colorado Avalanche (1996 and 2001). He also collected three Conn Smythe rings, the NHL’s playoff MVP award. (Wayne Gretzky only won two). Roy also collected two Venzia Trophies (best goalie as voted by NHL General Managers), and five Jennings Trophies (for lowest Goal Against Average). Patrick Roy inspired an entire generation of new goaltenders winning a total of four Stanley Cups over his nineteen-year career.

Standup is the oldest style of goaltending and least used today. Standup Goalies keep their feet close together, stick on the ice, and rarely go down to make a save. Standup goalies are a rare thing in this day as the form relies on exceptional reflexes and perfect positioning. It also is highly susceptible to lateral passes and low shots. A standup goalie will use a kick save or stick save to stop low pucks. On breakaways they will almost exclusively stack the pads (lay on their side with the leg pads atop one another).

Butterfly is a newer and more accepted style of playing goalie. A butterfly goalie plays with their feet apart and knees bent. On low shots they will drop to their knees using the span of their legs to cover the bottom of the net. The strength of the butterfly is in mobility side to side and the ability to quickly take away the bottom of the net. Smaller goalies will lose some upper net coverage if they are too reliant on the butterfly as their predominate style.

Hybrid is a combination of styles that attempts to take the best of both standup and butterfly blending them with the player’s natural abilities and tendencies. Dominik Hasek was the epitome of a Hybrid goalie doing whatever he needed to do to stop a puck. Most goalies will fit the hybrid profile as it is rare for a player to be pure standup or butterfly. There are a number of other save techniques that will fit in the mix as well.

So, now we have a simple understanding of the different basic styles of goaltending. So, what factors will determine which of these basic styles you will tend toward?

What style should you play?
If you have bad knees or back issues, you will likely have a hard time playing exclusive butterfly. The butterfly can be, as you might imagine, difficult on the knees. If you are a small goalie you will also likely play a style more slanted towards standup goal tending. The butterfly is most effective for goalies who are fairly large and have strong legs.

I am a pretty big guy - six feet tall and 200 pounds. I play with a fairly wide stance. Players think because I am in a wide stance that they can score on me down low. This isn’t true, but that is an issue for Goaltending 102. I am also a fairly aggressive goaltender and not afraid to come out to challenge people. My style is heavily slanted towards the butterfly.

However, not everyone is six feet tell and 26 inches wide . . . that’s at my shoulders, not my gut . . . so pure butterfly goaltending is not going to universally be the best choice. Shorter players will need to play in more of an upright position. However, just because you aren’t tall doesn’t mean you should abandon the butterfly altogether. I wouldn’t recommend pure standup goaltending for anyone. Modern goalies should utilize all of the tools at their disposal. The butterfly is the proven best method to protect the bottom of the net.

Certainly as you progress you will need to develop your own blend of techniques and create a style that fits you best. To limit yourself to a single style would be a mistake. Now we move on to the last hurdle, the one that separates the goalies from the skaters, price.

Making the Investment
Again, if there is equipment that you can borrow, it is far better to have some idea of your personal style before you spend a small fortune on gear. Next to Polo (on horses, not in the water), Ice hockey goalie is probably the most expensive position in team sports. It is always a mistake that ends up costing more money in the end when new goalies buy gear that seems like a good deal without having played the game before and knowing what their personal requirements are in gear.

My personal advice is to spend the largest portion of your budget on three items, the helmet, chest protector and leg pads. The reason for buying an expensive helmet should be self-evident. In my case there was evidently some brain damage and possibly insanity before picking up the game. If that’s you as well, keep what portion of your mind is still sound and functional safe! The chest protector is where the majority of painful shots tend to come. I mentioned the broken shoulder, right? Cheap chest and arm protectors don’t get the job done.

Lastly the leg pads (by the way, don’t call them kickers, it makes the salespeople snicker behind your back). If you’ve made the decision to play predominately stand-up style goalie, you can buy the cheapest things you can find, even rolled up newspaper might suffice. Rolled up newspaper was in fact what differentiated goalies from forwards until about the 1920s, but I don’t honestly recommend it now.

Stand-up goalies will find adequate protection in even street hockey pads. However, hybrid and butterfly goalies will need something other than hard ice for their knees to land on. Repeated impacts on the ice are painful to say the least. Spend some money on goal pads with adequate knee cradles. Carefully consider whether you like the idea of your knees coming down on a very hard surface with only the knee cradle to support you as you look at pads.

Playing goalie isn’t cheap until after you have the gear. Most places let goalies play free. It is a small consolation for having to shell out more than $2000 for a decent set of gear. Oh, now I’ve gone and done it again, striking fear into your heart with a big number. Still, I wouldn’t expect to get passable gear even at the entry level for much less than half of that price.

There is a lot to think about before you make a decision on buying gear. Once you make that decision there is a lot more to think about as far as what gear to buy. But if you’ve read this far, maybe you have the mental toughness, the desire to work hard on the ice, the willingness to develop your own unique style and the checkbook to back it all up.

I imagine that in the end playing goalie doesn’t cost much more than playing a forward position. The fees for ice times add up in a hurry at the going rate of $10 an hour for drop in skates here and about $750 annually for league fees. Not paying those fees as a goalie is definitely a perk.

Really, it all comes down to fun and exercise though. My experience has given me a great deal of both. Sure there have been some bumps and bruises, but there have been shutouts, scrambles and glove saves that I will never forget. And hey, after a little surgery, my knees are far better than they were fifteen years ago.

Well, that’s enough to think about for this installment, which commemorates review number 100 for me. Thanks for reading, and look for Goaltending 102, with actual tips on how to play the game for review number 125 in a few weeks.

Here it is as promised: Ice Hockey Goaltending 102: First Day Between the Pipes

. . . and part 3: Goaltending 201: The Fine Art of Cheating

Also see: Impress your friends- talk like a hockey player

Also check out my article on goalie equipment: Fitting Goalie Gear with links to all my goalie equipment reviews.

Battram Custom Goalie Equipment

© 2005 Scott Noble – All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.

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