One criticism non-hockey fans tend to throw out is that hockey isn’t a great team sport because a team can ride a hot goalie all the way to a championship. Certainly, the legendary playoff performances of the likes of Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Patrick Roy, Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick over the years have been instrumental and even in some cases solely responsible for Stanley Cup wins. And then there are the performances of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ron Hextall, who won Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVPs even though their teams lost in the finals.
But even setting aside those exceptional feats, having a quality goalie is crucial to NHL team success. That’s not to minimize the contributions of the forwards and defensemen on a team, but the goalie is the last line of defense. Time and again, you see teams with below-average goalies struggle and conversely you see teams that have over-achieved thanks to a high-performing goaltender. Case in point: the Maple Leafs of the late ’90s/early ’00s relied on dominant keepers Curtis Joseph and Eddie Belfour to put together contending teams despite being somewhat shaky in their own end.
Which brings me to the thesis of this post: Is hockey goalie the most important position in sports? The most obvious comparison is soccer goalie, but the biggest difference there is the number of shots faced. A hockey goalie will face anywhere from 20 to 50 shots in a game, while a soccer goalie will only see about 10 shots; that’s setting aside the huge difference in the comparative size of the object each one is trying to stop. An argument can be made that the quarterback is the most important position in sports, but certainly teams can succeed with average QBs if they’ve got a great running game or an airtight defense. And pitchers are very important in baseball, but a starter only pitches every five days and a reliever only pitches for a short period of time in each game.
The pressure faced by hockey goalies can be intense. There’s not a lot of margin of error. One minor slip-up or mistimed move and the puck’s in the net. It’s especially difficult if the goalie allows a goal on the first shot of the game; if your team’s struggling, giving up a goal early in a game or right after your team just scored can have a devastating effect on a goalie’s team. Nothing takes the air out of a team (or an arena if it’s the home team) like a soft or untimely goal allowed by the goalie. And who takes the brunt of the fans’ disdain if he has a bad game? Yep, it’s the guy in the mask.
There are plenty of factors beyond a goalie’s control, like the traffic in front of the net, deflections or even just the quality of the team playing in front of him. You’ve got well-meaning teammates who try to block a shot and cause a tricky deflection or simply block the goalie’s view of an oncoming shot. You’ve got opposing players crashing the net like a giant bowling ball and you’ve got howitzers blasted at you by guys like Ovechkin, Weber, Chara and Stamkos. Even with all that equipment on, goalies are putting themselves at risk. Remember the Al MacInnis slapper that broke goalie Jocelyn Thibeault’s finger, went through the catching glove and into the net?
It takes a special kind of personality to be a goalie. In addition to being an excellent athlete, you’ve got to be unflappable under pressure, you need to be able to let criticism roll off your back and you need to be a little bit crazy to be willing to get in the way of vulcanized rubber pucks being fired at upwards of 100 mph. From Gump Worsley to Gilles Gratton to Ilya Bryzgalov, there have been plenty of outsized characters who have pulled on goalie masks (or not, in the case of Worsley) in the NHL.
It’s not a position for the weak-hearted. There are goalies who get as far as the NHL before they realize they’re not cut out for the position, at least at the highest level. Take Blaine Lacher, who led his team at Lake Superior State University to a national championship in 1994 and then had a terrific rookie season with the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately for Lacher, he struggled in his sophomore season and within two years was out of hockey altogether.
The game is as much mental as physical for goalies. Jonathan Bernier started the season as Toronto’s #1 netminder but was a brutal 0-8-1 before he was benched for rookie Garret Sparks and then sent to the minors for a 10-day “conditioning stint.” Bernier had gotten into such a funk that Leaf fans became accustomed to seeing him allow soul-crushing goals from impossible angles and ridiculous distances. In his first two games with the AHL Toronto Marlies, Bernier has two shutouts, so maybe he’s getting his mojo back. Meanwhile, the Leafs are dealing with an injury to their current top goalie, James Reimer (who’s seen his share of ups and downs over the last few years) and are starting a goalie tandem (Sparks and Antoine Bibeau) that has a combined total of three games of NHL experience (three for Sparks, none for Bibeau).
Some coaches will lean on a workhorse goalie to carry the bulk of the load, while others prefer a tandem that splits the games. Then you’ve got a coach like Mike Keenan, who has never hesitated to pull a goalie on a whim, whether to punish an underperforming keeper or shake things up when his team’s having an off game. Now coaching in Russia’s KHL, he’s still at it, making two goalie changes in three minutes a few years back.
Whether it’s in the days before face masks, the high-scoring ‘80s and early ‘90s or the current age of bigger goalies and bigger equipment, hockey goalies are under the most pressure of anyone in current professional sports. Think about that the next time you rip into a goalie for a bad performance.