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Why Can’t You Hit the Goalie?

November 17, 2011 |  by  |  Featured, Sports

The debate on whether or not the goalie should be ‘fair game’ when he leaves his crease was recently rekindled in spectacular fashion when Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic hit Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller during their game on November 12th.

Sports writers’ column-inches, normally intimidatingly large at this time of year, are suddenly frightfully claustrophobic.

It was a relatively common play that developed at about the two-thirds mark of the first period: Lucic and Miller were each racing for the puck, Miller getting there first, swatting it aside. What made this particular play uncommon was the fact that Lucic did not lay up or try to avoid Miller, as is almost always the case. Instead Lucic held his course, braced for impact, and plowed into Miller, sending the goalie cartwheeling, his mask flying.

Miller didn’t play the third period, but stuck around to give NHL fans and wags a rare treat indeed: an honest interview, one entirely devoid of tired platitudes or sports clichés; Miller called Milan Lucic a “Gutless piece of shit.”

During the sleepy days of mid-November hockey, the hit by Lucic and the ensuing lambasting by Miller serve up high-drama indeed. Sports writers’ column-inches, normally intimidatingly large at this time of year, are suddenly frightfully claustrophobic, radio call-in programs have their lines lit up by countless armchair Bettmans and Shanahans, and office coffee kitchens have seen sharp rises in the attendance at daily hockey-talk scrums. The only topic of discussion of course is “Why can’t you hit the goalie?”, the Lucic-Miller Incident serving as nucleation point for the issue that has always been simmering on the back of the hot-stove.

I’ll dip my oar into these muddied waters, I’ll explain why you absolutely cannot allow goalies to be hit.

I’ve often asked the question; I’ve wondered why should goalies be treated any differently from players when outside their crease. But as someone who became a goalie rather late in life, I’ve found a new perspective on the conventional wisdom and arcane mystery that surrounds the hockey goaltender.

And so, with this somewhat unique viewpoint, I’ll dip my oar into these muddied waters, I’ll explain why you absolutely cannot allow goalies to be hit.

Goalies are Vulnerable

They may not look it, wearing 45lbs of protective equipment, but goaltenders are incredibly vulnerable. It’s not obvious when looking at them in their suit of armor, but essentially all of that protection is facing forward. To a very close approximation, a goalie has zero protection on his sides and back. No shoulder or rib protection, nothing protecting the spine or back, only that which is absolutely required to stop a puck.

When involved in a collision, wearing goalie gear can be far more dangerous than wearing nothing at all.

When you think about this it makes sense, goalie gear is heavy and bulky, it affects movement greatly. Anything that can be shaved off without affecting puck-stopping will help the goalie’s mobility, ultimately helping make saves.

And also, as illustrated by the image of the Lucic-Miller hit and the video below, a goalie’s mask is attached to his head rather loosely by elastic straps. They are designed this way in order to absorb the impact of a puck, with the unfortunate side-effect of often being knocked off when involved in a collision.

Miller suffered a mild concussion from the hit. While it’s unclear, it could very well be due, not to the initial hit, but to the small bump his head made on the ice when he laid down after it. Fortunately, Miller’s concussion appears to be relatively minor (as minor as concussions can be). However, as the terrible case of Don Sanderson recently illustrated, having a goalie’s mask knocked off in a collision can be extremely dangerous.

Okay, no surprise so far, goalie gear is meant to protect from puck impacts. What’s worse though, is that when involved in a collision, wearing goalie gear can be far more dangerous than wearing nothing at all.

That 45lbs of equipment is quite bulky and hangs out in front of the body. This results in the goalie’s centre of mass being considerably off-balance from the regular human body or even a skater’s in his gear. It’s no coincidence that goalies tend to walk like very pregnant women, they are considerably imbalanced. This imbalance, coupled with the fact that goalies are wearing giant mattresses on their legs, can make it far more difficult to protect oneself by falling safely.

The bulk of the equipment can lead to some rather awkward falls, but where it can be truly dangerous is when the equipment goes one way, but the goalie’s body goes another. For example, almost all goaltenders have their legs tied to their pads at the foot. In order to butterfly though, these pads are free to rotate about the leg, until of course, stopped by the toe-ties. However, if conditions are right, even a relatively minor impact, can put a goalie out of commission for the season, even a career.

