The first time I ever played hockey, they put me in net.
It wasn’t ice hockey. It was inline, in tropical heat under a smoggy sky on a concrete rink by the South China Sea. They showed me a tin shed where heap of moldering equipment lay, all of it thin and shoddy, all of it various kinds of broken. There was a glove so big it slid off my fingers and a blocker that didn’t have any fingers left, a mask held together with twist ties and a chest protector with no fastenings at all save one outrageously long length of dangling elastic, which I had to wrap around my torso three times and tie to itself. As I played, it would slowly unwind around my body and pull the plates all askew, leaving scalene slices of my stomach and shoulders exposed. Even a real goalie who knew how to fit all the armor would have had trouble making this stuff function as protection, and I was not a real goalie.
Or maybe I was. If the definition of a goalie is one who stands in the net and tries to stop pucks, then I was a goalie. I was just a really, really, really, really shitty goalie. There are not enough reallys in the world to describe how shitty of a goalie I was. I hung out so far back in my net I’d look down and find I had a foot behind the goal line. I went down when skaters were barely two strides over center. Positioning? Fuck no, I was covering angles so absurd you’d need to invent a new branch of theoretical geometry to measure them. Butterfly? Only if by that you mean something that’s small, delicate, and flutters away at the first sign of danger.
Yes, I was a shitty goalie, and it sucked. I got deked by ten-year-olds and faked out by 40-year-olds and spun around so bad I ended up on my stomach facing into my own twine more than once. And I gave up so many goals. Dozens of them. Maybe a hundred. After a while, I stopped counting and just started to keep track of who hadn’t scored on me yet, and every time I came out, that number would get a little smaller, until there was only one. One guy, of the perhaps 30 who came out to Sunday hockey, who hadn’t beaten me.
He was a rookie, a tall, skinny, bespectacled first-year university student who’d never skated before. He shuffled on his blades the way people do who are still fighting the natural rollyness of wheels. They made him play with a stick from the tin shed. It was too long for him, its blade worn down to an inch high by years of scraping scraping scraping on the rough concrete, and he leaned on it like an old man on a flimsy cane. I thought, at least, I was safe from him- poor kid would never get close enough to me to take a shot. But then one day he got within fifteen feet and decided, for no logical reason, to plant his skates and put everything he had into a slapshot that was more like a golf swing. The puck caught me on bare skin, just under the collarbone where the padding had twisted away, and I fell, and it fell with me, and it was in. The rookie beamed. I moaned.
I staggered from the net and staggered from the rink and lay on my back on a tiny patch of dry grass. Chest aching, covered in sweat and dirt and the stench of ancient cheap plastic marinated in the sweat and dirt of a decade of shitty goalies before me, I stared up at the dull gray sky and asked the hockey gods why. Why am I doing this? It’s difficult, filthy, humiliating work, and I’m terrible at it. What is the point? Why even bother?
I didn’t know the answer then. I lay there for a while, then got up, yanked my errant chest protector over the bruise, drank about five bottles of water and got back in there, and I knew not why. But I do now. I did it for the good of hockey. Because if there is one thing hockey desperately needs, it’s shitty goalies.
Great goalies get all the praise, and in fairness, they’ve earned it. A great goalie is a remarkable creature. The product of strange genetic gifts and years of intense technical training, he combines electric reflexes, obsessive discipline, and meditative concentration into one exotic being. He’s like the illicit lovechild of a Zen monk and a hummingbird, and just as rare. But what does he do with these magnificent, beautiful, esoteric talents? He seamlessly blends them together and he bends towards one great purpose, his mission in life: ruining everyone else’s fun. Great goalies are to hockey what Satan is to some of the more Gnostic forms of Christianity- the loyal opposition, the force set against all the virtues the hockey gods- as well as the majority of skaters, fans, and League officials- pursue*. Great goalies are the ones who agitate for smaller nets, bigger equipment, and lower scores. They are the force that pull hockey towards the hell of 0-0 games, month-long shootouts, and infinite playoff overtimes that leave entire teams gasping on the threshold of death. At their best, they’re frustrating. At worst, they’re positively dangerous.
Of course, everyone enjoys a good goalie duel every now and then, and everyone loves a brick wall when he’s standing behind their own team. But for the most part, hockey fans and hockey players love goals. Love scoring ‘em, love watching ‘em, love celebrating ‘em whether on the ice or in the stands. With all the lights and the screaming and the joy, scoring is even more climactic than the winning, which is often a countdown to a foregone conclusion. Goals are the orgasms of hockey, and good goalies are the sworn enemy of goals. They’re like a big iron chastity belt around the game.
