Evolution of the goalie

Goaltenders such as Dwayne Roloson of the Edmonton Oilers (pictured) and Carolina Hurricanes'
Cam...

Goaltenders such as Dwayne Roloson of the Edmonton Oilers (pictured) and Carolina Hurricanes' Cam Ward have learned many ways to use the mask to their advantage. (Edmonton Sun File/David Bloom)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

You don't have to delve very far into hockey history to make contact with the days when goalies didn't wear masks.

Jim Rutherford, the general manager of the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, didn't wear one for much of his career.

In fact, when goalie masks started to become the norm in the 1970s, there still was considerable opposition.

Toe Blake, the legendary coach of the Montreal Canadiens, regarded them as heresy, and before games, debates often would rage in the media lounge.

One night, after a game in which Michel Laroque had taken a screamer off the mask, someone said to Blake, "If Bunny hadn't had a mask on for that one, he'd have been killed."

Blake was resolute. "If he hadn't had a mask on, he'd have seen it coming," he said.

But the advent of the mask did more than change the look of the game. It changed the style of goaltending.

Goaltenders always had been urged to stand up and stay standing. But with the mask providing a degree of invulnerability, goalies started to crouch. For the first time, they would routinely have their head below the crossbar. Not only did this tactic allow them to cover more of the net, it also meant that they needed less time to flop to the ice to block a shot.

As a result, the butterfly style evolved. The goalie covered the entire bottom section of the net with his pads, and much of the remainder with his body. He sacrificed upper-body mobility, but that no longer mattered much. If he got hit in the face, the mask would prevent him from serious injury.

But "serious" is the key word there. The early masks, which hugged the face and were not particularly well padded, provided limited protection.

The above-mentioned Larocque never started a playoff game in Montreal, primarily because he was the backup to Ken Dryden. On the one occasion he was scheduled to start, a shot off the stick of Doug Risebrough in the pre-game warmup hit him on the mask and sent him to hospital.

But like everything else in hockey, the goalie mask evolved. Today, it provides so much protection that even baseball catchers have taken to using modified versions. They find it much better than the old barred variety of catcher's mask.

For one thing, today's goalie mask provides protection where none existed before -- to the side of the head.

"It doesn't matter where you get hit now," Buffalo Sabres goaltender Martin Biron said. "In the front or the side, it doesn't matter. You don't feel it."

And with professional hockey being as competitive as it is, it didn't take long for goaltenders to use that fact to their advantage. Although fans might not notice it very often because of the speed at which the puck moves, many a shot is intentionally stopped by the goalie's head.

"It's something you learn as a goaltender," Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward said. "Outside of the rink, you're doing your best to get out of the way of anything coming at your head. It's just a natural reaction. But on the ice, you're doing your best to stay put and take it off the bean."

In most cases, the mask is still tight to the goalie's face as it was in its early stages of evolution. But now, the padding is so effective that the impact of the shot is absorbed.

But some goalies -- and Dwayne Roloson of the Edmonton Oilers is the most notorious -- wear the mask very loose.

In a scramble, Roloson can give a quick toss of his head and the mask will come off. In that situation, under National Hockey League rules, play has to be stopped.

But on the other side of the coin, Roloson's mask sometimes slips to the side and he's forced to frantically try to get it back into place while play continues.

Either way, goalies feel comfortable diving head-first into a scrum to grab a loose puck, a tactic they would have avoided a few years ago.

It's the old story. Better equipment means better performance.


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