In the video above Brian Boucher is involved in a fairly low impact collision in which he sprained both his knees. If you watch the over-head angle at the 1:10 mark, you’ll see why. When Boucher’s teammate falls atop him, he is flattened to his back between his feet, with his pads held flat against the ice, their toes pointed out to the side. Because Boucher is tied into his pads, his toes are also forced outward. I speak from experience when I say that your legs cannot bend in such a way where your heels touch your hips and your toes are pointed outward. Legs cannot do that, the weak link, the knees, tear to shreds.

Fortunately for Boucher, his double MCL strain wasn’t as bad as it could have been. However, others have been less lucky. No small number of goalies have had their careers ended, or significantly affected by serious injury due to relatively minor impact.

The main reason why you have to protect the goaltender is that they are more vulnerable than any other player on the ice. Of course, that reason alone won’t suffice for the Milburys of the world or for those for who share their blustery viewpoints. For these types, an increased rate of injury to the players is not sufficient reason to disallow the hitting.

Injured Goalies are Bad for the Game

Players are growing bigger and faster, their equipment is constantly getting lighter, more maneuverable, allowing them to shoot harder and more accurately. Yet despite this upward trend in shooter skill, goals have been decreasing. The explanation for this is largely due to a renaissance in goaltending that started in earnest with Patrick Roy and his butterfly.

Patrick Roy Stanley Cup

Patrick Roy (pictured here without fingers in his ears) hoists his second Stanley Cup.

Now more than at any time in hockey history, the goaltender is the most important player on the ice. Teams live and die by the quality of their netminder, fans look at a blowout as a failure of just one of the twenty players on the team, and as a result, the goalie is usually pulling in superstar-level salary.

Even outstanding goaltending can’t save a terrible team effort, but merely average goaltending can turn a win into a loss.

There are many in the hockey world that think goalies have gotten too good, that a ‘lack of scoring’ is hurting the game. Proposals surface from time to time, suggesting that the size of the goalie equipment be drastically reduced or the size of the net increased, all with the aim to increase scoring.

What proponents of these ideas don’t understand though is that scoring isn’t what makes hockey exciting. Instead it’s Scoring Chances that make the game thrilling. Being surprised when a weak shot beats the goalie isn’t nearly as suspenseful or exciting as watching a breakaway or a 2-on-1 develop, or seeing a skater race toward the back-door, hoping to blast a one-timer past a diving goalie.

Reimer Diving Save

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer makes a diving save in an inevitable loss to the Washington Capitals.

Whether or not one thinks it is a good thing, it is undeniable that the goalie’s effect on team performance is monumental. Even outstanding goaltending can’t save a terrible team effort, but merely average goaltending can turn a win into a loss.

The top 60 or so goalies in the world are playing in the NHL, and the skill discrepancy between the top and the bottom, even among the top 10 goalies, is huge. If the injury rate were to increase, the overall skill level of active goalies would reduce dramatically.

The pinnacle of any sport is best-on-best competition. Anything that would increase the chances of the best and most important players sitting out with injury, would only serve to diminish the game.

Injured Goalies are Bad for Teams

As has been evidenced by the recent surge in concern over player concussions, reaching a fever pitch just after the biggest cash-cow star in the game suffered one because he wasn’t looking where he was skating, the owners of the league are very keen to protect their investments.

Even if you don’t care whether more goalies become injured, whatever your feelings on the relative worth or importance of the goaltender, you must understand and appreciate their value as assets to teams. When a team pays many millions of dollars for something, whether a superstar goalie or the world’s fanciest whirlpool machine, it is imperative that they can make use of that asset.


⌘-v: Rick DiPietro is injured.

Every dollar on the injured reserve list serves no value whatsoever, it is money flushed down the toilet. Worse, if a team has a Six Million Dollar Man out with injury, that money is still eating up precious salary cap space. Improper management of that cap space, bad luck, or both (see Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders above), can doom a team to mediocrity for years.

All other considerations aside, General Managers and owners simply can’t afford to increase the already high risk of injury for their extremely valuable goaltender assets.

Goalies Will Always Be Special

I understand the sentiment: “If the goalie leaves his crease, he must accept that he’ll be hit.” That’s an inherently fair way to play. Unfortunately the fairness of that proposition is outweighed by the monumental practical implications of making goalies ‘fair game’.

In the real world, the goaltender is special. They wear special gear, they are subject to special rules, they have special talents, they have a very special effect on the team’s performance, and of course they are subject to special treatment by their teammates, dictated by a host of strange and mysterious superstitions and customs.

