Sunday, January 16, 2011

Warning: Boring hockey talk...unless you're a goalie

I'm a long way from being an expert on goaltending, but I did play the position for about 30 years and then helped my son William learn to play it well enough that he was an all-conference goalie in high school. And it's that generational difference that I want to focus on a bit.

I'm bringing this up because the Wild are currently without their top two goaltenders - Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore - because both are having soreness in their hips. Two years ago Backstrom had surgery to repair a torn labrum (the cartilage in the hip joint), and this week the Gophers also saw goalie Alex Kangas have his collegiate career ended by labrum surgery.

Hip problems are becoming a bit of an epidemic among goaltenders, and what was originally thought to simply be a lack of stretching and conditioning among goalies now appears to be something entirely different: A certain style of goaltending appears to be causing the problem. To learn more, let's go down memory lane a bit.

For most of the modern hockey era, goalies were told it was best to stay on their feet. Dropping to your knees to make a save was considered bad form. An old-time coach - I believe it was Emile Francis of the Rangers, but I'm not sure - would even have his goalies practice with a rope that was tied to the cross bar on one end, and to the goalie's neck on the other - to keep his goalies from "going down." That was the style, and we tended to look like this:

If a shot was on the ice, goalies were expected to turn their skates out and deflect the puck away from the net, looking like Ken Dryden here:

or Doug Favell here:

We moved side to side - sort of like those little goalies on table hockey games - always expected to be on our feet.

Sometime in the 1970s, that began to change. It's unclear who really started it - some people credit Chicago Blackhawks goalie Tony Esposito, others give credit to the Soviet great Vladislav Tretiak - but gradually a number of goalies began using something called the "butterfly" to stop pucks.

The butterfly involved dropping to your knees while letting your pads spread out on the ice, creating a wall to stop the puck. It looks like this:

Or this:

Regardless of who started it, the "butterfly style" style really came into prominence with the arrival of Patrick Roy. Playing first for Montreal, and later for Colorado (winning Stanley Cups in both places) Roy was able to drop into his butterfly, make a save and pop right back up. Roy had been coached at a young age by another French-Canadien, Francois Allaire, and Roy's success turned Allaire into a goaltending guru. He opened goalie camps and taught an entire generation of young goalies to makes saves from the butterfly position.

The butterfly drop itself is kind of an unnatural motion; Try dropping to your knees and having your legs spread out in different directions and see how it feels. In the early 1980s, when I was a sportswriter as well as an amateur goalie, I was invited to spend an afternoon on the ice with Ladislav Horsky, the godfather of Czechoslovakian hockey, who was working at a camp in River Falls, Wisc. He was teaching the butterfly style to a group of goalies. I was on the ice in my pads, and couldn't figure out how to make my legs move that way

(Side note: Horsky returned to Europe a few weeks later, and died the next year. I think I was the last North American journalist to interview him.)

But Patrick Roy - as you can learn in this Sports Illustrated piece from 2009 - had no trouble learning how to splay his legs out. His mother was a swim coach who taught him to swim the breaststroke, and the frog-kick motion came naturally to him. Under Allaire's guidance, Roy figured out how to cover the ice with his pads (where most goals were being scored) while leaving his torso and gloves to stop the higher shots.

Roy became a revolutionary figure in goaltending. Watch film in slow motion, and you can see him dropping into his butterfly even as the shooter was still winding up. It became the most efficient way to cover the majority of the 4 x 6-foot goal opening.

Almost overnight, goalies were dropping into the butterfly all the time, for most of the shots in practice and most of the shots in games. For even a high school goalie that up-and-down motion coule be repeated thousands of times in a single season

What we're now learning is that the butterfly motion is particularly hard on the hips. The medical stuff is way above my pay grade, but boils down to something like this: The femur - the big bone between the knee and hip - has a ball-shaped joint at the top, which connects to the cup-shaped joint at the hip bone. Every time a goalie drops into a butterfly, the ball rotates in the cup, and can begin to wear away the cartilage - known as the labrum - that protects the joint. The joint looks like this:
It doesn't hurt at first because there are no nerves in the joint. The pain only begins after the repetitive motion gradually wears away the cartilage and leads to a tear in the labrum. Then burden of protecting the joint then falls to the muscles around the area, and that increased strain leads to chronic groin pulls.

Performing the butterfly isn't the only thing that causes the problem. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of athletes from all sports who have required hip surgery - Alex Rodriguez, Michelle Kwan, Greg Norman, just to name a few - and some medical experts now think that overtraining of the legs leads to increased stress on the hips and labrum problems.

It seems unlikely that goalie coaches are going to stop teaching the butterfly technique, but it now comes with a warning that all of those spectacular saves are likely to come with a price further down the road.


  1. Oh, the days when you had to actually try to stop a Jonathan Cheechoo shot...

  2. Funny that the first photo is of "Mr. Goalie",Glenn Hall,who is in fact the man who invented the "butterfly" style of goaltending. I cannot even watch Gary Bettman's NHL. It basically consists of one team shooting the puck into the opponent's end,chasing it down,hopefully gaining possession,then playing pinball around the boards(even though this doesn't have a thing to do with getting a shot on net-the object of the game)at which point,if they're lucky,they may possibly,perhaps,maybe get a shot on net.They are then faced with a Michelin man who is wearing enough equipment to stop a bazooka(remember when goalie equipment was for protection,not cheating?)and who's first move is to drop to his knees-most times BEFORE the shot is even taken!And they call this goaltending?I long for the days when,as mentioned above,they actually had to try to stop the shot.And all this is only if the refs don't call one of their lame league mandated hooking calls(another Bettman special).As Gordie once said if you can pull a man down with one hand on on your stick he shouldn't be in the NHL.And don't even get me started on the soccer shootout,glowing pucks....arghhh!Nice job Gary,way to screw up our game.He can call it his game all he wants,everybody in Canada knows "his" game has little to do with the game we grew up with.Watch the 1976 Canada Cup if you're unconvinced.Beautiful passing,rough but not dirty play,normal sized equipment worn for protection(not to injure somebody),normal size goalies. And just by watching the way the game is played by all teams involved you can see the whole overarching idea is GO FOR THE NET!No pinball here(it also doesn't hurt having all-time greats like Hull and Orr demonstrating the beauty of the game.)The contrast between these games and this garbage Bettman has forced on us is striking.And 20-goal scorers being paid $5 million a year?!!Well that was certainly worth shutting down the league for a year,wasn't it Gary? i could go on and on but i think i've made my point.Thanks for letting me vent.

  3. Another fact about "Mr Goalie".Many people know of Glenn's consecutive games streak,which ran for over 7 years-502 games.What is not as widely known is that for 4 years of minor hockey prior to that he also never missed a game.All told,including pre-season and playoffs,and as accurately as can be determined from records of the time,Glenn Hall played goal in 881 consecutive games-WITHOUT A MASK!Today's so-called goaltenders -in fact all of today's players- can't even relate to that.Talk about tough!This fact more than anything is why they call him "Mr Goalie".And to think he had to face the Hull brothers firing rockets at him every practice....