The Evolution of the Goalie

By: Brynn Smith

The goalie position has been a vital part of the game of ice hockey since the introduction of the sport to Montreal in the seventeenth century. While the origins of the game may lie elsewhere, Canada is undoubtedly the birthplace of developed hockey. The first organized game was played in 1875 and the netminder has been there from the beginning.
Responsible for preventing the puck from sliding into their own net, the goalie is arguably the most important player on any ice hockey team. And, since the first game of professional hockey was played in 1917, that position has been evolving.

In the beginning stages of the National Hockey League, the rules required the goalie to remain standing in their net or take a minor penalty. A rule that resulted in some pretty high-scoring matchups. Not to mention the fact that netminders had to serve their own penalties up until the 1941-1942 season, which left their defenseman to guard their open net.
This facet of the game changed fairly quickly. Less than a month after the first NHL game, Frank Calder, the league president, announced that goalies were permitted “to adopt any attitude [they pleased] in stopping a shot.” Without this rule change, modern hockey would look very different. The inability to leave their feet would have impacted the goaltender position irreparably, never growing into the styles present on the ice today.
Instead, hockey fans saw the development of goaltending styles, gear, and importance to the game. For the next 50 years, standup goaltending was the preferred way to play the game. Netminders were expected to stay on their feet, an attitude that was reinforced by coaches. But several goalies went down in history for developing their own styles. Ones that took hold of the league, and are now the principal way to play the goalie position.

Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito are widely credited with evolving the butterfly and using it effectively. Patrick Roy really adapted the style for his own in the 1980s, combining the standup technique with the butterfly. Allowing him to stay on his feet for the high shots, but drop into the butterfly for pucks on the ice. This style is used throughout the league today by the likes of Carey Price and Tuukka Rask.
The athletic butterfly is another technique used by contemporary goalies. Brought to prominence by Toronto Maple Leaf Mike Palmateer in the 70s, the athletic butterfly blends size, athleticism, and the catching of pucks. Used by professionals like Sergei Bobrovsky and Jonathan Quick, this style can be quite effective when used by the right individual.
The third technique used by netminders in today’s NHL is the blocking style. Using their bodies to block the shot, there is very little chance for error. Take away the net and they take away the goal. Adapted by Jean Sebastian Giguere in the early 2000s, players like Corey Crawford continue to use this technique today.
While these are the three most popular styles for a goalie to employ on the ice, they aren’t the only effective ones. Dominik Hasek made a career out of flopping and scrambling for a puck. Martin Brodeur handled every puck that came to him with skill, inside and outside the crease. The position of the hockey goaltender has gone through a great many changes and will continue to as the game of hockey evolves.
Not only has the way a netminder plays the game transformed, but the gear they use to play has, as well. The goalie mask first appeared on the face of Japan’s Teiji Honma in the 1936 Winter Olympics.

The protective gear would not make an appearance in the National Hockey League until 1959.

The protective gear would not make an appearance in the National Hockey League until 1959. Worn by Jaques Plante after taking a puck to the face in regulation he refused to get back on the ice without some form of protection. Despite being admonished by fans, Plante continued to wear the mask. After proving its effectiveness and the fact that it did not hinder his play, Plante led his team to an 18-game win streak. The popularity of the mask grew from there.

Jaques Plante

Gerry Cheevers, Ken Dryden, and Phil Esposito made creative changes to the mask that have aided in the design of today’s goalie masks, like the goalie art, the shape, and a cage over the mask. USSR goaltender Vladislav Tretiak popularized the birdcage, the concept of adding a metal cage to the mask. With the shots getting harder and faster, goalies began opting for as much protection as possible. Netminders were sheltered from the puck when designers added fiberglass and a cage to help absorb impact. The mask, along with the evolution of their other pads, protects the netminder while also allowing them to play their best game. It was an extremely important milestone in the game of ice hockey.

While the goaltender position has gone through many changes in 100 plus years of professional hockey, their purpose hasn’t faltered. They prevent the puck from going in the net and the other team from scoring. Through the evolution of styles and gear, they have been able to do that even more efficiently.