It shouldn’t be surprising or worrying that goalies need special protection on the ice.

Protect the Goalie

Evidence that the Sabres once knew about protecting the goalie.

How Does the League Protect the Goalie?

The rules of hockey state that players must essentially do everything in their power to avoid colliding with the goalie. Hopefully the above will illustrate why that is a good thing. The question becomes one of what to do if a player doesn’t try to avoid the goalie, as Lucic most certainly did not. Let us make no bones about it, Lucic absolutely, without shadow of a doubt, intentionally hit Miller. Suggestions otherwise are sophistry of the highest degree.

Personally, I understand why there was no suspension, because there’s no real precedent for it. But there needs to be, and very soon. The league has officially endorsed Lucic’s play, categorizing it no differently than a hooking penalty in the form of a mild tug on the wrists. That’s dangerous for goalies, the game, and for every team’s multi-million dollar goaltending investments.

The GMs need to address this very soon, or it will be open season on goalies. Fortunately, it appears that these discussions are taking place. Unfortunately, even stiff suspensions won’t change the fundamental problem at hand.

Punishment is not Prevention

The league is currently struggling with some serious changes to the way the game is played. It has become necessary to make new rules and identify new suspension criteria where before it was not necessary. In years past, the players did a fairly good job of policing their own conduct, ensuring that nobody did anything egregiously harmful to each other as a whole.

The folksy days of hockey players looking out for one another, sometimes with tough love, are long gone.

Certainly stupid, non-hockey-related violations did occur, but when they did, the matter would be addressed by players on the other team (in a line brawl) as well as by players on the same team (behind closed doors).

Broad Street Bullies Line Brawl

The Broad Street Bullies discuss the Hockey Code with the Vancouver Canucks

It may seem ironic to suggest that players beating on each other is actually an important part of maintaining a healthy respect among players, that fighting in hockey actually keeps players safe, but one has to understand the climate.

To function at the elite level of hockey, teams must be at war with each other, players must compete at the very limit of their capacity for violence. But that violence must be controlled, contained within the bounds of the sport. On the ice, there must be a code of conduct which prevents players from doing seriously unacceptable acts. The threat of being beaten up by the other team isn’t what prevents these acts.

Instead, it is the core value system instilled in a player throughout their hockey lives, the ethos that certain acts are so wholly unacceptable, they require immediate violent reaction. It is this code of immediate, visceral outrage which actually prevents players from acting out themselves. They understand at the cellular level what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable in hockey and what is not. They learn this in the trenches with their comrades. It becomes internalized. It keeps the unacceptable barbarity out of the war.

At least it used to.

Now however, we’re seeing a sharp rise in the number of seriously injurious actions that players are visiting upon each other across the board. Hockey has always been a tough game, but there used to be a code. The folksy days of hockey players looking out for one another, sometimes with tough love, are long gone.

What Happened to the Hockey Code?

What Lucic did violated a very important hockey-player code of conduct, an unwritten rule which carries far more weight among players than the one which is written in the rule book. The goalies are protected, they always have been, everybody knows that. But Lucic decided to play otherwise.

You can bet Tim Thomas didn’t like what Lucic did.

For me, much more worrying than Lucic’s indiscretion was the absolutely shameful response from the Buffalo Sabres. They did nothing. They did nothing immediately afterward, and they did nothing in the 45 minutes of play following the incident. Tim Thomas said that he was expecting to get hit in reprisal, but surprisingly never did. That’s usually all but automatic. As a goalie I understand this all too well; the one thing I ask of my teams is to not run the other goalie, knowing that I will be the target of retribution.

Lucic broke an important part of the hockey players’ code, but the breach in that code that the Buffalo Sabres made was even more serious. Standing up for one’s team, and especially one’s goalie is a big part of the bedrock foundation of that code. But that solidarity was nowhere to be found among the Sabres players on the ice or on the bench. That they did absolutely nothing after seeing Lucic barrel over their goalie demonstrates a very worrying state of affairs among today’s hockey players.

I’m hopeful that this code isn’t completely dead. I have faith that there are enough veterans and true hockey players in the League that there can be a renaissance in the respect shown for one another. No rule changes, no suspensions will ever make that happen, it can only come about if players league-wide hold each other accountable to that code. You can bet that Tim Thomas didn’t like what Lucic did. I just hope he talks to him about it.    

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