Analysis of the Corey Hirsch goalie equipment reduction proposal

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sportsnet.ca

On Wednesday, Sportsnet Canada aired a controversial (albeit, well produced) piece on how to drastically reduce goalie equipment dimensions, starring former Canadian Olympian and New York Rangers goaltender Corey Hirsch. Over the past few days, this segment has ripped like a tornado through the hockey community, sparking significant debate, frustration and outrage from various corners of the hockey world.

As you can imagine, the goaltending community was not particularly thrilled with the concepts proffered by Hirsch, and some of the more ignorant members of the hockey media have weighed in, as well. If you haven’t seen the video yet, take a minute to watch it in the embed below.

I have read some reactionary opinion pieces and some reasonable reflections over the past few days, but I wanted to take the opportunity to truly digest the information before I weighed in, formally. In trying to organize my thoughts (as you can imagine, they were voluminous) I decided to breakdown each of Hirsch’s claims practically, before following up with some of my own conceptual analysis. Let’s take it point by point…

Chest and Arm:

I will be the first to admit that the chest and arm pads and pants are the areas of the equipment ripest for abuse. There are certainly goalies that take advantage of the dimensions afforded to them to create additional blocking space. I am absolutely on board with creating a more contoured shape for these pads that doesn’t allow a deliberately box-like shape to a goaltender’s upper torso. I think everyone benefits from what I feel should be the final curtailing from what I affectionately call the “Garth Snow” days.

The problem with Hirsch’s analysis is that the floaters that he feels are completely expendable are actually critically important to protecting a goaltender’s under arm. When you seal your arms to your body on a shot near the shoulder, those floaters soften the impact on an awkward area of your body. If you want to contour them, be my guest, but eliminating them all together seriously jeopardizes safety.

Catch glove:

This is where I had one of my biggest issues with Hirsch’s analysis. His biggest target is the grossly mischaracterized “cheater” section of the glove. This is a section of plastic and foam that extends around the thumb area of the hand. His claim is just to get rid of it, which would reduce the blocking capability of the current dimensions. The problem is, that area of the glove is not just to create additional blocking surface. It is designed to displace impact in the thumb area to keep your thumb from bending backwards. It would take years of research and development to determine the viability and limits of removing that section of glove to actually ensure the safety of the goaltenders hand, and Hirsch just wants to rip it off.

Leg pads:

I would hope anyone who watched this video found this section to be at least a little silly. If the NHL continues to reduce the pad size, this will be their third bite at that particular apple. Hirsch takes aim once again at the thigh rise, which helps close the butterfly (more on this later). The problem here is that he is creating a comparison with an obsolete problem. Back in the old days, goaltenders endeavored to create as much width on the across the boot of the pads as possible. During the heyday of the stand-up style (curiously, Hirsch played this style, himself) the best way to counter low shots was additional space on the width of the pads, since the butterfly technique was not employed to seal the ice. This was why the NHL reduced the width to an 11” maximum several years ago.

The problem with Hirsch’s comparison is that with the current techniques, it’s not about space reduction in a vacuum. The biggest obstacle to achieving he and Doug Wilson’s gaping five-hole dream is a goaltender’s knees. No matter how tight or contoured you make the pads, the center of the butterfly is an unmovable, un-reducible part of the goaltender’s body. Hirsch’s solution rests in our modern, indestructible, puck-repelling kneepads. Sure, they have come a long way since even the first adopted models, but they are not designed like a leg pad. Their function is to protect the goaltender from errant shots, deflections and gaps in coverage of the pads. They are certainly not designed to take the brunt of the impact of the shots when a goaltender is in a butterfly.

Based on these facts, his proposal to re-narrow the pads again doesn’t accomplish his end goal and reducing the thigh rise further simply increases the risk of injury and doesn’t get around the part where the goalie’s knees are in the way of the five-hole.

Don’t get me started on the silly notion of removing the outer roll. When is the last time a puck rolling up a flat, vertical surface was stymied by the outer roll of a goalie pad?

Pants:

I’m actually not all that opposed to Hirsch’s suggestions on the pants. I agree that they can be contoured, as long as the sizing parameters taking into account the individual goaltender’s dimensions (short legs, long legs, ATK, etc). This has been a highly abused area.

Blocker:

This area of analysis is again, more silly than offensive. The reason why the blocker is curved is for wrist mobility and not warping the blocker when either in the paddle-down position or the VH/reverse VH positions.

Unless he has some definitive proof that once the puck hits the blocker, it plans on having “Mr. Puck’s wild ride” up your arm and over your shoulder, it doesn’t make much sense to mandate this change.

