The Art of Ice-Hockey Goaltending

An Atlantic editor and former goalie talks tactics
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The Montreal Canadiens' Jacques Plante returns to the game wearing a mask after being struck in the face by a puck at Madison Square Garden on November 1, 1959.

There's a myth about hockey goalies, one Chris Koentges's story here in The Atlantic this month both entertains and questions: that we are, at least a shade, insane.

When Koentges asks the Finnish goaltending legend Upi Ylönen whether there's any truth to the myth, Ylönen snaps. "Hey, hey, hey!" he says. "Good habits or bad habits, goalies need to be able ... to live in the present situation. Whatever happens, they need to be able to live in the present situation. A goalie only lives from moment to moment. He can't hold on."

My sense has always been that apparent craziness is an effect of what goalies do, more than actual craziness is a cause. Hockey goaltending is an extreme sport inside an extreme sport: Your job is to go out on the ice and get in the way of a frozen hard-rubber disc that moves faster than anything you directly interact with in your normal life. (A slapshot can come at you at 100 MPH if the shooter leans in.) You're on your own with it. And when you get beat? That's when your whole team gets beat. You can't do all of that without a ... distinct kind of mindset.

But you can't do it without the right tactical repertoire, either. This means training your body to react to certain situations in certain ways. In a super-rapid, highly fluid game, it also means forgetting that training in a split second and doing something even you would never predict. These are the dual aspects of the goalie's game that Koentges's story explores: mindset and tactics, the invisible and the visible.

There's a style of play that became modal in Canadian hockey with the ascendency of the Montreal Canadiens' Patrick Roy during the '90s and into the 2000s—and that Ylönen is especially critical of: "butterfly" goaltending. This is a style developed around a core move, where the goalie drops to the ice, keeping his knees together while splaying his legs out as much as possible to each side.

Here's Roy stopping a shot with a butterfly save:

Ylönen's criticism of butterfly goaltending is interesting: It isn't that the tactic is bad (every tactic has it's advantages and disadvantages); it's that any style of play that's overly dependent on any one tactic is bad. Tactical dependence can give a goalie confidence, if the tactic you depend on is effective. But it can also make you vulnerable, if your opponents figure out how to exploit your reliance on it.

The advantage of the butterfly, especially for a big goalie like Roy, is that it can block the bottom half of the net, where the highest percentage of shots are directed. So if you're good at it, as Roy was, you're good at playing the odds.

Here you can see Roy stop an initial shot with a butterfly save—and then shuffle across the net in butterfly position, stopping a series of low rebound shots:

I'd emphasize, I don't think the butterfly style introduced tactical dependency as such into Canadian goaltending. It's more that it changed Canadian goalies' tactical preferences. Once upon a time, it was a maxim in Canada that goalies should stay on their feet, and so stay mobile, as much as possible.

See, for example, how Terry Sawchuck (playing here for the Detroit Red Wings back in the '50s) handles this low, blocker-side shot:

Or check out how Bernie Parent (who backstopped the Philadelphia Flyers through their glory years in the 1970s), maybe one of the most elegant goalies ever, moves around the crease while fending off the puck:

Parent relied on his "stand-up" game as much as Roy ever relied on the butterfly.

Of course, many goalies have played over the decades with combined, even idiosyncratic styles. The best Russian goaltender ever, Vladislav Tretiak (he started for Central Red Army and the Soviet national team from the late '60s into the mid '80s—and recently lit the Olympic Flame in Sochi), for instance, used a "crab stance," distributing his weight in a way that allowed him to stay on his feet or lunge quickly:

The Czech Dominic Hasek had his own style. The American Mike Richter had his. But neither of them, any more than Roy or Parent—or Finland's Mikka Kiprusoff—or any other of the game's greats, were as successful as they were on account of mastering a set style. What they mastered was a repertoire that let them optimize their reflexes across a range of different circumstances—often circumstances as as instant and crazy as this:

... or this:

And the only way they could do that, the only way to make it all work, was also to master the flow of their own feelings under constant, intense pressure. But then, we might ultimately understand this part of the game better in terms of release than of mastery. It's about letting go: letting go of fear, letting go of shame. That's what Ylönen means by "living in the present situation." Tretiak once put it to me as a point of irony: A good goalie knows how to stop the puck; a great goalie knows how to get up and keep playing after he lets it in.

 

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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