But while great goalies are busy making hockey boring, shitty goalies are making hockey awesome. They’re giving hockey more and better orgasms than all the puckbunnery** in Canada has lo these manyyears. But forget the goals- even the saves of shitty goalies are more fun that the saves of great goalies. Great goalies in the modern style are all smart positioning and playing the percentages. They’re about catching pucks square in the chest and making it look easy. But bad goalies are always getting out of position and having to scramble back at the last millisecond, or falling over and having to snatch pucks out of the air, or just barely getting a toe on it. No great goalie save Hasek has ever been able to make good goaltending more fun to watch than shitty goaltending.
Now, when I say “shitty goalies”, I mean no disrespect to shitty goalies. Pointing out that bad players are bad is not, in itself, an insult- I myself am a shitty player and would not resent anyone for saying so, providing they weren’t being unnecessarily cruel or depriving me of opportunities. This is not the fourth grade anymore. We do not get tin medals just for playing nor false compliments just for trying, and frankly, we shouldn’t need either.
There’s no shame in being bad at hockey, and that goes double for playing net. Tending hockey goals is one of the most difficult activities anywhere in sports. It requires agility, flexibility, focus, a sharp instinct for spatial positioning, and the courage to face high-velocity projectiles- all while wearing 25 pounds of thick, restrictive armor. Maybe one person in ten has half the skills necessary to be good at it; maybe one in a thousand has all of them.
But more than being just physically demanding, it’s psychologically rough as well. Skaters are only responsible for a fraction of what their team does in a game. The number of minutes they play divided by the number of other skaters they share the ice with- that’s the equation for how much of the result they can possibly control. But the goalie is out there the whole game, doing the whole job alone, solely responsible for everything that happens once a shot is fired. A skater is doing pretty damn well if one shot in five succeeds. A goalie is doing pretty damn badly if one save in five fails. Moreover, virtually no individual skater need take personal responsibility for getting all of the team’s goals-for in the way a goalie is held responsible for almost all goals-against. There’s lots of places on a depth chart for people who contribute in small ways well behind the play and out of the slot. I can count my microstats- passes threaded, puck battles won- and feel good about my improvements as a player, even when there ain’t no goals to count. But for a goalie, success or failure always comes down to one question: did it go in or not? If you’re a bad goalie and it goes in all the damn time, well, that’s a lot of failure to face.
And, oh yeah, don’t forget: it’s also incredibly fucking expensive. No wonder this position has been known to drive men mad.
Every time a shitty goalie suits up, they’re putting on many hundreds of dollars worth of equipment in order to do something unbelievably difficult that is likely to result in many different forms of indignity and humiliation. And why? So that the rest of us can have fun. So that all you great skaters can get fancy, awesome, triple deke goals that make you feel like you coulda made the NHL; so that all of us terrible skaters can get flukey, weird, deflection-off-the-ass, tip-over-the-glove goals. So that we can periodically see our favorite team rack up a great pile of points in a catastrophic blowout. So we can see the occasional wild 5-7 decision that leaves us all waxing nostalgic on the glories of old-time shinny. So we can laugh until we cry over our keyboards at pucks going in from center ice, and trickling over pads, and dropping out of gloves.
All of these wonderful moments, brought to you by terrible goaltending.
J is a pretty good hockey player. Good, certainly, for casual tournaments and shinny I’ve seen him play. Nimble on his skates, smart with his positioning, quick shot if I remember correctly- I don’t know if you’d call him a star but dude knows his way around a rink.
But he doesn’t know his way around a net. He comes out to play net the first time with a bag full of hand-me-down equipment, lays all of it out on the floor of the dressing room, and stands there looking down, puzzling over how to put it on. Even then, he has two false starts before he gets the order of operations right, and all game long he’s tripping over random straps and ties that seem to unfasten themselves. He’s ten times better than I was, easy, but this is on ice and everything’s faster, and he, being an ordinary mortal man, can’t just go up and down and down and up like a Bozo Bop Bag. Eventually he just goes down and stays down, scrabbling back and forth across the crease like a geriatric hermit crab in his borrowed shell.
The shot comes, and it bounces off his chest, and the rebound pops out into the slot. He lunges forward, hoping to cover, but somehow, even with his full body sprawled out on the ice, he misses. I pick it up with the toe of my stick, and- all the time in the world, a great boundless horizon of time stretched out in front of me like I never get in hockey- take it from my backhand to my forehand, around his sprawled pad, and tuck it into the net.
It’s the prettiest goal I ever scored, brought to me by terrible goaltending. Maybe it’s my karmic reward for the goal I gave up, all those years ago, to that bespectacled rookie, on the concrete rink, by the South China Sea.
*This is the part where some of you say, hey, no I love low-scoring defensive games!! They’re the best part of hockey!! But those of you who really feel that are, I’m sorry to say, in the minority. If you want to test it, try introducing a rule change aimed at decreasing scoring and see how far you get with it.
** Please note that I use the term “puckbunnery” not as an insult, but with the great respect and admiration that people deserve who own their sexuality enough to pursue hook-ups with whatever category of consenting adult human does it for them. But “In Praise of Puckbunnery” is another post for another day.