Goal stick:

Wow. Just, wow. If the shaft of the stick (which is about two inches wide, by the way) is stealing this many goals from the NHL that they need back, there is a much bigger problem. Let’s not talk about how Hirsch’s suggestion that we leave the paddle completely alone in the choice to curtail both the shaft and the blade would completely throw the balance of the entire stick off, but what in the world is it accomplishing?

Making it more difficult for goaltenders to handle the puck? That is already difficult. Even if we got rid of the trapezoid as Hirsch advocates, the days of the roaming third defenseman are clearly over, considering just how much faster every other player on the ice is than the goaltender. All world goalies like Henrik Lundqvist and Jon Quick are already below average in this regard, making them worse at it isn’t putting more pucks in the net, it just puts their defensemen in harm’s way.

Overall presentation:

If you want to have an intelligent conversation about reducing goalie equipment sizes, I am more than willing to have that discussion. I don’t fault Hirsch for the suggestion. My biggest problem with the entire thing is that it was so over simplified conceptually and visually that is marginalizes legitimate concerns and poisons the conversation for people who just want to see more goals.

It appears to be a quick fix. Just look at the graphic reducing all that extra bulk on a wire drying rack without an actual human being inside. This creates the impression that a computer model has all the requirements of goaltender safety and movement accounted for and that goalies are fighting tooth and nail to keep their ridiculous sumo suits that you certainly don’t need to stop a 100mph projectile.

My thoughts:

If you’ve made it this far, I thought this would be a good time to clear up some misconceptions about the whole equipment debate. This concept has become so grossly over simplified that it isn’t moving in a productive direction at this point. Let’s clear some things up.

First, goalie equipment was at it absolute peak size in the early to mid 2000’s. This is why the initial round of reductions (rightfully) took place. Chest and arms were massive, pants looked like tents and goalies routinely had massive thigh rises on super wide pads. The funny thing is, goalie actually got better after that round of rule changes. The extra bulk was traded for mobility, and once butterfly slides became the preferred mobility method for low zone scrambles, the decreased mass made goaltenders quicker and better equipped to get to lateral passes and rebounds efficiently.

There are also several assumptions made when having this debate that have skewed the analysis. One of the more commons one’s, especially regarding the five-hole is the concept of static size versus movement size. In Hirsch’s presentation, he, like many others, looks at the goaltender is his static, ready position. It doesn’t matter how small you make the equipment, if you are shooting five-hole on a squared up goaltender in the ready position, there is a very small chance of scoring. It’s when he or she is moving that is important. It’s not about seeing net when everyone is standing around; it’s about creating openings when everyone is moving.

Which leads directly into the fundamental technique change over the past ten years. The old stand up style migrated directly into the equally extreme Quebec butterfly. Old school goalies stayed on their feet at all costs, which for them, maximized blocking surface. Once goalies learned that they could make themselves bigger in the net by using the butterfly, we saw the advancement of the “drop and block” technique. Think JS Giguere in the 2003 playoffs. Just drop down and make yourself big.

The style of today’s game was born from that initial foray into the butterfly, but has evolved significantly. It incorporates more of a hybrid model that prioritizes mobility just as much as blocking surface. As the speed of the game has evolved, so have the goaltenders. The call for smaller equipment is really just a call for the return to a less efficient style. Scoring advocates want to return to the days when save techniques were not scientifically researched and an industry hadn’t been created to maximize goaltending efficacy.

When skate saves were the norm and goalies had no landing gear on the inside of the pads, the mobility model was basically a lunge. This obviously opened up significant real estate between the goalie’s pads and allowed shooters to take advantage. Now that a goalie can use tight, controlled shuffled slides across the crease, that real estate has disappeared. Paring down dimensions does not help fundamental technique changes that have removed previous opportunity.

If you couple that with the fact that goalies now have specialized everything; from coaching to nutrition and fitness regiments, higher end athletes are now gravitating toward the position. It is no longer the chubby kid or the weak skater that is put in goal.

If you have been a regular reader here during my tenure, you know that as opposed to equipment reductions, I am an advocate of creating additional time and space for shooters. I truly believe that if you want to increase scoring, you need to allow these all world athletes more time and room to create offense. What form that takes isn’t up to me. I’ve heard suggestions of bigger ice, 4 on 4 as the normal format, making sliding to block shots illegal, outlawing the collapsing box in the defensive zone. All of these suggestions have their own benefits and pitfalls.

I suppose, in sum, my biggest problem with all of this is that the NHL clearly has a mandate to increase scoring and reduce goalie efficacy. I get it. What I have a problem with is the league leaning on goaltenders of a by-gone era (and not particularly successful ones) to turn their backs on their modern counterparts and advocate for half-baked, ill-researched solutions to a problem that goes far beyond the width of leg pads. If the NHL wants to increase scoring, this over-simplified witch-hunt is never going to get them where they want to go.

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